Online learning is 'the blackboard of the future'

From nursery years onwards, education is to undergo a computer-driven revolution, technology expert tells ministers

Children in nurseries will soon be learning through Moocs (Massive Open Online Courses) as the internet revolution changes the face of learning, according to the man who first pioneered their use in higher education. Today's two- and three-year-olds have been born with keyboards "pinned to their fingers", Dr Anant Agarwal, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, insists. As a result, it makes sense to utilise the skills they had acquired and give them a basic start to literacy and numeracy through computer games in the kindergarten or nursery schools.

"Two- and three-year-olds love video games and they're able to play with iPads – all they have to do is wipe their fingers over the keyboard," he said. "That's happening already in the home and it would be really fun for them to use those skills in the kindergarten," Dr Agarwal, told a seminar organised by the Education Foundation, an education think-tank, during a whistlestop UK tour.

His visit includes talks with MPs, the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, and universities minister David Willetts on how Moocs can transform education.

He was speaking amid growing scepticism over the impact that Moocs could have on higher education. In an article in Times Higher Education, Diana Laurilland, of London University's Institute of Education, argued that unsupervised learning online was not the answer. "Free online courses that require no qualifications or fee are a wonderful idea, but not viable," she said. Take-up of the idea in the UK had been slower than expected, academics have also argued.

However, Dr Agarwal, said a "blended" approach – combining first-time higher education students and providing additional resource material for those already at university will turn them into a success story. He has pioneered Moocs – setting up a programme through an MIT/Harvard-based company edX, of which he is president. It has now been snapped up by 1.8 million learners worldwide and offers courses which can end with the learner gaining a certificate validated by an Ivy League university in the US (MIT or Harvard) to boost career prospects.

Education, he claims, had been slow to embrace new technology. "Transportation has changed completely from the 1600s – from ox carts and carriages to rocket ships... [but] education has not changed really since the introduction of the text book. Even that – and the introduction of the blackboard in 1862 – had been controversial, as folk worried about the monks being put out of business.... The blackboard was criticised because it meant teachers had to turn their back on a class, thus threatening classroom discipline."

Education's time has come, though, and it will be unrecognisable within 10 years, he predicts – not at the expense of lecturers' jobs, but simply by changing the way students on degree courses learn as well as by attracting a new online audience.

Dr Agarwal said research shows the average student's attention span is six minutes and, when faced with a lengthy lecture, that goes down to only two minutes. Yet the average lecture in a UK university can last from 50 minutes to two hours.

Use of Moocs had significantly cut the number of letters sent out by universities to students in danger of falling behind, it is claimed. One university had reduced the number of such warnings to students from 50 to only two over a two-year period after the introduction of Moocs. Another saw a 41 per cent failure rate cut to nine per cent.

"Our main aim is to increase access to learning," said Dr Agarwal. He acknowledged Moocs were "slow to get on in the UK", but added: "My message would be to try them out and, if you don't like them, flush them down the Thames."

The Open University has led the way, he said. Some of his audience spoke of the reluctance of teachers and lecturers to embrace them and feared that OU students would now be better equipped to make use of them than others.

Dr Agarwal's visit coincides with the OU's second course on its new social learning platform FutureLearn, which will enable students to study the moons of our solar system. "The course provides answers for those who want to know more about moons and may perhaps spark further learning of planetary science and astronomy," said Professor Alan Rothery, who is leading the programme.

Dr Agarwal concludes: "If teachers don't embrace it [Moocs], there is no hope of going anywhere... this is the world that today's children are being brought up in. The UK has some of the greatest universities in the world and I am interested in inviting them to join this experiment. The whole movement is less than two years old, and for those universities who have started on it, these are very, very early days."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Imperial College London: Safety Training Administrator

£25,880 – £28,610 per annum: Imperial College London: Imperial College London ...

University College London: Client Platform Support Officer

£26,976 - £31,614 per annum: University College London: UCL Information Servic...

Guru Careers: Instructional Designer / e-Learning Designer

£30 - 32k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking an Instructional / e-Learning De...

Recruitment Genius: Schools Education & Careers Executive

£30500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Schools Education & Careers Executive ...

Day In a Page

Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

Election 2015

Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May
Countdown to the election: Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear as the SNP target his Commons seat

Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury didn’t forget his Highland roots in the Budget. But the SNP is after his Commons seat
The US economy is under threat because of its neglected infrastructure

The US is getting frayed at the edges

Public spending on infrastructure is only half of Europe’s, and some say the nation’s very prosperity is threatened, says Rupert Cornwell
Mad Men final episodes: Museum exhibition just part of the hoopla greeting end of 1960s-set TV hit

New Yorkers raise a glass to Mad Men

A museum exhibition is just part of the hoopla greeting the final run of the 1960s-set TV hit
Land speed record: British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

Bloodhound SSC will attempt to set a new standard in South Africa's Kalahari desert
Housebuilders go back to basics by using traditional methods and materials

Housebuilders go back to basics - throwing mud at the wall until it sticks

Traditional materials are ticking all the construction boxes: they are cheap, green – and anyone can use them
Daniel Brühl: 'When you have success abroad, you become a traitor. Envy is very German'

Daniel Brühl: 'Envy is very German'

He's got stick for his golden acting career and for his beloved restaurant - but Daniel Brühl is staying put in Berlin (where at least the grannies love him)
How Leica transformed photography for ever: Celebrating 100 years of the famous camera

Celebrating 100 years of Leica

A new book reveals how this elegant, lightweight box of tricks would transform the way we saw life on the street and in fashion, on the battlefield and across the world