Online Education and Open Courseware are Beneficial. But Just How Good?

Online education is all rage in 2011, and we at Udemy couldn’t be happier.  But as formal education moves online, i.e. online education in pursuit of an accredited degree, there are issues about the effectiveness of this form of education.  Namely in the context of academics, what is the measurable “impact of an open and free resource” to help people learn?  We know it works, but we don’t know how well exactly.

Evaluating how to assess the value of online education is one piece of a greater revolution in education and learning.  Advances in technology have altered how society approaches learning in all phases –method, organization, self-study, testing, competency assessment, credit hour, you name it.  Consequently, it’s no surprise that new forms of measurements are necessary as well.

Creating tools to assess the value of open courseware education is particularly important to institutions of higher education because (1) they are investing heavily in the field, and (2) they have the most to gain (and lose) if the projects are not successful.  Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education discussed the issue of assessing the value of online education through the distribution of open courseware published by universities in an interview with Taylor Walsh, author of, Unlocking the Gates.  Walsh examined the “online successes and failures” of open courseware published by universities.

In the interview, the interviewer asks some poignant questions about how to measure the effectiveness of online education.  At one point, the interviewer notes that “Ira Fuchs, a former program officer who oversaw the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) grant at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation [said] ‘If you take away OCW completely, I’m not sure that higher education would be noticeably different.’”  Walsh responds by acknowledging some truth to the statement; she notes the distinct lack of study in this area precludes the ability to draw final conclusions.  Essentially, because this is new territory, there is very little in terms of a benchmark.

The lack of a benchmark, however, is not a reason to stop.  Rather, it’s just one more challenge to be overcome in remaking the educational system.  For instance, in a previous post, Udemy posted our views on the competency model of education (as opposed to the current credit hours model).  Set the students free we said:  online education allowed new forms of automation and testing to determine if a student has mastery of a subject at their own pace.

But, we also noted that different fields have different needs.  In the case of universities, competency might not be what a liberal arts curriculum is seeking to elicit from students.  Critical thinking and analytical skills might require more than a competency model of assessment.  As such, Walsh’s conclusion rings true: “No one disputes that these open-courseware initiatives have done much good.  But it’s impossible, with the currently available data, to determine how much good.”

Going forward then, requires new initiatives and discourse amongst the online education community.  The same energy that brought about the revolution must now learn to harness it.  After all, how can we show what we already know, that open courseware and free access to education has improved education if we can’t show how students are learning?  We look forward to seeing what new ideas people will come up with to solve this challenge.