Higher Education Gets Another Online Challenger, as WEF Launches Its Own Web Courses

While apprenticeships are one alternative to traditional schooling, online courses are potentially transformative for the higher education industry. In fact, the arrival of free online courses has already forced universities to re-evaluate their own models.
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By Christian Rhally, BA Student at Yale University

On Jan. 22, the World Economic Forum announced the launch of its Forum Academy at its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The initiative, started in partnership with edX as the platform provider, will begin in May with the opening course, Global Technology Leadership. According to WEF Chief Information Officer Jeremy Jurgens, who's leading the initiative, the idea is to put the WEF's huge network of industry leaders and opinion-makers at the disposal of a global audience.

Other courses, with titles such as Changing Landscape in the Arab World and New Vision for Agriculture, will be launched in the spring and fall, at a cost of approximately 200 euros per course. Courses on various other issues and industries are set to follow. While some platforms such as Udacity and Codecademy focus on coding and computer science tutorials, the Forum Academy will have a broader selection of courses, similar to Coursera, edX or the Khan Academy, directed toward professionals and lifelong learners.

The WEF's launch of its academy is the latest in a number of increasingly popular online platforms that are moving to compete with traditional higher education institutions at a time when the cost of higher education in the United States is rapidly rising. Yearly tuition costs often reach $40,000 at American universities, and in the past few years the country's student loan bubble has increased to about $1 trillion.

This bubble was one of the topics discussed at this year's Open Forum session titled "Higher Education: Investment or Waste?," which took place parallel to the WEF in Davos. With the cost of a college degree now cripplingly expensive for many, students and parents are reassessing the value of higher education and looking for possible alternatives.

"Our education has not changed in hundreds of years," said Anant Agarwal, president of edX, about the current Western model. "Great papers have been written [about it], but we really have not implemented any of the learning or ideas."

Most panel participants agreed that the higher education industry has suffered from a lack of competitive alternatives, especially in the United States. While countries such as Switzerland and Germany have a strong apprenticeship culture, the U.S. largely lacks this alternative to a college education.

"Apprenticeship is still a very bad word in the Anglo-Saxon culture," Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, told the audience. But David Callaway, editor-in-chief of USA Today and the panel's moderator, said that is already changing. "The apprenticeship ... is going to continue to grow as the demand for specific skills in these areas grows," he said.

While apprenticeships are one alternative to traditional schooling, online courses are potentially transformative for the higher education industry. In fact, the arrival of free online courses has already forced universities to re-evaluate their own models, said Zach Sims, co-founder and CEO of the online coding-education platform Codecademy. "Now that [universities] are facing competition from the free market and from companies like ours, [they will] become better and will provide more credible alternatives to people," Sims said at the panel talk.

Built as a platform "for anyone to learn the skills they need in order to find a job online," according to Sims, Codecademy has gained millions of users since its founding in 2011, with more than 70 percent of them outside of the U.S. Thus, the WEF is attempting to push into a market already beginning to boom.

The rate at which universities have picked up online education has surprised Daphne Koller, a Stanford professor and the co-founder of the online education platform Coursera. "There is a sense ... of urgency and realization that we are at the cusp of a huge transformation," she said. With a network of more than 100 universities around the world, Coursera now offers about 600 courses ranging from physics and computer science to the humanities and arts.

Meanwhile, edX not only offers courses online but provides its open courses platform, OpenedX, for any organization to license a course, after receiving edX's and its course partner's approval. Agarwal, who is also a professor at MIT, said there are about 23 "blended" classes at MIT right now, noting, "In my own course, the students use the Khan-style videos that I created and watch them before they go to class." This gives Agarwal more time to interact directly with the students and answer their questions.

In spite of online courses' huge potential for education, their openness, which could be so transformative, can be a setback. "We've looked at the current learning models, and we've seen very low completion rates," Jurgens said. "Success [for Forum Academy] would be that the majority of the students who sign up for the course take it to the end. The average rates [of completion for online courses] vary between 3 to 7 percent." The WEF's experiment includes a registration fee that serves as not only income but also as a commitment nudge. The fees varies for each course but will likely be around $200, Jurgens said.

The session's panelists agreed that this model will need to blend with traditional education in the future. While Koller noted that 10 years ago people thought that the online model was by definition inferior to face-to-face instruction, she believes there is now a more nuanced view. She added that we need to combine the strengths and weaknesses of online education and face-to-face education "in a way that leverages the strengths of each and hopefully gives way to improved quality and cost."

Sims agreed, adding that Codecademy is willing to work with universities. "We want to be an alternative," he said. "We work with institutions, and we work on our own."

With hundreds of classes offered to millions of students for free over the past few years, online education platforms have already started to disrupt the higher education world. This could increase competition in the industry, thus forcing universities to improve the quality of their education, and the platforms could also blend with traditional education to improve students' learning experiences and potentially reduce costs. Koller sees one way to improve teaching: by getting rid of the old teaching model, with the professor standing and giving a lecture to hundreds. The new model, already in use on edX, favors interaction.

Agarwal is already working on a third platform for online courses. Mooc.org (which stands for "massive online open courses") is "a YouTube for courses," he said. "We want anyone to be able to create a course, and anyone to take a course."

Instructors in the first Forum Academy course, "Global Technology Leadership". Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum.

This story was originally published on studentreporter.org on 7th of February, 2014.

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