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[ST] Log and learn - Singaporeans are signing up for free online courses

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Old 18-11-2012, 09:39 PM
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Default [ST] Log and learn - Singaporeans are signing up for free online courses

Straits Times Nov 18, 2012

Log and learn
Singaporeans are signing up for free online courses offered by renowned universities
By Melissa Sim

Every Sunday, Ms Tan Yan Ling, 24, attends two hours of design lectures conducted by a professor from an Ivy League university.

But she did not have to to fill in application forms to get into the course or university, and she did not have to leave the comfort of her home in Singapore.

All she did was sign up for an account with online learning site Coursera and register for the University of Pennsylvania course.

What's more, the course is completely free.

Sites offering mass open online courses such as Coursera, edX and Udacity are partnering top universities and industry professionals, and leading the way in providing free world-class online education.

At the moment, Coursera offers 204 courses, while edX has nine courses and Udacity has 18.

These courses span an array of subjects from music and history to science and computing.

So anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can take Introduction To Computer Science from Harvard or Introduction To Astronomy from Stanford just by signing up.

Udacity, launched in January this year, has 800,000 enrolments, while Coursera, officially launched in April, has more than a million students. EdX was unable to respond by press time.

The Coursera spokesman told SundayLife! that as of August this year, about 9,000 of their students are from Singapore.

Associate Professor Manu Kapur, who heads the Learning Sciences Lab which researches learning and teaching at the National Institute of Education, says mass open online courses are catching on because of increasing competition among universities, the higher costs of tertiary education, and "a real hunger and enthusiasm for learning specialised skills and knowledge around the world".

Ms Tan, a design consultant, spends two hours a week watching video lectures, and two to three hours on her assignments, which include drawing a chair from different perspectives, and solving design problems and submitting them for peer grading, which she says has been very constructive and helpful.

Most courses are structured this way, with lectures, quizzes, peer-graded assignments and optional online forum discussions.

Udacity's head of business strategy and planning Clarissa Shen says the platform is "not just about streaming a physical classroom and putting what works in the classroom online".

Students also learn by "doing and not by listening", as is the case in a regular distance learning course, she says.

Courses usually last from four to 15 weeks and require anything from two to 15 hours of commitment each week.

Ms Tan says it was difficult having to juggle work, social commitments and the course.

She and a friend, Ms Samantha Yuen, 34, tried sharing notes and ideas to help each other through a course offered by the University of Pennsylvania on Gamification - applying game scenarios to solve real-life problems - but both were unable to complete the final assignment in time, and were not given a completion certificate.

Certificates of completion are offered for some courses, at the discretion of the university and instructor, and can be a real motivating factor for students.

Ms Erin Jeong, 24, an account executive, managed to complete an Introduction to Computer Science offered by Stanford University and received a completion certificate for her work.

"This particular course was for beginners like me and I managed to finish each week's worth of work way ahead of the deadline."

She says the certificate was a big motivator because it is "physical proof to show others, and yourself even, that you studied a particular course".

For Ms Yuen, a digital content manager, taking a Coursera course in Human-Computer Interaction, meant being able to take a course not usually offered in Singapore.

The hospitality graduate says she picked up most of her IT skills on the job and could not find "much digital training in Singapore".

Previous attempts to look for such courses were unsuccessful as the ones she found were held in Australia and cost between $2,000 and $4,000, which she felt was too expensive.

So when Coursera offered a Human-Computer Interaction course taught by Stanford University, she immediately signed up.

"It's definitely an opportunity to learn something not typically offered as a structure course in Singapore, and for free."

National University of Singapore computer engineering undergraduate Goh Eng Wei, 24, says the quality of the course he is getting at Coursera is "comparable if not better than what he is getting at university", in terms of teaching and content.

Easy access for all

He is currently taking two courses: Cryptography from Stanford University and Neural Networks for Machine Learning from the University of Toronto.

But how is it possible that quality education is being dished out for free?

Coursera says it has secured US$22 million (S$27 million) in funding, while Udacity says it has a Series A investment, which in Silicon Valley speak usually means between US$2 million and US$10 million in venture capital investment.

EdX did not respond to press queries, but reports show that its founding partners Massachusetts Instutute of Technology and Harvard have committed a combined US$60 million in institutional support, grants and philanthropy.

The platforms are also exploring revenue streams such as opt-in job placement programmes and the possibility of paid certification.

But not all are convinced of the efficacy of such courses. Associate Professor Cho Hichang, from the department of communications and new media at the National University of Singapore, points out that "online learning can be a one way transfer where the teacher talks to the students. There are no group projects and the personal touch is missing".

He adds that findings on e-learning are "mixed".

"Some studies show it is almost comparable but not better than traditional classroom learning (although others have found the opposite). Some studies have found that students are less satisfied with online learning," he says.

While Prof Cho acknowledges that online learning is convenient and cost effective as one video can reach out to people all over the world, he feels that a combination of online and traditional learning is probably the best approach.

Ms Joyce Huang, who founded a group called SG Geek Girls, which teaches computer skills to women at minimal cost, says she often sends her students online videos to watch and then holds weekend tutorials for those who need extra help.

The 25-year-old marketing executive, who takes only a $10 administrative fee from students, is very much in favour of "democratising education and making it available to everybody".

Undergraduate Goh also thinks the concept of free online courses is "an amazing idea". "Education should not be restricted to only those who are rich, but those who want to do something good with their lives."

So perhaps mass open online courses are not just another passing Internet fad.

Nanyang Technological University Professor Kam Chan Hin, associate provost for undergraduate education, says the university has developed an e-learning platform for its own students but is "exploring partnerships with leading players of the e-learning consortia such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity".

NIE's Prof Kapur says: "Given that there are now efforts to look into designing accreditation systems for such courses, they have the potential to become even more popular because they allow learning no matter where you are, as long as you have an Internet connection."

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