Rise of the MOOC: In the future you’ll never stop learning

The growing pace of technological change will result in workers needing to learn continuously, or face falling behind, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s director of digital learning, Professor Sanjay Sarma.

Speaking at Innovisions 2014, the London-based yearly conference of NEF: The Innovation Institute on Thursday, Sarma said: “I anticipate a day where every employee at every company will spend two to three hours a week upgrading their skills.”

In some instances, Sarma indicated that his was already happening.

“People we recruited five years ago have become obsolete, and they know it,” he said. “So they are learning new things.”

This widening demand for training will – according to Sarma – increase the uptake of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Although MOOCs are a very recent development – emerging only two years ago – they have seen huge adoption worldwide.

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Using a combination of video lectures, interactive content, automatic assessments and forums, courses provide university-level learning that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere with an internet connection.

MOOC provider edX, which was founded by MIT and Harvard, offers more than 300 courses from 55 different universities around the world, with each one attracting thousands – and in some cases tens or even hundreds of thousands – of attendees.

The key to making this work so that the course can function in the same way as a traditional class is “a robot professor that can grade instantly” and forums where students can help each other with areas of difficulty, resulting in a “self-healing” environment.

This system would be essential if we were to all engage in regular learning, as current academic institutions would not have the capacity to provide all adults with weekly education services.

Instead of attending weekly adult education classes at a local education provider or community centre – the current standard for much of adult education – we would instead log on as part of our weekly routine to take classes in our chosen topic. Some companies would no doubt go as far as making this a normal part of the working day.

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While some have been sceptical about their ability to match a real-world educational environment, MOOCs have seen growing interest and a number of high-profile success stories.

A Mongolian student who took an electronics course to build a system to protect his sister from trucks, for example, has since started an undergraduate course at MIT. Without online resources, it is unlikely he would have had access to higher education.

Despite only being two years old, Sarma even believes MOOCs are starting to offer improvements over the traditional lecture environment, saying that the movement “will sweep modern academic activities,” and that in academia “nothing has changed in 1,000 years”.

While the courses started with lectures just being filmed, Sarma says that the course videos are now closer to documentaries, and are shot and cut to best suit the topic at hand.

They are also only 10 minutes long, which is the longest length of time new information can be presented to the brain and then immediately stored into long-term memory – an innovation that Sarma says results in more students remembering what they have learnt without needing revision periods.

He also believes the interactive assessment format ensures appropriate academic rigour.

“You can enter equations, you can even write small essays – it’s not just multiple choice,” he said.

“It’s like video games – that’s the breakthrough.”


Images courtesy of R. Nial Bradshaw.


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