Saturday, April 2, 2016

Open education for all - but so few know about it

When I attend conferences and meetings it seems we're working with widely accepted concepts but as soon as I leave that intimate arena I get a reality check; most people have never even heard of MOOCs, open educational resources, open access and so on. Even students seem only to have limited experience of the vast range of online learning resources and open courses available.

The problem is that the people who use all these online resources are mostly those who are already well-educated and digitally literate. The often stated target group for open education, those who have so far been excluded from higher education due to financial, social or geographical barriers don't even know that it exists and even if they do they are often unable to take advantage of it. This is the theme of an article on Quartz, The Americans who’d benefit the most from online education have no idea it exists, that reports on a new Pew Research Center report (Lifelong learning and technology) on the use of the net in education.

This presents a paradox, the study’s author John Horrigan tells Quartz. The more rich and educated you are, the more technologically savvy you are, and the more you know how to use digital learning tools. While many low-income and low-education Americans would benefit from e-learning, they don’t have the income or education level to access it.

Despite the massive hype around MOOCs over the last 5-6 years only 5% of Americans are familiar with the concept. Even something as mainstream as distance learning is familiar to only 16%. Open education attempts to offer access to higher education to those previously excluded from it but they simply don't know these opportunities exist and even if they did they lack the skills to take advantage of it. Most Americans in the survey consider themselves as lifelong learners but learning is still strictly traditional in the form of adult education classes, reading books, joining clubs and training at work. Interest in learning is high but awareness of online learning is low, in stark contrast to a lot of Silicon Valley hype.

Of course it doesn't matter how learning occurs, the most important finding in the survey is that the majority of those questioned were involved in some form of learning. The question is why online learning has still not made the breakthrough in terms of mass uptake. Learning is available at a click wherever you are and whenever you want it but first you need to know how. The people surveyed go to local classes, read books, ask friends for advice and use trial and error to learn new skills and should of course continue to do so. However the vast opportunities for learning available through digital media would give them so many new opportunities that are totally impossible using traditional media. The breakthrough for online learning will come not through marketing and hyped news reporting but through local support and incentives through schools, libraries, community centres and other local institutions, helping people learn how to learn.

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