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12th September 2012

Get ahead, get online; the future of education?

As pioneers in computer science, the University of Manchester needs to catch up with the times or fall behind in the dark ages of classroom focused teaching.

Each year the level of opportunities available for web-based learning increases, shaking the rigid foundations of higher education. Online institutes such as Coursera, Udacity, and the Khan Academy offer free tuition services to users all over the world, in a range of different topics. Top flite universities such as Harvard and Oxford provide free lecture series through iTunes U.

And what do we have? Blackboard 9, and the Student System, two ridiculously over complicated systems that fail to provide the most basic services when they’re really needed. It’s writ into legend how Blackboard was sent crashing when everyone logged on to see if a certain saintly Italian had actually paid off all our library fees. The Student System is a labyrinth of dead ends that no one seems to know how to navigate around to find the most important information – our grades. Enrolling on courses is a painful process, especially for those of us who have to grab seminar slots which quickly disappear, making the last laborious half an hour null and void.

In March 2012, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced the launch of a pioneering new scheme to provide a fully automated online assessed course. MITx, an interactive course designed solely for internet users, saw 120,000 students registered for 6.002x: Circuits and Electronics. The course ran until June, with 10 hours per week and e-resources available such as a virtual laboratory and textbooks. There were no official prerequisites, and was available globally, leading to a certificate upon successful completion. Whilst it is not the first online degree, MIT are the first to offer one without charge, and under their brand.

With tuition fees tripling this year, and very little change being seen in return to justify such a price hike, there are many people challenging the benefit of a ‘traditional’ higher education attending institutes in the UK (where, let’s face it, between the low number of contact hours and poor attendance rates, what is the point?).

If you take the Faculty of Humanities, for instance, a student body of around 18,000 and over 1,000 academic staff, where courses are largely based on a weekly lecture and seminar, and of course the ever optimistic “reading” that is usually a quick scan of some pages on the Magic Bus. I’m sure most of us have often thought, well, I could just learn this myself at home! I can of course argue that the point of coming to university is to learn from these renowned scholars, and to have access to all the resources which your average Joe would not. I do actually believe that, but it comes at a high price. Especially when you compare the number of contact hours for the Arts (on average, around six to eight per week) to the Sciences (easily approaching an average nine-to-five day for some degrees).

This isn’t a comment on what I’m actually paying for though, or a platform to debate crippling tuition fees – it’s a moan about the lack of technological advancement throughout the University. In my personal experience, most of my lecturers are technophobes that avoid using Blackboard as much as possible, and those that do attempt to join the 21st Century usually make a hash of it. There are so many ways that online learning can greatly improve any degree course, from putting an end to the frustration of finding that the one book you really need for your essay is being hogged by another student (who usually isn’t even in your class), to structured discussion groups that can receive feedback from your tutor, or perhaps take a leaf of out MIT’s book and provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for experiments.

There is so much scope for improvement of online, intuitive learning, which has yet to be realised. Programs which understand a student’s behaviour and provide prompts to guide a student through a problem or to a different platform of learning if they have difficulty with ‘talking head’ lecture tutorials for instance. This should be an integral supplement to classroom based teaching.

Over half a century ago, the birth of the modern computer was witnessed at the University of Manchester, and since then Manchester has led the world in computer science. So why are her students now being left in the dark ages?

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