Education for All

Online courses are disrupting the education sector – and the potential for society is huge.

In the digital age it’s no longer just in school that you learn multiplication tables or what’s behind quantum mechanics. More and more platforms are offering courses, tutorials and exercises for free on the internet, and the UN is calling for “education for all”. Could it be that we are in the midst of an education revolution? Could the internet be the key to a fairer world, where education is available to all, ensuring social justice around the world?

Online education facilities remove geographical hurdles and offer opportunities for the world’s poor to receive an education. Free education portals and online courses give us the chance to make education a universal right for the entire population of the world. Projects such as “One Laptop per Child” have been investing in the distribution of laptops and learning software, predominantly in developing countries and emerging markets, since 2005. Using specialised hard- and software, such projects should ensure that, in future a basic education is guaranteed for every child in the world, and at the same time allowing them to become familiar with technology, something which is becoming increasingly important in today’s world. This idea caught the attention of Microsoft: in December 2012 the company announced a plan to invest 75 million US dollars in giving people in Africa digital access to educational resources, such as the opportunity to use “Skype in the classroom”. Using this programme, guest speakers or teachers can be invited into the classroom from anywhere in the world with a simple click of the mouse.

Study at Harvard with MOOCs, MOODLEs and OERs

Instead of giving lectures to a select group of students, eminent professors can now reach out to a far wider audience using Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) – i.e. organised, open courses that are available on the internet. The former financial analyst Salman Khan is often cited as triggering the MOOC trend. Wanting to help out a cousin who lived far away, he posted short, entertaining videos on YouTube to help her learn maths. What started out in 2006 as private coaching sessions soon developed into one of the world’s largest learning platforms: the Khan Academy now offers over 700 micro tutorials that are used by around six million users every month.

Whilst MOOCs are available for an unlimited period of time, lecture videos and supporting material are only available on Moodles (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) for a limited period. Students of both these e-learning programmes use videos and tests as part of the learning process, and can help each other out in various forums and blogs. Open Education Resources (OER) are a further aspect of open online education – i.e. licence-free teaching and learning materials on various subjects, which often cost more than the tuition fees themselves, especially in the USA. Many charitable foundations and government agencies are currently working to promote the OER movement in the USA. The Hewlett Foundation has financed MIT’s Open Courseware programme which offers over 2,000 courses under free Creative Commons licences. The Gates Foundation has also invested in the digital education sector. It’s no wonder, then, that the USA is firmly in the lead compared to other countries when it comes to OER.

Graduate or drop-out?

The MIT has also recently started offering its current ongoing courses online (seeedX). Alongside their university courses, online learners can now follow lectures and seminars in real time on the internet and sit the exams at the same time as the students. The chance to get a free certificate from one of the top universities with such renowned professors was incentive enough for many to go online and sign up. However, the drop-out rates are sobering: only 4 percent of online students actually complete their course.

Democratisation of education

On a more positive note, a particularly successful example is the MOOC on artificial intelligence created by Sebastian Thrun, a professor at Stanford University. Whilst he lectured to around 200 students in the auditorium, as many as 160,000 people from 200 countries listened in online. Admittedly, only 14 percent of those who took part actually completed the course. But what was most remarkable about this was the fact that not one single Stanford student was among the top 400 graduates of Thrun’s course, rather they were a broad mix of talented students from across the globe. Fired up by this success, Thrun founded the Udacity platform. There are intelligent people all over the world, but only few can afford the 250,000 US dollars for Stanford tuition fees. MOOCs therefore make an important contribution to bringing democracy to the education system. A further advantage of online courses is that users can watch the videos as many times as they need to until they have thoroughly understood it all. Also, the quizzes and exercises can be more easily answered among the community. Individual performance assessments also help encourage students to take an ambitious approach to learning.

Revolution in the dusty classroom

Calls for a revolution of the education sector have long resounded in dusty classrooms and overcrowded lecture theatres. However, most of the available learning opportunities are just filmed lectures: outdated methods that have been revived by technological advances, but that have not been newly thought out. What revolutionary education opportunities, then, can the internet offer? The “flipped classes” example: valuable time that pupils and students spend with their teachers can be better used if they have watched the lectures on video beforehand. The students can gather the basic knowledge and facts in advance, leaving time during the lessons for a fruitful discussion between the experts and the students, and learning to apply and broaden this knowledge.

Stanford University piloted this model during a biochemistry course, with the unequivocal success that of the registered students, instead of the usual 30 percent, 80 percent attended from then on. The main difference between online education platforms and classic teaching methods are the various learning theories behind them. MOOCs and other e-learning courses build on learner autonomy, discourse, organised chaos and productivity rather than passive receiving. At the heart of these is the new learning theory of connectivity – you no longer learn on your own, rather you can connect with other students worldwide, whilst also consulting books and other learning materials. “Knowing how” and “knowing what” becomes supplemented by “knowing where”, i.e. where to find the necessary knowledge.


“Education is the key to a fairer world. Those with knowledge, who can read, write and do arithmetic, who can inform themselves, are less dependent on others, less susceptible to exploitation and can seize opportunities to free themselves from poverty”. This is how the United Nations describes their millennium campaign of “education for all”, an important tool in fighting poverty. Are digital developments in the education sector the solution? Access to education facilities for all internet users is certainly a forward-looking measure. It opens up elite universities to people from all walks of life and with different levels of education, making it even more urgent that we not only bridge the digital gap, but also create new teaching methods. As of yet, we have seen few really innovative education platforms.

A lecture remains a lecture, even if this face-to-face method of teaching is being done by video. Also, a prerequisite for successful use of online education facilities is a solid primary education. Whether or not primary education can be given using education platforms is questionable, since it’s especially during the early years of schooling that pupils acquire fundamental competencies, such as reading, writing and arithmetic. Learning to organise yourself, becoming familiar with learning strategies and motivating yourself, as well as the advantages of being given encouragement and having social contact with other people your own age: these are all things that you learn “offline” in class.