Crowd-sourced online learning: is this the innovation that education now needs?

The further education sector is going through significant change. In the UK, the universities’ applications system UCAS has just reported an eight percent drop in university applications for 2013 entry, and in the USA we’ve seen the success of online courses offered through a collaboration between MIT and Harvard to stream ‘massive open online courses’ or MOOCs over the web.  So is online education the innovation that this sector needs?

Professor Anant Agarwal of edX
Professor Anant Agarwal of edX

Judging by the example of the USA, it appears so.  According to the MIT Technology Review, ‘free advanced education is a step forward for civilization’, and that free online education is the most important education technology in 200 years. Professor Anant Agarwal, whom I met early this year at TiECon in Santa Clara, USA, says that education is about to change dramatically, due to the power of the web and the ability to stream video classes with sophisticated interactivity. He heads up edX, a not-for-profit enterprise of its founding partners Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that features learning designed specifically for interactive study via the web, and he hopes that the organization will teach a billion students online.

The UK education story

British students were this year faced with a three-fold increase in university fees as part of British government policy to make education an ‘open market’.  It has also been trying to implement a program over the years of widening access participation in higher education. Unfortunately, trebling fees doesn’t help the widening access agenda, which is why MOOCs could soon see their way into UK and the rest of Europe.

At least that is what one such company, mylearningworx, hopes when it launches its web site at the Google Campus in London this month (December 2012).  The managing director, Martin Belton, says “There has, for some time, been a chasm between the ways that learners can acquire new skills online. On the one hand we have the learning management systems and formal e-learning, founded on the demands and feedback of corporations, but not the learners themselves.”

He adds, “On the other, we have zettabytes of knowledge on the Internet, but we can’t make sense, or validate it using simple social media tools designed for chatting and recreation. mylearningworx is about freeing up learning for the Average Joe, with content that previously would not have been accessible to either an individual or a small or medium sized enterprise. Our focus is enabling authors to leverage their knowledge and skills. We’re embracing new content creation tools like Mozilla’s Popcorn and working to develop communities of authors around different subject areas. Then taking the wisdom of those different communities (or crowds) and sharing it with the world.”

The press release from mylearningworx says it will be the first major investor led crowd-sourced learning project in the UK. Similar projects have been the flavour of 2012 in the US with around $70 million committed by venture capitalists to just nine start-up projects, aimed at varying social and business sectors and crowds.

The company is focused on the UK, bringing together groups of individuals and organisations to generate content for communities in the UK with a strong understanding of the learners and their context.

mylearningworx aims to ‘democratise UK learning’ by offering course created by the crowd, for the crowd – that is any Internet user. Learners and authors alike are encouraged to share knowledge by creating content, then offering it for free or for a fee that they set. Ratings and feedback help learners choose the right content for them based on their development requirements. Content will cover anything and everything from IT skills to baking. And successful authors can earn good money.

Universities are not part of their strategy yet, though Kate Graham, the communications director, says, “We have a number of Higher and Further Education representatives already involved in beta testing.”

Martin Belton adds, “A dedicated crowd sourced learning hub, like mylearningworx, takes the wisdom of the crowd, organises it, fills in the gaps, validates it and then shares it with the world.”

He continues, “Authors in the US are already earning thousands of dollars in income for their courses. Harnessing and sharing knowledge in the form of courses represents an accessible and flexible new industry at a time of continuing redundancies and so called ‘underemployment’. This is a unique opportunity for UK plc to profit from our existing knowledge by developing the skills of others.”

In the USA, the big brand name companies offering online courses are Coursera and Khan Academy. Khan Academy is a not-for profit organization which claims to have delivered over 200 million courses, and Coursera just recently added the University of London international section to its range of free courses. According to data from Coursera, of its first million users reported in August, 62 percent were from outside the USA, with the largest section being from Brazil, followed in this order by India, China, Canada and the UK.

MOOCs are definitely going to change the shape of education, and the UK education system will no doubt be looking at how it will manage the new landscape. No doubt the high profile launch of mylearningworx at Google campus is going to make more of the established education system sit up and take note of this evolution – or revolution as MIT might like to put it – in education.

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