Distance education is increasingly becoming available to mobile users, both as an alternative and a compliment to structured learning. Some educators hope it could even level the global skills gap. But that remains a work in progress.
Open universities that offer MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses with content from participating universities are not new. But their pace has picked up with increased global Internet connectivity, making it possible for people to learn anything, anywhere, often for free.
For most people around the world, “the first time and actually only time they’ll get on the Internet is with a mobile device – their phone,” said the World Bank’s Michael Trucano, Senior Education & Technology Policy Specialist and Global Lead for Innovation in Education.
As a result, a “tremendous amount of activity” is taking place in this area both in developed and developing countries. And it is taking the idea of leveling the global educational gap out of the realm of dreams and closer to reality.
“It’s coming more quickly, I think, than many people thought,” he added. “It had been a real potential that people had thought about for a long time. And now, we are starting to see that potential become a reality. But it’s messy trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t, what’s affordable, what’s relevant, and what you can do at scale.”
Countries like China have done “some pretty inventive things” with mobile education that wouldn’t typically be applied to PCs, said Trucano. But he said that “requires a different mindset about what’s possible,” which means that “you need to think from the start about appealing to someone on that device and with the use cases that are relevant to them.”
“They may not sit there for an hour and watch a lecture, but they may come in and out in 15-minute spurts,” he noted. “… They may do it over the course of a day or over the course of a week in a way that you wouldn’t consider in a traditional classroom.”
To cater to this demographic, connectivity, its backbones, mobile devices and support mechanisms need to be in place.
“Connectivity, I think, is important when we’re talking about learning types of activities that happen over a specific period of time where it’s not only that you’re connected, but that you have sufficient bandwidth, and that it’s reliable,” he said. “… That has been a real challenge for a number of efforts that we’ve seen.”
A human workforce is also needed to support online learners so that they know how to use their mobile device or receive training to use it for education. Support on the “pedagogical side,” said Trucano, is necessary for students to get feedback if they don’t understand something about the material they are studying.
Then there are issues of cost, funding for the business models used to deliver this type of education, and conducive policy environments.
Not all MOOCs are free. A fee is sometimes required to obtain certification or accreditation for completed work, although that often is “much less than the fee for a course from the university,” said the University of Illinois’s Linda Smith, Dean for Academic Programs at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
She cautioned, however, that distance learning portals “are not universities” in the sense that their credentials could be presented as evidence of competence, but “wouldn’t be the same as earning credit toward a degree from a university.”
Mike Feerick, CEO/Founder of ALISON, an Ireland-based global social enterprise dedicated to free, certified education and workplace training, acknowledged that in some cases, master and peer-to-peer learning is essential. But he said the idea of accreditation or traditional recognition “is becoming redundant” because “the one whose opinion counts is the employer, not the third party middlemen [i.e. college].”
A lot of experimentation is going on right now to determine how to award online certificates or badges in ways “that are relevant and useful to the learners they are trying to target all around the world,” said Trucano.
Challenges aside, distance learning, coupled with mobile computing, is having both an evolutionary and revolutionary impact on education. Some changes are incremental, said Trucano, but others are transforming “the conception of what is possible,” addressing problems like teacher shortages, for example.
“Using traditional methods, using traditional institutions … in some cases, it will take decades for countries to be able to train enough teachers,” he said. “And so they have to think about doing it some other way. And this some other way in many cases is to figure out how to use new technologies in new ways and maybe in ways that are consistent with some of the things they’ve done in the past.”
At a minimum, Smith sees distance learning as an opportunity for students to fill their skill and knowledge gaps before progressing to higher education or employment.
“There’s a lot of interest and emphasis on … trying to … make access more universal,” she said. “And so I think that it’s an area that’s moving very rapidly. And it does hold promise for at least addressing some of the differences that we currently have in access to education.”
But rethinking how online educational material – or modules – can be delivered, particularly on smartphones and other mobile devices, is still being figured out.
“The groups that figure that out, I think, will really have a couple of big steps ahead because that device – people have it, they know how to use it, they can afford it, they have it with them all the time,” added Trucano. “And those are all things that are important if you want to reach people with educational opportunities.”
The “biggest challenge holding back this explosion of learning is the low level of wireless connectivity in the [the] developing world,” said Feerick. “But that is changing rapidly. The world will be a different place in that regard in five years’ time.”
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with a clarification from Mike Feerick to change “accreditation or certificate recognition” to accreditation or traditional recognition.”