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axter Woods drives 18-wheeler trucks long distance in the US. That means he is on his own for hours on end. So, he installed amplifiers and a digital media player to soften the boredom. Then he discovered Hubert Dreyfus, leading philosophy professor at University of BCalifornia, Berkeley. His lectures were available on iTunes, Apple's media software. Woods regularly downloads Dreyfus' lectures, and others too, from iTunes into his media player and listens on the lonely drives. "I'm really in two places at once, " he told Los Angeles Times which reported the story of several people like the 61-year-old Woods listening to university lectures available for free on the Internet. In another corner of the world, in the dusty and poor township of Soweto, South Africa, Mduduzi Mathe is a happy man. He is the principal of a high school and holds a PhD in maths. But his Class 9 students were abysmally maths-challenged, not surprising because South Africa ranks 139th in number skills. But Mathe is happy because his class has done very well. He says the reason behind this turnaround is "Dr Math".
Dr Math is a service which uses the mobile phone to answer students' questions. The government set up a panel of voluntary tutors who answer the queries using Mxit, a wildly popular phone based social networking application used by over a quarter of South Africans.
These are just two examples from the brave new frontiers of education. In a world that has been infinitely transformed by the IT revolution it is not surprising that education too has been deeply affected. The voices of austere dons are now booming out of kitchens and fishing boats, on morning commutes of executives and afternoon breaks for housewives. Even students sometimes would rather sit at home with their feet up on the table and listen to their favourite professor expounding economic theory than huddle in lecture theaters.
"There's no question that the most powerful learning technology at all levels, and internationally, is the spread and accessibility of the Internet, " asserts Carlos Alberto Torres, professor of social sciences and comparative education at UC Berkeley. He tells TOI-Crest that a vast gamut of knowledge and information is now available at the fingertips of people who are searching for it. This most human of traits - curiosity and a desire to improve one's knowledge - creates an immense demand for information of all kinds.
Lectures of Ivy League professors uploaded as webcasts or podcasts are available for free use on scores of university sites. They might be called the elite end of the Great Online Education Bazaar. The range is astonishing - from arcane and highly specialised subjects like ancient history or behavioral psychology to perennial favorites like stock market trend analysis and venture capital flows, it's all there. Dreyfus's philosophy lectures rose to thefifth most popular downloads on the iTunes playlists proving that the human thirst for knowledge is far stronger than it was believed to be.
Although the trend is most widely prevalent in the US, many countries in the world are following suit. MIT which started it all with its OpenCourseWare website back in 2001 has initiated a collaborative venture involving products from 250 universities and institutions being made available on a dedicated website (see box on page 7). You can get to hear lectures from across the world - from New Zealand and South Africa to Brazil and Vietnam.
This month, China joined the club by putting lectures from 18 top universities, Zhejiang, Nankai and Wuhan Universities, on the web for free dissemination. The Chinese ministry of education said that by 2015 over 1, 000 courses will be online. According to NetEase Company, which is facilitating the technical aspects, prominent courses will be translated so that they are available for "the whole world".
In India, IGNOU has uploaded about 40, 000 volumes (lessons) of instructional material for use by students and non-students. It also has 1, 600 videos available through its YouTube channel. Since its launch in 2008 the Gyankosh site has got over 6, 80, 000 visitors at an average of about 1, 000 per day.
The technological revolution in education is not confined to use of the Web alone. In several universities, experiments with other technologies are in progress to provide Virtual Learning Experience (VLE).
Chris Dede is the Timothy E Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard. He designed two experiments to make learning more joyful and exciting for school children - with famous results. Both the experiments involved augmented reality (AR), that is, real world activities with a superimposed virtual simulation. One was called "Alien Attack!" and it involved students armed with mobile phones and GPS enabled hand-held computers going out to investigate virtual characters and digital items related to a mysterious alien invasion. Various mathematical and literary problems popped up which they resolved using their devices.
The second experiment was called Gray Anatomy. It involved using the same devices to investigate a virtual beached whale on a nearby real beach. Later the students were tested for math and language skills, and their results were compared to a similar group of students who did the same problems on a board game. There was no statistical difference in subject mastery between the two groups of students but the first group was much more happy and satisfied. They thought the whole exercise was cool. Dede says that technology was shown to be good at engaging students and encouraging collaborative efforts. But it is not good enough yet for learning gains. He stresses the need for impeccable curriculum designs to make that possible.
Bill Tucker, managing director of the new educational technologies consultancy 'Education Sector', tells TOI-Crest that besides computer simulations, technologybased assessment systems and new uses of data to inform instruction are other areas that latest technologies have thrown up.
"There are also a host of tools to support teachers, ranging from online lesson planning and sharing systems to tools which help teachers better track and understand their students' information and performance patterns, " he says
Just as Google constantly improves its spell-checker, a math tutorial could use real-time data - such as how long it takes students to respond to tasks, what actions enable students to persist through a set of questions and when do they ask for help - to learn exactly which problem sets, tutorials, and processes lead to better outcomes, says Tucker.
Educators could also capitalise on findings from social networking companies like Zynga, the creator of FarmVille, which tracks 40 billion player actions per day and conducts 1, 000 experiments on new features every three months. Zynga constantly adjusts its games to prolong play, increase purchases, or motivate users to publicise the game among friends. This type of systems can be used in education, says Tucker.
So, how do these websites do manage financially ? They use a mix of business models. Most university websites and other not-forprofit organisations, like the hugely popular Khan Academy (see story on page 8), are open source -they offer free access. Feebased content is the traditional way of imparting knowledge - the text book publisher is the prime example of this.
Apple Inc offered to host lectures from various US universities on its iTunes platform, meeting the costs of unloading and storage. This back-end expenditure was probably incurred by them partly to steer people towards their proprietary iTunes and partly to get the goodwill of the premier universities who might then buy Apple's computers. Several universities reported that they have been receiving completely unsolicited donations - as small as $10 or $100 - from grateful listeners of programmes.
Khan Academy runs on donations. The Gates Foundation has donated a total of $5 million till now and Google has added its $2 million. But they do receive small donations from all over the world.
But the new business in the US is not providing content, but the entire educational experience via online learning -most prominently at the post-secondary level, but also at primary/secondary levels.
Dan Colman, lead editor of Open Culture told TOI-Crest that online learning is often a pretty tedious, impersonal experience, and it generally doesn't measure up to the classroom experience. But he is very optimistic that this will change soon. "As communication tools get better, online learning will improve and become more widespread. But listening to a lecture doesn't amount to a fullblown education, " he said.
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