Published on October 4th, 2013 | by Daniel


The Dawn of Location Independent Learning

Going to college will never be the same. I even think that we are in for a fundamental change with regard to how we learn and how educational institutions operate.

A little while ago I bumped into this great website named Coursera. It is a portal where you can access many courses from renowned universities as Stanford, Princeton and many others universities in the US and abroad. Basically you make a profile on the website and choose the courses you want to enroll into. There is a diverse array of topics you can choose from, from Network Analysis and Nanotechnology to Architecture, Linguistics and Philosophy, and everything in between. Currently they have 5 million users worldwide and more than 400 courses available, which is growing strongly.

Just like a normal “real-life” course, every week in the course there is new material made available to those enrolled. You even get “homework” and “assignments”. The difference with “real life” is that the whole interaction is online, while you can work together with your students on a massive scale. This material is communicated via video lectures and virtual books. For checking the assignments sometimes peer grading is used. That is, you grade the papers of your co-students and others grade yours. In other cases multiple choice questions are used to test your knowledge.

Basically the advantages of online education over offline education are:

> You can follow the course at any time of your liking, thus enabling students from all locations and different time zones to study the material.

> Cooperation is very efficient, as you work and share on everything online within the portal.

> From the point of view of the educational institution, the course can be scaled without extra costs. Thus enabling virtually an unlimited amount of students to access the course. And it makes it very low cost (or free) for students to attend. Very good for those living in developing countries.

> There is no age restriction. While principally anyone of any age can study at an university, in a lot of countries this is mostly restricted to the age group 18 – 30 (at least socially), while it gets progressively more expensive for those above 30 as well (no tax breaks). With online study you do not have this issue.

> You are not limited to one university or to focus on one topic, because there are no physical limitations. Online you can follow a wide diverse array of topics that are of your interest. Which would be hard sometimes in real life as physical distances between universities can be vast.

So how does Coursera and the universities that are participating win with this business model? Well, they earn with selling extra teaching material (which you can buy). They (are going to) provide an optional service that matches students with companies. And you can go with a paid “signature track” that will give you an official accreditation from the university that you attended the course from. So you can officially mention it on your resume. Or tell your friends.

This sounds all very nice and dandy. But of course, there are some disadvantages as well. For instance, the peer grading is nice in theory but in practical sense you will have a problem with other students not attending anymore, so feedback is lacking. And you miss a real expert feedback (from the teacher) as well. Also an important issue is that everything is virtually oriented. This means that you will miss some real life contact with your co-students. You do not really know who is studying with you. There is not really an opportunity to socialize. This is also an important part of studying at an university. And when you looking at the video courses, you feel a bit detached, in the sense that there is no room for improvising and asking questions to the one teaching the course.

But I am positive these can be negated by technological advancements. For instance, by sharing your location, you can meet up with others that live close to you and follow the same course. So in a way you will meet people from all ages and backgrounds that you would not meet in a traditional university setting. And in due time I am sure there be specific virtual Q&A sessions between those who teach the course and those who follow it.

In any case, if this style of teaching takes hold, it is interesting what this will do with the income stream of universities and the like. Their income stream from old style education will be lower and also the income stream per student online is lower. But now more people have access to university course, so the market increases, which will possibly make the total amount of paying students higher.

Why am I mentioning all this? Well, first I like the idea, and it stimulates to think about your own business. But also of course that as a location independent entrepreneur, you are not at one physical place constantly. This making websites as Coursera the ultimate handy tool to brush up on different topics, maybe specific ones for your business, or new topics to increase your general knowledge. Fun to spout at your next dinner party. All in all, I think this is only the start of a new age when physical and time barriers are brought down and everyone will have more opportunities to improve their lives.

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  • Chiquita

    As a girl who is not a big fan of studying in a classroom, I find this ‘coursera’ idea is fantastic. And you are right about its benefits towards students in developing countries. One can actually study abroad without going abroad. :) Traditional schools definitely needs reforming

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