Sunday 26 October 2014

Ireland can play major role in online education revolution

MOOCs will do for education what iTunes did for music and Ireland's universities can and should be a major player, argues Dragon's Den's Peter Casey

Published 30/03/2014 | 02:30

Harvard University offers MOOCs
Harvard University offers MOOCs
Peter Casey says Ireland can play a big role in MOOCs revolution

IRELAND has the chance to be at the centre of an online education revolution if our third-level system champions a glaring opportunity to teach the world.

Pioneered in Ireland, Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) are published and promoted on the internet and promise to do for education accessibility what iTunes did for music.

MOOCs are rapidly gaining popularity worldwide and cover a massive range of topics immediately addressing current urgent business needs – such as the latest in predictive analytics, data structures and algorithms.

MOOCs significantly reduce the inevitable time delay between identifying the immediate requirements of industry and meeting them with trained lecturers and approved third-level courses.

This time gap is a major challenge for industry. Traditionally, by the time businesses communicate their needs to academic institutions, the institutions develop and approve the courses, find suitably qualified lecturers and the students complete the courses, up to seven years can have lapsed.

Universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford and Harvard already provide online courses that each attract tens of thousands of subscribers. Imagine the numbers we could achieve in the first- and second-world markets if our major universities stepped into the MOOCs space.

MOOCs are set to gain massive traction across the Middle East this year, according to Deloitte's annual technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) predictions for the region, released last week.

When the classroom is online, everyone can get a seat – MOOCs are aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web.

As well as traditional course materials such as videos, readings and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build an instant community for the students and teachers, thus building the body of knowledge.

E-learning provider Alison (Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online), founded in Galway in 2007 by entrepreneur Mike Feerick, is cited in industry literature as the first MOOC provider. It has delivered 60 million lessons and has 250,000 graduates of its 500- plus courses.

Sligo IT is the first and only institution in Ireland promoting a MOOCs component of a degree course.

In the US, the MOOCs revolution is very much under way, with pioneer company Coursera laying down a marker by recently hiring long-serving Yale University president Richard Levin as its CEO. Within the industry this has been taken as a sign that the online courses are willing to step up to the level of the top universities rather than undercut them.

Though MOOCs can – and do – broadcast a college's content, most universities don't offer accreditation for completing one – and this is Ireland's opportunity.

Georgia Tech has now offered a Master's in Computer Science using MOOC technology. This Master's degree costs $6,600 (€4,790) in comparison with the $44,000 (€31,950) Georgia Tech charges for residential studies.

While it's obviously a world away from the $49 that Coursera charges for its courses, it is Georgia Tech's strategy that Ireland has to adopt.

And if Ireland recognises the potential market, students living in the USA will be able to study a MOOC approved by UCC, another from UCD or end up getting their final degree from Queens.

The market exists, the material is there. It is now a question of when, rather than if, education becomes location indifferent. And given the choice, many students worldwide would go for a choice Irish university-backed qualification.

What would truly set our universities and institutes of technology apart would be using them as the foundation of a fully accredited, quality-assured range of MOOCs, open to all, and offering education at a fraction of its present cost in the physical realm.

It is one thing for individual institutions and for-profit educational enterprises to develop individual MOOC courses and programmes, but it is something else again for an entire nation to leverage its roughly 1,500-year-old brand as a centre of learning into the engine that drives a global digital university.

Data from the first wave of MOOCs proves that openness alone will not enable new students to take part in online education. Even if a course is free, authenticity and accreditation have proved to be blockers in the new educational markets – again opening doors for the quality Irish educational brand.

So is there a market for MOOCs on a scale that justifies a national commitment?

India's education market is estimated to be worth €70.4bn in 2014-15 against €39.4bn in 2011-12, according to the Fitch Group, and there are huge synergies with the Irish educational system, both of which were founded on the British model.

India is growing at eight to nine per cent a year and urgently needs more trained resources in order to become more closely aligned with their global clients, many of whom are based in Ireland.

Half of India's 1.2bn population is under 25. Many among this huge group dream of a college education, but there simply isn't enough space in Indian colleges and universities. Some go abroad for their studies, but many who fail the impossibly high entrance criteria may do without a college education.

MOOCc have started to take off in India, with Snapdeal (India's largest e-tailer) selling vouchers for courses in subjects such as programming, data structures and algorithms. All of these could be marked and regulated from Irish universities.

Any Irish initiative would also be foolish to ignore the US as a primary market. College costs there have surged 500 per cent since 1985, against a 121 per cent rise in the consumer price index over the same period. Average undergraduate charges (including room and board) in the US during 2012-2013 were $17,860 (public, in-state), $30,911 (public, out-of-state), and $39,518 (private, non-profit) for the academic year. The class of 2014 will graduate with an average of $35,200 in college-related debt, with many at the high end carrying six-figure burdens.

MOOCs can address all of these gaps in price, availability, and lifestyle constraints and provide ultra-relevant content in relation to the job market.

Coursework can be slotted into available time and could be marked by a central body made up of lecturers and professors on loan.

Travel and residency will be a minimal requirement, if at all. Cyberspace never runs out of seats, and a single teacher can reach thousands, tens of thousands, and even more.

Businesses are increasingly collaborating with universities in educational ventures – the top 100 US institutions have over $1trn invested in endowment funds with Harvard alone commanding $30.4bn.

If Ireland were to leverage its formidable higher education resources into a nationally branded MOOCs enterprise, it would push a great and profitable product into the world.

This, in turn, would pull in much-needed revenue, investment, and cultural capital. The MOOCs industry would present Ireland to the world as a wonderful place to visit, to live, and to establish a business.

By reaching out to the estimated 70 million self-identified members of the global Irish Diaspora, this enterprise would be a beacon to many who would jump at the chance for an online education for themselves or for their children, emanating from Ireland.

If there were some minimal in-country graduation requirements – for examination, certification, or practicum, for example – many thousands of ex-patriot Irish would have a strong incentive to visit or take up temporary residency.

This would open a revolving door that would reconnect us with our global Irish community. There endeth the (online) lesson.

Peter Casey is founder of Claddagh Resources, a dragon on the RTE TV show 'Dragon's Den' and has written a book on the Tata Group

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