[Viewpoint] Lessons from online education pioneers

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[Viewpoint] Lessons from online education pioneers

It was a godsend to discover and know Sebastian Thrun, a pioneer in artificial intelligence and robotics who recently left a prestigious teaching post at Stanford University. Instead, he is using his expertise to make quality higher education accessible to people around the world through the universal medium of the Internet.

He launched Udacity.com, an online education program that offers 11 university-level classes from introduction to computer science and physics to artificial intelligence and web application engineering.

It began with a simple experiment in cooperation with Google to take his lecture on artificial intelligence to bigger audience.

But as soon as he opened up the online course, he was deluged with more than 160,000 applications from 190 countries.

I became one of his eager students at the recommendation of Lee Soo-ji, a researcher at the Korea Education and Research Information Service who was enthralled by the notion that education should be free of charge.

Impressed by the overwhelming response as an indication of the world’s appetite for quality education, Thrun has essentially established a university campus online.

His enterprise should have special meaning in the profit-driven American society, but he claimed that higher education should not serve as the exclusive enclave for a limited number of privileged students who can afford it.

Thrun believes anyone from any country, background and income level with will to learn should be entitled to equal educational opportunity. He drew funds from outside and put up a substantial amount of his own money to provide an interactive and user-friendly education experience.

His enterprise - named by combining the words university and audacity - is daring yet inspiring in both its socioeconomic and educational aspects.

His university also has no English aptitude requirement. Classes are in fact translated into 44 languages willingly and freely by student volunteers. The interactive nature of the classes encourage questions and debate.

But like traditional classroom courses, there are assignments, quizzes and tests. At the end of each seven-week course, grades and certifications are issued.

One student wrote back that he was hired by Google after finishing the course.

Thrun is not alone in the United States in his campaign to making education free, accessible and intimate by tailoring the courses to meet needs of individual students.

Salman Khan, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has become an iconic figure on YouTube through his free uploads of mathematics lectures.

The campaign has gathered more systematic support in America. Harvard University and MIT will cooperate to offer the edxonline.org program starting this fall. The elite institutions each put up $30 million to develop a platform to deliver rigorous interactive courses to students worldwide without any admission requirements and at no cost.

And the U.S. Department of Education announced it will offer financial support to help private universities deliver their courses online.

The United States may be out to standardize university education worldwide in much the same way that as Microsoft did with its Windows operating system that runs computers from New York to Ulan Bator and pretty much everywhere in between.

And the virtual education campaign has already arrived on our shores.

Suh Nam-pyo, president of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, recently proposed replacing lectures with online courses to focus classroom studies on dialogue between students and professors.

Highbrow Korean professors would likely resist surrendering their classroom lectures to the Internet, but with the ever-increasing blurring of the borders between virtual life and the real world, the brick-and-mortar campus may one day become redundant.

What would happen when online university programs like Udacity and edX offer university degrees and certificates that are accepted by top corporations like Google and Samsung? University degrees and brand names might carry altogether different meanings than they do today.

I would also like to point out the largest national groups accessing MIT’s OpenCourseWare, a Web-based publication of MIT course material, come from China and Korea. Korean students already are starting to prefer American lectures to Korean ones.

Universities in our society are inflated in cost and overrated in quality. Despite an annual tuition of 10 million won ($8,770), a degree does not guarantee a job. The value of a university’s name and degree should further depreciate. Then we also might reach the tipping point in solving our chronic education problems.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kang Hong-jun

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