John Winterson Richards suggests there is a big Welsh potential in online courses.
I have completed (mumbles an indistinct number) online university courses, albeit on an audit basis. This means I have no interest in certificates, but I do enough to make sure I have understood the material.
Like most addictions, it started innocently enough. Almost three decades after leaving university, I wanted to update some of my business skills. In particular, I wanted a good overview of the current state of information technology. I found that one was available online from Harvard, no less. I was hooked.
Over the past three years I have done a number of other business-related courses. As well as Harvard, I could also, if I wanted and if I was careful about the wording, put MIT, Stanford, HEC Paris, Cambridge, London Business School, IESE, Chicago, and Columbia, among others, on my curriculum vitae. I hasten to add that I have not done so, except on my strictly ironic ‘LinkedIn’ page.
So far, so good. The real problems started when I was browsing the websites of providers like FutureLearn, Coursera, EdX, Novoed, and iversity, for laudable business purposes and kept getting distracted…
‘Hmm, that looks interesting.’ Click. Signed up. Impulse buying without actually buying.
It was stimulating to learn what top universities were now saying about subjects I had studied many years before, or about which I had read extensively without studying in any formal or structured programme. Archaeology, architecture, astronomy, cosmology, economics, hydraulic engineering, law, literature, music, neurobiology, psychology, sociology, theology… In retrospect, I am not at all sure why I signed up for ‘Municipal Waste Management’ but it was strangely fascinating.
The number of non-vocational courses I have completed now exceeds my business courses by a margin that even I find rather embarrassing. This is not a boast but a warning. Learn from my mistakes and do not do as I do.
At its height my habit was running at an average of one online course completed every week. It should be stressed that this is an average, because the courses vary considerably in length. Some can be completed in the course of a single evening if there are no interruptions, but the longest claimed the equivalent of two working weeks, spread out over three months. Online learning took over as my main leisure activity. The number of books I read in a year more than halved and I started turning down most social invitations in order to spend more time in front of the computer screen.
In the end, I realised that this was simply not healthy and that I would have no friends left if it continued. So I have cut down dramatically this year, but my repeated resolutions to go ‘cold turkey’ and give up altogether keep falling to ‘just one more,’ so online learning remains my principal recreational pastime.
I am not alone. Online learning has really taken off in the last three years. British based FutureLearn claims over three million learners. In many ways it is surprising that it took so long. The technology has been there for at least a decade. The delay is due in large part to the conservatism of the universities, many of whom have been reluctant to expose their brand names and their intellectual property to a competitive market. Now even Oxford, which launched its first MOOC yesterday, accepts that they represent the future.
My own glimpse of this has convinced me that here are great rewards be gleaned by the first nation that really grasps that online learning is the future of not only recreational adult education but of all education. Wales could do a lot worse than setting the objective of becoming that nation.
This is bound to be controversial among those paid to deliver ‘education’ in the traditional style but my own experience of both has provided overwhelming confirmation that information is absorbed far more effectively at the student’s own pace, through short bursts of multimedia presentation in a comfortable environment, than through 50-minute dictation sessions to a bored group in a cold lecture theatre or classroom.
Of course, there will always be a need for tutorials and, in the sciences and vocational subjects, practical sessions to supplement this raw information, but the old-style lecture must play a diminishing role, especially when attention spans are decreasing and comfort with new technology is increasing.
My exposure to a wide range of teaching styles through online learning has shown the enormous variation in quality, and how those who understand how to use all the technological options at their disposal are far more effective than even the best of the traditional lecturers.
The bonus of moving to a basically online education system is that it will deliver at long last the culture of ‘lifelong learning’ which has been the subject of earnest conversation, but little else, for more than two decades.
The working population would be enabled to update their skills constantly throughout their careers, while those failed by the formal education system when they were young would be given another chance.
The greatest obstacle to online learning moving from a hobby to the basis of the whole education system is the absence of generally accepted system of qualifications backed by reliable testing. Here the Welsh Assembly could play a useful role by providing two things that are within its power, legislative backing for a new system of online qualifications and a network of easily accessible testing venues.
Finally, a proper world-class Welsh university is required. Nothing could put Wales on the international map as effectively as a university in the global Top 20, or at least the Top 50. Serious money should be put into attracting the most renowned Professors from all over the world. It would pay for itself in terms of economic development as well as national prestige.
Achieving this would mean investing in quality not quantity. Since our leading universities are already committed to a certain scale, this means that a new elite college may be necessary, a Welsh MIT or HEC. This is another desirable national objective in its own right.
Wales has, if we are honest, always struggled to establish her place in global consciousness, but what better way to do so than as the acknowledged ‘Land of Lifelong Learning’ and home of the prestigious Welsh Institute of Technology – WIT?