Thanks to Online Courses, the Best Teachers Will Be More Accessible to Wider Audiences
On April 17, HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov took part in a panel discussion entitled ‘Digital Technology in University Life’, which was held at the Moscow International Education Fair. He answered questions from the presenter, journalist Alexander Arkhangelsky, and visitors at the fair.
In developing online courses, the Higher School of Economics captures a student audience outside the university. But does this make sense if they are completed by only 5-18 percent of the students, with the rest dropping out?
According to Kuzminov, in the traditional education system dropping out is considered a tragedy, but this is now changing.
The usual course in Russian universities is not fully capable of teaching all students. One reason is that since the Soviet era we are learning too much at the same time. A person can focus on only three or four things at the same time, but he or she is forced to study eight. At the secondary school level, 20% of children cannot complete the programme at the minimum standards, but this does not mean that they have learned nothing, because they have gone through socialization and have received a general idea about a subject.
Online courses are a great space when it comes to choice. At a university students cannot bypass two dozen lectures and choose teachers that they like. But in choosing online courses, students take a look, try them out, and only then do they decide. Online courses do not provide for an administrative enforcement mechanism in the same way that a school or university does. If a person drops out of a course, this is a conscious decision.
Does digital technology pose an existential threat to Russian universities in the global education market? After all, students can choose online courses at foreign universities.
Kuzminov believes that in education there is one way to win in competition – to be more attractive to students. Currently, due to the devaluation of the rouble, Russian universities have gained an advantage as it relates to the cost of tuition. At the rate of 60 roubles to the dollar, Russian universities can capture 5-7 percent of the global market demand for educational services (there are currently 150 million students around the world). This concerns not only universities in major cities, but also strong regional universities that maintain a high quality educational environment at a lower cost than in Moscow.
At a number of Russian universities – in Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Kazan, Tomsk, Vladivostok and other cities –one can get a world-class degree today. Being in the capital is not a key factor; there is no lack of bad schools in Moscow. 20-25% of Russian universities are developing successfully, and most of these are large universities concentrated in one third of Russia’s regions. By comparison, in the United States, only about half of states have competitive universities.
Won’t weak Russian universities turn into ‘dealerships’ to maintain the online courses of major universities and receive exams?
Kuzminov said that the possible transformation of such universities into ‘dealerships’ is much better than the current situation where they are actually engaged in ‘distributing diplomas’. If branches of universities and some private universities become certification centres for online courses and counselling to students, this will only benefit society.
In this situation, the federal government will primarily support those universities that draw strong applicants and that conduct scientific research that produces results. A lot will depend on the efforts of regional authorities to support their schools. For example, in the Perm Territory and the Ulyanovsk Region generous scholarships have been established for students who have the highest scores on the Unified Stated Exam and who have enrolled in the regions’ universities. Along with other factors (students remain in a familiar social environment and do not need to move to another town) this is having an effect.
Will virtual education become a source of income for universities?
To date, Coursera (a Stanford project) and EdX (a project of Harvard and MIT) do not generate revenue, said Kuzminov. They were created in order to show students around the world how teaching can and should be done. The first books were also not published in order to make a living.
However, in the future, those who create courses will be able recoup their costs (creation of an average online course costs about 1 million roubles, and support for it runs about 100,000 roubles per year) and earn money. Obviously, they will receive funds from universities that offer educational programmes with their online courses and from counselling students.
Approximately three more years are needed to ensure that the newly established Russian national open education platform offers about 500 courses and for universities to begin giving credits for courses from major universities. A mass segment of higher education will not be able to survive without quality online courses. Given the 60,000 roubles per year that the state now allocates universities per student, it is hardly possible to think of another economic model.
How will traditional courses and online study be related at the Higher School of Economics three to five years into the future?
HSE is primarily a producer rather than a consumer of online courses, said Kuzminov. The share of academic credits that HSE students earn after studying in online courses from other universities is now only several percent and is forecast to be 7-10 percent by 2020.
HSE is prepared to offer students a choice of online courses on which they will be evaluated. Initially, it will be elective courses, and then, perhaps, required courses, but obviously not in fields such as journalism, design or engineering where full-fledged online study is hardly possible.
Why do people talk so much about online learning? After all, self-education was available back in the 19th century. Is the significance of technological innovation in online education being overstated?
According to Kuzminov, the main difference between the current situation is in the scope of the audience, as well as the ability of students to select teachers and teachers to select students. Once a shift took place from individual learning in the Platonic Academy toward training groups of people by using books, the audience of authors who had written books expanded dramatically. The same thing is happening now with online education. Whereas earlier it was possible to choose books – putting one aside while picking up another – the choice of good courses is now expanding. The best teachers will be accessible to a much wider audience.
At the same time, the share of people who are willing to learn on their own is constantly growing. It is impossible to imagine a person in the Middle Ages who studied the production of armour independently, but imagining people teaching themselves from books in the 19th century is possible. But books were not adapted to the learning process, and there were no internet resources. An online course has all of this.
Will online courses become the next step in the evolution of the book?
An online course assumes that students taking it are reading the books recommended by the teacher, said Kuzminov. But, in addition to books, studying requires interaction in a group of students, as well as interaction of the students with the teacher. The book and the teacher will never leave education; online courses will only make them more accessible. But just as teachers did not read books in class, no one will include books in their entirety in online courses.
When creating online courses you can use contemporary means of expression, especially animation, which brings a new quality to illustrations. This is important when it comes to teaching today's students. After all, those who did not receive a higher education during the Soviet period are learning today. Mastering a programme is difficult, and various design techniques to simplify and ease the perception of information are helping teachers. Educational technology used in elementary schools can be used in teaching older students, and this will be another challenge for the education system in the coming years.
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