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."

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