ACM - Computers in Entertainment

The Future of Learning Starts with a Click

By Dennis Anderson, Katja Schroeder

What is your goal for 2013?

Traditionally, some of the top New Year’s resolutions include eating more healthy and working out more regularly. Sadly, “60 percent of gym memberships go unused and attendance is usually back to normal by mid-February,” according to Time Magazine.

Inching up toward the top of annual resolutions are more long-lasting endeavors, such as learning something new. The interests vary widely, such as acquiring a new language, playing musical instrument (have you played the ukulele yet?), cooking new dishes, or even mastering the skill of butchering.

But it’s not simply about personal enrichment. It is about creating new skill sets to climb up the corporate career ladder; technical expertise is often a springboard for winning a highly coveted IT job.

Last year Mayor Bloomberg made international headlines with a single Tweet.

He expressed his support for Code Year, a campaign initiated by codecademy to encourage more people to program. In their own words, Codeacademy is a startup managed by a “team of hackers working hard to build a better way for anyone to teach, and learn, how to code.” Last year they signed up 97,000 students in less than 48 hours for the New Year's resolution class “Code Year.” Throughout the year more than 450,000 people signed up. Students were taught programming languages like JavaScript, HTML/CSS , Python, and Ruby.

Codeacademy is in good company of many others in this new frontier of online education. Now that prestigious institutions have opened their doors—virtually—to the global community, there is a groundswell of desire to learn online.

Open online education has flourished in the past year, breaking barriers to education worldwide. Going beyond educational YouTube videos, non-profits and educational institutions have designed online seminars, where a large number of students participate via online sessions and self-guided learning modules. 

One example is edX, a not-for-profit enterprise founded by Harvard University and MIT that offers interdisciplinary online courses. According to edX more than 150,000 students, ages 14 to 74, from over 160 countries registered for MITx's first course, “6.002x: Circuits and Electronics.” In the coming years, the institutions will use edX to analyze how students learn and how technology can transform learning–both on campus and worldwide. Online learners who demonstrate mastery of subjects can earn a certificate of completion, issued by edX under the name of the underlying "X University" from where the course originated. There is a plan to charge a modest fee for certificates in the future.

edX is not for everybody. There is a heavy emphasis on science and technology. Classes include introduction to computer sciences, artificial intelligence, software as a service, quantum mechanics, and quantum computation.  Some classes require programming skills.

Another viable option is the Khan Academy, a not-for-profit organization founded in 2008 with the goal of changing education for the better by providing free, world-class education. Among the 11 major donors are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google Inc. As of end of January 2013 the Khan Academy has delivered 233,325,349 lessons. Its library of video deliver lessons in math, science, art, economics, finance, and history among others. 

And then, there is Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities to offer free online courses to anyone. Similar to edX and Khan Academy, the Coursera envisions a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions.

In the new online education scenario, classes often have thousands of students. This year, more than 60,000 entrepreneurs worldwide decided to learn about company growth by signing up for the Coursera seminar “Grow to Greatness.”  Students that pass the final exam for this five-week class with a grade of 70 PERCENT correct answers or better, receive a “statement of accomplishment” issued by Coursera.

Technology has enabled institutions to open up their classrooms to the masses and make education more accessible. These initiatives show tremendous potential. They will change the landscape of education—for the better.

However, we have to keep in mind some challenges on the way. Technology-enabled courses grant access to teachers and class materials that may not be available on the ground. However, they require a certain level of self-discipline by students to complete assignments and participate.  

Qualifications are not the same as for accredited students. Many classes offer certificates of attendance or achievement if students can prove they understood and processed the class materials. Often those learning assessments are done by test.

Last but not the least, in terms of the learning purpose, many classes are topic based. Students rarely run through a comprehensive program. They primarily focus on specific topics that they want to learn more about.  

Despite all these limitations, online education is well on its way to reach new peaks in 2013. With more and more educational institutions participating, and using technology to access education and track progress, online learning tools can be used more effectively to educate today’s students and future generations of students. 

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