Friday, May 18, 2012

Online Education Initiatives: A Hope for Education in Less Developed Countries

I very well remember my time in the Computer Science Department of Karachi University when teachers who did not take classes really annoyed me. Other class-fellows would call me crazy on account of being so nerdy but I knew this was a valuable period of our life which would never come back. This was the age where the mind is ready to absorb all knowledge which thanks to our messed-up education system (not to forget the loads of politics that pollutes it) was literally being wasted. The dilemma of technological sciences such as Computer Science in lesser developed countries like Pakistan lies in it being more of a hype than a science. In my part of the world students flock to Computer Science to get good jobs after graduation: of course this is a necessity and the point of a good education but shall it be the only goal is the real question we should address.

Back then there was a frustrating time when the Object-Oriented Programming teacher gave us the option of either to learn OOP concepts with C# or C++, and, unfortunately most of the class went for C# due to its being in demand by the job market. At that point, I realized how tough a time Computer Science will get in Pakistan and this remains true to this day. Sadly not only students but teachers have also promoted the job-oriented study model leading to a myth that Computer Science is all about sitting on a desk writing code in .NET or PHP (or any other programming language for that matter).

Meeting the well-known scientist, Rakesh Agarwal from Microsoft Research confirmed my assertions about the pathetic state of affairs of technological sciences in countries like India and Pakistan. He shared the same dissatisfactions as me, and strongly criticized the industry in the lesser-developed countries. Equivalently sad is the state of affairs at the national universities in South Asia, and the situation is changing at a very slow pace. When Stanford announced its online courses, I saw acquaintances in my social network sharing about it and the ones most excited about these online courses were undergraduate students from institutes of my country. This as I see it is a silver lining admist the dark clouds as online education initiatives like Coursera, EdX and Udacity will now grant access to quality education to students from all over the world. This in my opinion is a huge step towards bridging the digital divide and it is now upon students in the developing world to make most of this opportunity. Today's connected society gives easy and massive access to knowledge unlike the situation I had back in my undergraduate days and I feel students today are far more blessed than students of my time.

What started as an educational initiative by accomplished Stanford Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng has now turned into a global phenomenon with the best universities contributing to make knowledge open for all. If studying at world's reputed universities (Stanford University, MIT, Harvard, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania  etc.) was ever your dream then there can be no better time to go and get that dream. Some students might take this as an exaggerated statement but this comes from me after personally taking two online courses this semester and enjoying them to the maximum. Furthermore, Coursera statistics also confirm the value that online education has now added to universities; they could never have achieved this value as Andrew Ng puts it: "I normally teach 400 students," Ng explained, but last semester he taught 100,000 in an online course on machine learning. "To reach that many students before," he said, "I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years."

It is a generally held notion that the academic culture and the styles of teaching in our part of the world are out-dated and boring. I can certainly confirm this assertion on account of my experience in Pakistani academic circles for quite sometime now. For the most part, higher-education circles in developing regions limit ideas to an academic document on a shelf quite unlike the way that things are done in the top research universities of the world. Students have always wanted to know how the ideas that they study in the classroom apply to the real-world problems around them. With world-class Professors offering online courses, there is an oppurtunity to get much of those questions answered.

Online education as a phenomenon is not new and for years people in less developed regions have been skeptical of them but it's quite different with Coursera and other similar initiatives. The revolutionary ideas behind these initiatives are the concept of testing, grading, student-to-student help and awarding certificates of completion of a course. Daphne Koller, a Stanford computer science professor who founded Coursera with Ng, explained in her talk at LinkedIn last week, "It will allow people who lack access to world-class learning - because of financial, geographic or time constraints — to have an opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families."

So the next time students come to me seeking advice on how to start with research or how to apply for foreign universities I'd recommend him/her to take some courses (that relate to his/her area of interest) on Coursera or any such platform. With such initiatives coming from the world's top-class universities there is a hope for revolutionization of higher education by allowing students from all over the world to not only hear top-quality lectures, but to do homework assignments, be graded, receive a certificate for completing the course and use that to get a better job or gain admission to a better school.