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National Research University Higher School of EconomicsNewsEducationOnline Platforms as Educational Partners

Online Platforms as Educational Partners

eLearning Stakeholders and Researchers Summit 2017 – an event organized by HSE and Coursera – took place on October 10 in Moscow.

The widespread appearance of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) in the education system has been viewed as both a revolution and a potential threat with dangerous consequences for universities, noted Nikhil Sinha, Coursera’s Chief Business Officer, while presenting at the summit. Furthermore, several experts have argued that online education will gradually squeeze out traditional institutions from the education market. However, these worries might be overestimated. MOOC are becoming more and more integrated with the educational process, thereby allowing institutions of higher education to bypass geographical barriers and attract entirely new audiences of learners (i.e., new students). In short, online technologies are making high quality education more accessible for everybody.

In fact, statistics can tell us a lot about the demand for online education, on the part of both users and universities. According to Nikhil Sinha, Coursera’s current audience now comes to 28 million users (almost half of whom live in countries with emerging markets). For instance, dozens of world class universities and corporations are now taking part in joint educational projects. In Russia, a total of 650,000 learners and eight universities use Coursera’s services. Furthermore, Russia is a leader for one important indicator on the Coursera platform – it’s the fastest growing market for paid educational services on Coursera (the total number of paying users in Russia increased last year by 83%). In addition, users in Russia are more active than the average Coursera user at the global level, which highlights the positive effect online courses can have on an individual’s career development.

Each HSE student must include an online course in his/her schedule for the current academic year

Personalization of online education is the next phase in MOOC development. Nikhil Sinha notes that Big Data and AI are now being successfully applied in medicine, thereby allowing practitioners to choose the correct treatment for their patients. This approach should also be applied with respect to online education. ‘We need to understand our learners much better than we do today, and we need to understand our content much better than we do today,’ he added.

Before offering learners a selection of courses, it’s in important to understand what they actually expect from online education, how this should impact on their career trajectories, as well as identify learners’ abilities or specific interests, etc. At the same time, Coursera’s developers must know what skills need to be developed while taking a given course, as well as how the opinions of previous learners and instructors can facilitate this. Only analyzing and collating such data can lead to the provision of the best, personalized ‘course menus’. Therefore, online education should be immediate and flexible, as well as well-structured.

MOOC in Russia

The development of online education is a very pressing issue for Russia, said Vladimir Timonin, Deputy Director of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science’s Department of State Policy in the Sphere of Higher Education. Digital technologies are transforming universities, and the heads of educational institutions shouldn’t just stand by the wayside, but take active part in this process. The state can also play a major role as a regulator, whereby it must aim to remove barriers to the development of online education, while also giving due consideration to the possible risks.

HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov shared his views on the development of online education at Russian academic institutions and how MOOC might even change the entire ‘economy’ of higher education.

He noted that 231 courses from nine universities are now offered on Russia’s National Open Education Platform. In addition, 12 Russian universities have courses on both national and foreign platforms. The HSE Rector added that it is very important that Russia’s leading universities be properly represented online as this helps to highlight the high quality of the courses offered. Furthermore, an institution’s reputation and learner confidence in its quality are key factors in implementing new education technologies.

The cost for developing and implementing one online course in Russia’s education system ranges between 500,000 and 1 million roubles, while the cost of maintaining such courses come to around 200,000 roubles a year

These cases bear witness to the fact the Russian universities are seriously focused on developing online education. For instance, MIPT has started two Master’s programme that are entirely offered through MOOC systems. Also, for the current academic year, each HSE student must include one online course in his/her academic plan. ‘This was a difficult decision,’ the HSE Rector admitted, adding that ‘many argued that this would lower the quality of education.’ However, Yaroslav Kuzminov is confident that an effective and well thought out approach to design will make HSE’s online courses first rate.

Russia has one of the best showings in terms of having a highly educated population. However, this unfortunately means that a substantial proportion of courses and programmes offered at traditional academic institutions are low in quality. For instance, talented students who often encounter such courses and instructors often lose their motivation and drive. With that in mind, online courses have a clear advantage in terms of their accessibility: users are able to study under the best instructors, whom they otherwise wouldn’t be able to make contact with.

Online Education and the Economics of Learning

Establishing online courses can offer a financial incentive for universities. According to Yaroslav Kuzminov, the cost for developing and implementing one online course in Russia’s education system ranges between 500,000 and 1 million roubles, while the cost of maintaining such courses (i.e., the infrastructure for constantly updating online courses) can reach up to 200,000 roubles at year. He added that network agreements could be signed between ‘university providers’ and ‘university recipients’ to facilitate this process.

