Digital learning revolution underway

Evidence suggests that most of those who access free online courses already have degrees. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Evidence suggests that most of those who access free online courses already have degrees. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Online courses have huge potential to expand access, says Pete Cannell

We are in the midst of a digital revolution. Anyone with a suitable device and access to the internet has a vast range of information at their fingertips. At the same time mobile technology has opened up new channels of communication, through social media. All this has happened in less than two decades. What does this mean for education, and in particular, for adult education and lifelong learning?

The biggest impact is on how we learn informally. “Googling” has changed from an esoteric activity of geeks into simply what we do when need to find the answer to a question. YouTube is the second most frequently used search portal and millions of us use social media to chat, organise activity and share experiences. Not surprisingly there is a gap between this social world of informal learning and the existing processes and structures of formal education. However, in this new world, there are signs that old boundaries are starting to crumble.

The idea of “open” in education is relatively new. It refers to material that is freely available to use, share, reuse and modify. Worldwide there is rapid growth in the availability of these materials. The Open University’s OpenLearn site is one place where such resources can be found. In parts of Asia and Africa free e-books are filling the gap in the demand for affordable materials.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been in the news recently as they allow tens of thousands to study at the same time. MOOCs are controversial and there are worries about high drop-out rates. However, some, notably Edinburgh University’s MOOC on equine nutrition and Strathclyde University’s MOOC on forensic science, have bucked this trend.

But there is a problem. Just because material is free and openly licensed it doesn’t mean that access is equal. The evidence suggests that most of those who access free online courses already have degrees. The promise of widening participation has not yet been fulfilled and there is a danger that existing inequalities are simply reinforced.

The recently established Opening Educational Practices in Scotland (OEPS) project is looking at how the practices of education can enable non-traditional learners to benefit from the explosion of online resources. The project is led by The Open University in Scotland and funded by the Scottish Funding Council. We are working with universities, colleges and others across Scotland to develop good practice in “Open Education”.

The OEPS project is also exploring ideas to support transitions from informal to formal learning and to widen participation. While we look to the digital future we think that there are valuable lessons from the past. In the 19th century, the growth of mass newspaper readership and the opening of public libraries went hand in hand with a growth in social organisation. Adults learn in the context of their social lives and lived experience. Learning, particularly formal learning, is personal, exciting and scary.

We are building on recent successes. These include Open University modules on Gaelic culture, self-directed support, supporting education and employment transitions for carers (Caring Counts) and rural entrepreneurship in Scotland. Critically these resources have been developed in partnership with those outside the academy with skills, knowledge and contextual awareness. Moreover, the partners operate in networks that go far beyond the traditional boundaries of the university – so those not normally reached by higher education study the materials.

There is a potential for curriculum to be developed in powerful new ways. So for example, the University of Strathclyde’s forensic science MOOC was first presented online on the FutureLearn platform but is now being used for formal credit on campus. MOOCs are being used to support the induction of new undergraduate students. There is also interest in recognising informal study through the online “badges”, providing a bridge with the world of accredited qualifications.

I hope this piece encourages you to Google some of the references and take a look in to the world of open education.

• Dr Pete Cannell is co-director of the Opening Educational Practices in Scotland Project, with Open University Scotland,