How New Platforms Are Lowering The Barriers To Learning

How New Platforms Are Lowering The Barriers To Learning

Online platforms are creating greater access to education and altering people’s expectations about how knowledge can be gained.

Karen Baker
  • 4 august 2012

The emergence of online platforms is bringing a wave of disruptive innovations to traditional education. From 40,000 person classes that you can take from anywhere to Twitter-moderated discussion forums with trending hashtags, technology is fundamentally changing the way we learn today.

From the age of five until very recently, going to school involved sitting at a desk in a classroom of your peers and watching an instructor write on a blackboard. It meant raising our hands to be called on, completing homework assignments and filling in bubbles on multiple-choice exams. Despite small advances over the years, most students are presented with a standardized experience that fails to deliver on the promise of success. Consider that in the US, K-12 math and science test scores continue to slide despite the fact that the country has one of the highest per capita spends on education for each student.

And these cumulative costs don’t end once a student heads to college. The average debt for university graduates in 2011 was $23,300 according to a report by the New York Federal Reserve, with 10% owing more than $50,000 and 3% owing more than $100,000. With numbers like these, gaining access to high quality education is now harder than ever — can online education save the day?

The most potent benefit to online education is access. No longer barred by cost, location, or even age, anyone with the Internet can now take advantage of high quality curriculums. The startup Coursera exemplifies this idea. Their web platform acts as a college consortium, partnering with world-renowned universities (Stanford, Princeton, Caltech, University of Edinburgh and a dozen others) to deliver free online streams of selected courses. They currently offer around 100 of these “massive online open courses,” or MOOCs, with upwards of 680,000 registered virtual students studying primarily computer science, math or engineering. Each MOOC offers online video lectures, interactive quizzes and open forums for students to answer each other’s questions. They have assignments to complete and receive feedback just like a traditional classroom. While some universities have announced they will offer their courses for credit, there is still a question about how this style of mass learning will become more formalized. Beyond completing the coursework, for example, how will students earn certification?

In an effort to provide this structure, one startup is partnering with testing facility Pearson VUE to offer formal certification for online student work. Founded by Google VP Sebastian Thrun, Udacity focuses specifically on computer and technical skills by streaming Stanford classes to its more than 100,000 members. It partners with a network of companies to feed its graduates into potential full-time positions. Working with a traditional testing facility allows the startup to deliver accreditation to the online classroom, enabling their students to take the next step in their education and/or careers with confidence.

With hundreds of thousands of students in a class, some organizations are seeing another opportunity: data and personalization. Online platforms like Khan Academy, a non-profit organization that offers free video tutorials on subjects ranging from Biology to Art History, are analyzing an individual’s performance to provide tailored recommendations and visualized feedback. The site recommends skills for students to work on based on their performance and offers instructors a comprehensive picture of how their classes are doing. Accessible via Intel’s AppUp store or the website itself, anyone can now get instant, extra tutoring for their K-12 child no matter their income level.

Whether online or inside a traditional school, some things are best learnt outside the constructs of a classroom. The recent moves toward the development of mobile apps make that possible. The language-learning app Voxy is based on the idea that every interaction is a learning opportunity. It offers location-based learning, which also means that your lifestyle determines your lesson plan. If you check into a bar, for example, it will suggest a lesson on ordering drinks; take a picture of your drink and the app will create an audio flash card of the word. The personalization of learning continues when you need help, too: request help and you’ll have a video-based tutor to chat with instantly.

Students are not the only ones who can benefit from online education. LearnZillion positions itself as a platform for teachers to share their best lesson plans and approaches to teaching difficult concepts. Teachers can create videos of their class and comment on pedagogy, approach and situations where students struggled. Rather than just sharing information, now teachers can share practices. In other words, the teachers are the students here.

Online education is far from uprooting traditional education, but it can help us reimagine how we deliver it. It is already influencing our idea of what “education” should be: accessible, engaging, and tailored to our needs. How can current educational models learn from the success of online learning? Whether by rethinking where students learn and how learning is measured, online learning is redefining what education is and what it will become.

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With support from our partner, Intel, we’re exploring how innovations in technology are re-shaping education. Intel is committed to improving our lives with fast, light, wireless (and stylish!) technology. Their goal is to develop tools that help us create amazing things. And we think that’s amazing. Follow the conversation on Twitter with #intelalwayson.


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