Virtual classrooms

  • Online courses can be effective in increasing access to higher education for students

Jan 28, 2014-

These days, students seek a wide range of options to pursue higher education. This is because they want to make money and learn new things side-by-side. Students seek ways to obtain education at no cost or low cost, education beyond the lecture halls, a flexible schedule of daily or weekly classes at university campuses, self-paced mode of study, access to classes on handheld gadgets and access to professional development courses offered by the best  universities. Is it impossible provide all these options to students? Of course not. Various open source software applications and educational web tools to develop subject-specific teaching and learning materials and e-learning platforms (virtual campuses) are available free of cost on the internet.

Educational freedom

Starting January 18 a new initiviate called ‘Education Freedom Day’ has begun. This effort intends to bridge the gap between education and technological innovation. The Digital Freedom Foundation has been coordinating the annual celebration of this movement. The slogan “Let’s build educational material for free and open access” definitely sounds good and motivating to millions living in the developing world who have low purchasing power, including those of us in Nepal.

Empowering people to be able to freely connect, create and share in a digital world is realistic too. As a teacher working with technology, I feel that such initiatives greatly benefit educators and help them create and share free knowledge. It is a significant step towards ensuring equity and access to educational resources for all. However, there are some pertinent questions regarding the capacity of the Freedom Foundation to bring together existing creators, developers and providers of open and free educational software around the world.

In Nepal, more than a dozen of NGOs and INGOs working in the fields of education and  technology have come together for this initiative. They bear the great responsibility of making students, teachers and all other stakeholders aware about the use and benefits of free software applications, web tools and e-resources for education, all in a local context.

Online courses

Currently, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) are attracting millions of online learners worldwide. Even top-ranked universities like Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offer free online courses. Courses are offered at both basic as well as advanced levels and cover a wide range of subjects. Interested students or professionals can browse through the course(s) of their interest on the internet and join online classes. All they need is time and an internet connection. However, except for a few, most courses lack formal certification on completion.

An Online Distance Learning (ODL) programme offered by many universities around the world is another way to expand access to education. However, universities offering ODL programmes charge fees for tuition, materials and certification. Nonetheless, students can choose the time and place that suits them. Many universities also offer some of their programmes or courses online or through a mixed mode of study.  

Schools, colleges and universities around the globe are creating e-learning platform to support their on-campus teaching and learning activities. These platforms provide partial freedom to access learning materials, course modules, e-portfolios, assignments and help participate in online assessments (quizzes, wikis, discussion forums). This liberates students from submitting hard copy assignments, printing reading materials and finding time to visit the tutor to submit assignments. Students can save time and money by using electronic copies of reading material and accessing virtual learning platforms from wherever they are. Using e-copies of reading materials (e-books, e-journals, e-library) is also environment friendly as it saves paper.

Options in Nepal

To further this concept, a unit for Open and Distance Education could be established in Nepali universities. The

proposal to establish an Open University in Nepal has been pending at Parliament since long due to political instability. If established, such a university can provide students with an easier option to study and will also award an equivalent degree through a standard accreditation test.

There are a number of free and open source online course management systems available at almost no cost. In my experience, Moodle is one of the best and is widely used as an e-learning management system. It is also very easy to use for beginners. It has the capability to integrate other platforms containing free educational web-based products and cloud storage from Google and Microsoft. Any school, college or university with an official website can immediately start designing online courses using these open and free course management tools to facilitate their on-campus teaching and learning activities. Additionally, they can offer programmes and courses for free or at low cost to outsiders. This can widen access to higher education in Nepal.

As internet penetration and mobile phone usage continue to increase, the cost of such technologies has been gradually decreasing. The wide reach of mobile phones can provide an excellent platform for online education in Nepal. For this, leading mobile internet providers like Nepal Telecom and Ncell can support educational institutes willing to start online or mobile education.

Pangeni is an ICT and Computer Applications lecturer at the Kathmandu University School of Education

Published: 28-01-2014 09:02

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