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Why Online Higher Education Is Both Useful and Necessary

Posted Sep 25 2012 12:00am

All of our colleges and universities, including medical schools, need to launch on-line learning as a significant component of their curricula. This will be an essential step in decreasing costs and increasing efficiency. In so doing, our higher educational institutions can also begin to provide learning services in countries where the educational system is less well developed. A recent article was the best I have ever read in terms of the advocacy of this position (see: Log On and Learn: The Promise of Access in Online Education ). Online education is alive and well at the University of Michigan (see:  Hundreds of thousands flock to free University of Michigan classes offered on web-based Coursera platform ). Below is an excerpt from this first article:

Much of the discussion and debate around bringing higher education online has touched upon the implications of putting course material online versus in-person teaching. There are many questions floating around, such as how will students benefit from online classes if course credit isn’t given? What does the future hold for traditional brick and mortar institutions? While these points are important and not to be dismissed, there is a key issue that education pundits are often overlooking: the issue of access. For millions of people around the world, the choice is not between attending traditional university and online courses, between seeing a lecture in person and watching one online....[F]or many students, the choice is between online education and no education at all....Needless to say, few countries can offer university-level education for free. But as Internet access improves globally, online education is becoming a very real solution for students who might not have the prior experience needed to enroll in local colleges, who can’t afford tuition, whose lifestyle does not permit them the leisure to attend classes in person, or or who can’t commute to schools far away from home....But giving someone the opportunity to take courses taught by top-tier universities and professors strikes at the core of what learning is all about — fostering personal growth, creating career opportunities, spreading knowledge of important topics, and developing bonds with other students....While technically many Americans continue to have access to higher education, that access is dependent on student loans.

The burgeoning debt caused by these loans is becoming unsustainable both for the individual and for society at large....[S]ince 1985, the cost of higher education has gone up 559%, almost double the rate of the rising cost of health care. We have to start looking into ways to reduce the cost of higher education. Technology and online learning specifically, if thoughtfully employed, could reduce these costs, and allow our college students to graduate without being shackled to a gross amount of debt. Not everything that happens in an in-person classroom is currently replicated with an online course, and perhaps the experience will never be the quite the same. But there are new opportunities that online learning opens up that would have never been possible without this technology. We have the incredible opportunity to provide access to education to millions worldwide, to allow students to graduate without enormous debt, while at the same time allowing us to rethink and enrich the learning experience with the participation of students from almost every country in the world. We have the incredible opportunity to make education what it should be: a fundamental human right.

I believe that much of the opposition to massive online open courses (MOOCs) is coming from conservative faculty members who are resistant to change. Nevertheless, the obvious success of a number of online educational initiatives will ultimately drown out the protests of these naysayers. For your own exploration of online opportunities, here are links to the web sites of four difference companies (see: Massive open online course ):

  • Academic Room - Over 1,000 full-length lecture videos of courses curated from Harvard, MIT, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Berkley, Duke and Carnegie Mellon, accompanied by course materials such as books, journal articles and syllabi for self-paced learning.
  • Coursera - A VC-funded company founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University, located in Mountain View, California.
  • edX - A non-profit led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the University of California, Berkeley, that offers university-level courses from a wide range of disciplines online to a worldwide audience at no charge.
  • Khan Academy - A non-profit educational organization created in 2006 by Indo-Bangladeshi American educator Salman Khan.

In subsequent notes, I will begin to speculate about how MOOCs might be used for both undergraduate and continuing medical education.

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