At the same time, course developers need processes that can compensate their costs, while for recipients, one reasonable economic justification would be the possibility of replacing entire blocks of courses. According to HSE’s own estimates, replacing offline courses can result in savings of 70% on the costs for such traditional courses. In turn, some of these funds can go to pay for providers’ courses, as well as paying the recipient’s staff involved in course instruction. The remaining funds could also go towards research and academic efforts. ‘Universities are definitely becoming more compact, but they’ll still be universities, not factories relaying some kind of basic knowledge,’ said Yaroslav Kuzminov.

‘This needs to be discussed and properly clarified so that institutions can retain their status as real universities,’ he noted.

However, in order to implement these ideas, decisions must be made at the state level. For instance, MOOC costs need to be effectively regulated under network agreements at the cost of budget subsidies (since putting these costs on the shoulders of students is an impossibility). In addition, agreements must be made so that the inclusion of MOOC does not adversely affect the financing of educational programmes. The state shouldn’t just keep the money saved thanks to the development of online courses. Instead, it should introduce changes to the accreditation process for educational programmes (i.e., developing a three tier system). As such, the first tier should include those universities that are developing online courses and passing them on to other institutions. The second tier should include those universities that do not have enough specialists in certain fields, who would be able to replace deficient courses through the use of MOOC technologies. Finally, the third tier might include universities that offer programmes fully using external MOOC systems. The HSE Rector noted that people shouldn’t be afraid of this process, adding that, in the long run, this unique type of online education is very much in demand.

The American Experience

According to Rebecca Stein, the Executive Director of the Online Learning at the University of Pennsylvania, her institution has set itself the goal of being a leader in online education. However, to do this, the university must answer three key questions.

The first question is what are the university’s main strengths and how might they be applied in online education efforts? No institution can start teaching the whole world right away. As Stein notes, it must identify the most important and useful features. For instance, the University of Pennsylvania, which consists of 12 schools, might consider its interdisciplinary and applied approach to R&D as its major strength (e.g., the university is engaged in development medications). In addition, the university is more outward looking than inward. This advantage has, in fact, helped to attract well known American politicians to contribute to the university’s activities (e.g., a diplomatic training centre was recently opened at the university under the guidance of former Vice President Joe Biden).

By taking several different online courses and ‘layering’ them on top of each other, students may get the same quality of education comparable to that of an MBA

The second question is can online education offer something that’s impossible in an offline format? Again, in this respect, the clearest answer relates to expanding the geography of students and learners. Nonetheless, surveys of online students have shown that cost, quality and flexibility of the learning process are the most important factors when choosing a course. Furthermore, MOOC materials can be used in various ways (e.g., as a part of corporate training programmes). By take several different online courses and ‘layering’ them on top of each other, students may get the same quality of education comparable to that of an MBA.

The third issue concerns what barriers a university must overcome in order to secure their position on the MOOC market. First of all, this includes global competition with practically all other institutions. As such, this requires concise positioning and knowing when and how to tell the market about the best aspects of your programme. Furthermore, there must be a balance between innovation and holding on to previous accomplishments, as well as promoting their usefulness. Therefore, combining online and offline formats at the same university is a complex process. Several universities are opting to split this up into two separate processes, but it is usually best when online education itself is the driver of its offline equivalent.

William Kuskin, University of Colorado Boulder and an expert in English literature, was the author of one of the university’s first MOOC and still oversees its implementation. ‘What we’re doing has a revolutionary power to it, and it frightens people,’ he said. He also shared his own feelings about working on his first online course, which was dedicated to comics: ‘I began to feel like I was sending out my lectures to who knows whom. Were they listening? Who knew? I felt like David Bowie's Major Tom. “Ground control to Major Tom ...” I felt like I was sending out a signal to the world and maybe the world was listening, and maybe they weren't. I was interviewed in a magazine and I went on record by saying it was the worst teaching experience of my entire life.’

However, he commented on the possibilities offered by this frontier of education: ‘This project of massive quality education, it is audacious. It is audacious what you are doing. It is audacious what “Coursera” has led us into. It is a chance to change the world through education and that is unrivaled opportunity.’

For anyone thinking of developing online courses, Professor Kuskin offered three lessons. Firstly, people must understand that education is a scalable process and students must be responsible for their own education. The key objective of a teacher is to involve them in the learning process.

Secondly, how MOOC are structured can help define the overall framework for courses, as well as determine what effective instruments might be used for this purpose. However, by relying on this framework and such instruments, teachers must know how to express themselves effectively, by, for instance, making their lectures creative and interesting. Finally, it is important to understand that education is a productive process. It creates things, but the main aim should be to instill hope in the lives of each and every student. ‘Therefore, I want you to remember that every time you instigate a new online course, the stakes are high,’ Professor Kuskin stressed.