The Idea of a free online education has been around for a while, but despite the availability of instant access to information across the world for years now, we are only just seeing groups starting to take advantage of the potential. So who is going to finally crack the formula for effective engaging online education?
There are plenty of sites that offer tutorials or information about a specific subject. It is even possible to pay a tuition to attend online universities of various reputations. But few actually attempt to offer a free, effective, engaging educational experience that is geared towards the internet. Fortunately there are a few organizations stepping up to take on this issue such as the Khan academy. There are even several prominent universities that are looking into solutions for this as well.
For a while now MIT has been offering OpenCourseWare on the web; A catalog of over 2000 different MIT courses offering lecture notes, assignments, exams, and video's from an entire semester worth of classes. All of these resources are taken directly from the same classes they teach on campus to MIT students seeking their Graduate or Master degrees. Best of all it is entirely free and no registration is required.
Open Course Ware is an incredible resource, but not without its issues. For one you don't have access to the text books (sold separately), and similarly the lecture notes they provide are delivered as power points without any of the dialog that expanded on them. Assignments and exams don't always include answers. Video media are just recordings of the full hour-long class lectures. And you can not get any degree or certification by simply completing the content on your own. Still it is free content from one of the most highly respected schools in its field, and now MIT thinks it can do even better.
The really cool news is that MIT intends to create brand new content based on their open course ware that is produced specifically for the web. Currently called MITx, it was built from the ground up to be a web-based experience available to everyone. Just like their open course ware it will be completely free, while MIT on campus students will see it start to supplement their in class education as well. They even intend to offer high quality certification testing, where for a fee you take a fairly challenging test that will prove your credentials for many high level topics.
The pilot program is supposedly being made available this spring. So with the idea of open source education in mind I wanted to take a minute to think about how producing educating content for the web will be different from an on-campus education.
Open source education differs from a traditional classroom
First, there is a big difference between simply throwing up information on the web (passive), and crafting an engaging experience with the intention to educate (active). Reading walls of text alone is not enough to gain mastery in a subject. Without applying those skills or getting proper feedback, it's a lot harder to retain all the information you are taking in. Creating proper online "labs" and automated grading exercises is vital and a hard thing to get right. Done well though it provides a place where students can put into practice the skills they are learning.
Producing content for the internet is also a change from the traditional class room. Just as creating media for television, film, or stage all have different unique properties; the internet has a style and pacing of its own. Classroom style lectures that are posted up 'as is' onto YouTube are typically slow-paced, boring, and don't take full advantage of the technology available.
Internet video is far more fast paced and quick cut then traditional lectures. You can see the quality of this style evolving from professional video bloggers who have carved out this niche on the web and learned to make a living from it. The fact that users can pause, replay specific sections for clarification, and skip through parts makes a big difference in the way people interact with the content as well.
Proper use of visuals in video content can also hugely improve the ability to reinforce information, increase knowledge retention, and increase user engagement. One of my favorite example of this are the videos they produce at RSA animate. The use of the supporting visual style is very focused on reinforcing the speaker and makes it a lot more entertaining to watch as well. Not every single lecture needs production quality this time-consuming, but when the final product can be delivered to millions of users over and over again you want to create something that will last.
There's also the attention span of the internet to consider. It's hard to find time to engage in hour long videos requiring high levels of focus. Breaking up videos into 10 minute chunks on average (5-20 minutes) can make content a lot easier to follow. Students have a lot more flexibility in whether they want to watch several lessons in a row, or spread them through out the day when they have time. Smaller videos makes it easier to go back and search for specific information when you need to. It also creates a natural rhythm while learning; letting students take a breath and reflect on the content they just learned before diving back in for more.
The final point I'll mention, though there are certainly more I'm leaving out, is the extent to which web-based open source education can take advantage of social networking. By giving students a means to interact on the site it can create a user base capable of far more than the limited resources of the content producers could provide. An environment where people can compare, collaborate, compete, discuss, and even help mentor each other is invaluable. And when offered the tools to do so, the community that develops will be full of people willing to donate their time and effort to improving the experience for everyone.