The really free schools are online - Features - Gadgets and Tech - The Independent

The really free schools are online

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

An Ivy League degree is worth a fortune, so why is one top US college giving away a course online at no cost? And they're not the only ones, discovers Rhodri Marsden

The internet is often scorned for its wealth of mild amusement and inconsequential distraction, but it's still an incredible source of knowledge.

But can a quality education be delivered online? And, more to the point, how much would it cost? In just over a month's time (10 October), Stanford University is launching three free online courses – Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, Introduction to Databases and Machine Learning – that are open to all, taught by eminent scientists, involve study, homework and exams, and are rewarded with a "statement of accomplishment", should you complete them. It's been described as a "bold experiment in distributed education", and so far more than 135,000 people have signed up to take the Artificial Intelligence class alone.

Professor Sebastian Thrun, one of its teachers, has expressed delight at the prospect of addressing more students in a few short weeks that in his entire career, but what is Stanford's "statement of accomplishment" worth? And does it signal a new direction in the provision of education? Universities began putting course material online using software such as Moodle, while organisations such as the Coventry -based Resource Development International (RDI) extended that by working in partnership with educational institutions to offer complete courses and degree qualifications via the internet. "The internet has been an absolute godsend for our students," says Niall Sclater, director of learning, teaching and quality at the Open University. "There's information instantly at their fingertips, there's the ability to connect with other students and huge administrative benefits in terms of assessment. If the Open University had been founded today, the whole thing would have been formed around the internet."

Stanford's experiment sits midway between two online educational strands. Firstly, the provision of courses (or parts of courses) that are paid for, supported by tutors and from which you emerge with a recognised qualification. Secondly, the archiving of huge quantities of educational resources that the public can consume for free, such as lessons on YouTube or iTunes, The Khan Academy's extensive collection of maths and science lectures, or Yale's Open Courses; no traditional support or qualifications, just world-class teaching material absorbed in your own time. Stanford's project combines that wide dissemination with a marking and support system that's designed to cope with many thousands of students.

"It's almost as easy to deliver an online course to 10,000 people as it is to deliver it to one person," says Stanford's Andrew Ng, associate professor of computer science. But Niall Sclater isn't convinced. "It's an excellent idea, but it's going to be difficult to assure quality." he says. "There'll be any number of opportunities for copying and impersonation. It's a kind of self-certification and to an employer it's worthless." Stanford certainly couldn't be criticised for the quality of its material, however. This is no single camera pointing at a mumbling lecturer. It's interactive, engaging multimedia material, broken up into 15-minute chunks. And while detractors may scorn the way this seems to pander to the supposed decreased attention spans of the internet age, it's widely acknowledged that we simply absorb information better this way.

"Traditional lectures aren't regarded as great ways to impart knowledge to students," says Sclater. "If you test them some time after the lecture, there's very little that they retain." Dr Lynne Harrison, director of teaching and learning at Cambridge University's Institute of Continuing Education (ICE), agrees. "A good lecturer will change the tempo after 15 minutes and the internet allows that to happen more naturally. The technology that Stanford has put in place makes lectures more watchable and we're looking at doing a similar thing for our free online courses launching next spring."

Those free courses from Cambridge's ICE will be intense and informative, but won't have assessment – unlike its current paid-for courses that offer full teaching support.

"That constant communication channel is really important for our current students, who are part-time and have to balance workloads and families," says Harrison. "It marks the difference between offering free resources to people and actually teaching them."

Stanford has emphasised that technology is in place to allow students to feed back and ask questions of their teachers. "They'll be able to answer each other's questions," says Ng, "and vote others' questions up and down. Instructors will personally answer each of the top-rated questions." But with 135,000 students or more, that process doesn't feel particularly nurturing. "The mechanism seems more designed to help Stanford improve the course," says Harrison, "than to help the students." Support, then, will be driven by the student community, something most free online courses have failed to harness.

"People tend to delve into Open University's 600 free online courses for specific information and don't necessarily want to be part of a learning community," explains Sclater. "But as soon as you have some kind of assessment and a cohort of students going through the course at the same time, viable communities develop."

Open University's virtual learning environment, for example, has more than 50,000 users hitting it every day at peak times and Stanford's dedicated forums promise to be very busy during the next few weeks. But is this kind of interaction comparable to the social experience of being at university? Students of the future may well end up discussing topics via chatroom and webcam and the impact of that on the learning experience is hard to quantify. Phil Hallam, CEO of distance learning veterans RDI, acknowledges that it's a very different life experience to attending a bricks-and-mortar institution, but stresses its increasing importance in the education sector. "99 per cent of our students are employed," he says. "The majority pay for themselves, so they take the whole process very seriously. And with fee increases in England, many are considering online learning as an alternative. We deliver courses much cheaper – £6,000 to £10,000 for the full three years." Susannah Marsden, director of academic services at City University London, agrees with Hallam's prediction. "As technology is such an integral part of teenagers' lives, choosing a course which is delivered solely online may well become a more attractive option," she says. "A number of universities may also consider developing such online-only provision as a way of expanding their potential markets, as the landscape after 2012 is somewhat unknown."

But while universities might make savings on buildings and infrastructure, Marsden's colleague Susannah Quinsee, professor of learning and teaching development, stresses the importance of producing well-structured online material, which is by no means cheap. "Merely putting up a load of PowerPoint presentations on the web isn't enough to engage people," she says. "We've seen with courses taught in blended mode – a mixture of online and classroom-based interaction – that if the online elements just replicate or repeat face-to-face sessions, attendance can become a problem.

"Designing good online material requires a different approach and skillset from teaching face to face."

The developments at Stanford, Yale, Cambridge and Open University raise the question of where the value of education really lies; whether content is secondary to the interaction between students, their fellow students and their tutors. The thousands of enthusiasts taking Stanford's three courses this Autumn will receive quality instruction from eminent thinkers and many will finish it with a burning enthusiasm to investigate more deeply; in that sense the "statement of accomplishment" is neither here nor there. But those who, on receiving it, realise that it's not worth the PDF it's contained within, only need ask themselves how much the course cost them. As with everything in life, you get what you pay for.

Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
filmMatt Damon in talks to return
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Life and Style
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
tech(but you can't escape: Bono is always on your iPhone)
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Arts and Entertainment
Fringe show: 'Cilla', with Sheridan Smith in the title role and Aneurin Barnard as her future husband Bobby Willis
tvEllen E Jones on ITV's 'Cilla'
News
i100
Sport
Tim Wiese
sport
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Project Manager with some Agile experience

    £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

    Data/ MI Analyst

    £25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

    Project Manager (retail, upgrades, rollouts)

    £40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project...

    Project Manager (upgrades, rollouts, migrations)

    £350 - £425 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project Manager - 3 mont...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week