Gates Foundation funds online university open access

By Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondent

MIT MIT and Harvard are among the leaders of the rapid growth in online courses

Online courses provided by some of the top universities in the United States are going to be used by students at local community colleges, in a project funded by the Gates Foundation.

The edX project, set up by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announced a plan to “bring a new teaching model to the classroom”.

It will blend edX’s online lectures and materials with classroom learning.

EdX president Anant Agarwal pointed to the value to tight college budgets.

Online courses have become an increasingly important topic in higher education – particularly in the United States, where they have been seen as a way of widening access and tackling spiralling costs.

Open access

These so-called MOOCs – massive open online courses – have attracted millions of students since they were launched by some of the biggest names in US higher education.

This latest initiative from edX is experimenting with how these course materials might be used in the classroom by students in two community colleges in Massachusetts, Bunker Hill and MassBay.

Bill Gates The Gates Foundation is providing $1m funding for the online project

Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, with more than 13,000 students, serves a diverse, multicultural community.

The project will link these students with the same materials being used by their neighbours in Harvard and MIT.

This will be funded with $1m (£630,000) from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which wants to support innovation in education.

The idea is to explore how cutting-edge courses from prestigious universities could be adapted for use by students in other classroom settings.

It will mean that students will have access to content produced by leading academics – within courses delivered by local staff.

“Our technology and innovative teaching methods have the potential to transform the way community college students learn, both in and out of the classroom,” said Prof Agarwal.

Dr John O’Donnell, president of MassBay Community College, welcomed this mix of high-quality online content and interaction between staff and students.

He said that his students would have one-to-one contact with their own community college professors – but would also have access to the best online courses from world-class universities.

Webcam exams

Online courses are already being used by many students who are studying at home.

And a rival online university platform, Coursera, has made its own significant advance for such students – as it announced an agreement to assess how its online courses could be counted as credits towards a degree.

Anant Agarwal, edX Anant Agarwal, a professor from MIT, is leading edX’s online courses

Early in 2013, the American Council on Education is going to start an evaluation of how online courses from more than 30 leading universities on the Coursera platform could be accredited.

At present students can receive a certificate for successfully following courses, but they have not counted as units towards a degree.

Coursera says it wants to develop technologies which can validate the identity of students who are learning at home and to use webcams to provide supervised exams.

If such a formal accreditation system could be established it would raise the prospect of online students anywhere in the world being able to study for a degree with famous universities, at a cost that is likely to be much lower than a traditional campus-based course.

Coursera’s co-founder Daphne Koller said the “rising cost of higher education has had a devastating impact on students”.

Her co-founder and fellow Stanford professor Andrew Ng said the online courses would open up university to many more students and “credit-bearing college courses is a huge milestone toward that goal”.

Entry exams

These are early days for such online courses, but their ripples are already making other educators consider possible consequences.

Louise Robinson, president of the Girls’ Schools Association, representing head teachers of independent girls’ schools in the UK, discussed the implications of online courses in her annual conference speech on Monday.

If such open access online courses no longer required A-levels as an entry exam, she raised the question about what this would mean for the future of the qualification.

“What will be the point of our education system when university degrees can be accessed without A-level qualifications?” asked Ms Robinson in her speech in Liverpool.

“Will we have a freer sixth form curriculum and will our education system look more like the American one? And if we lose the necessity of our narrow three A-level prescribed university route, will there be need for GCSEs or even English Baccalaureate Certificates – personally I cannot see one and we all know that some of us are questioning the validity of them anyway.”


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