Editorial: Educating students for free

Published in The Hindu on May 15, 2012

In a spectacular initiative that could transform our understanding of the ‘classroom’, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have announced that they will soon start providing free online courses. Giving students, particularly those in the developing countries, free access to quality education will produce the same results as what freeing up research results through open access has done to scientists across the world. The non-profit organisation, edX, launched recently with $30 million funding by each institution, will provide free education in five courses starting this fall in a range of disciplines — engineering, humanities, the social sciences and natural sciences. Incidentally, edX is not the trendsetter; two other free online education projects have already been launched this year. Udacity, a January venture launched by a Stanford University professor, was the first off the block. Three months later, Coursera was flagged off by Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan. While both Udacity and Coursera have courses in computer programming, the latter has many upcoming courses in diverse fields such as health care, mathematics, economics, and humanities. Though the courses are taught by professors from the collaborating institutions, students who make the cut will only get certificates of mastery, and only grades and no credits.

That there is great demand for free online education became apparent when edX’s prototype course attracted a whopping 120,000 enrolments, while Udacity saw more than 200,000 enrolments for its six courses. In addition to providing flexibility in learning, the ventures have to necessarily make the courses — spanning for a few weeks — both accessible and interesting, and adopt engaging teaching methods so as to hold the attention of their students in faraway lands tuning in via shaky internet connections. For instance, Udacity not only permits but also encourages collaborative learning “both on-line and in-person” among students so as to “enhance” understanding. That there is also a compulsion to design courses catering to the needs of different sections of society has been brought out by Coursera. Its course on vaccines will go a long way in removing the many misconceptions on the subject. The autism scare in the United States led to a drastic fall in vaccine uptake and continues to remain a challenge. Like open access journals, free online education has to come up with a few innovative financial models that will enable the ventures to remain self-reliant. Like the rest of the online universe, media included, the biggest test will come in the form of financial sustainability.