In the Internet Age, the Reach of Education May Be Boundless, But There Are Challenges Ahead

Will open education lead to the death of the traditional university system, or will it democratize learning, bringing education to marginalized groups around the world? This week, Martin G. Bean, Monique Canto-Sperber, Mandla S. Makhanya and Sanjay E. Sarma discussed the benefits and potential pitfalls of open online learning at the 2014 Kavli Prize Science Forum, moderated by Vivienne Parry.

Watch the 2014 Kavli Prize Science Forum, recorded September 8: "Higher Education in the 21st Century - The Technological Revolution in Open Education: The Death of a Traditional System or the Next Wave of Democracy?"

2014 Kavli Prize Science Forum, Left to right: Sanjay E. Sarma, Director of Digital Learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U.S.; Mandla S. Makhanya, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor, South Africa; Monique Canto-Sperber, Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL Research University), France; Robert W. Conn, President and CEO, The Kavli Foundation, USA; Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, Norwegian Minister of Education and Research; Nils Stenseth, President, The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters; Vivienne Parry, Science Journalist and Author; Martin G. Bean, Vice-Chancellor, The Open University, United Kingdom.  (Photo credit: Håkon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix)

Far from a challenge to traditional learning, open education offers important opportunities in areas brick-and-mortar universities cannot reach. If undertaken with care, it has the potential to encourage democracy by enabling the education of vast segments of society.

These were among the conclusions of this week’s 2014 Kavli Prize Science Forum in Oslo, Norway. The Forum featured four leading international experts on open education: Martin G. Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, UK; Monique Canto-Sperber, president of the research university Paris Sciences et Lettres, France; Mandla S. Makhanya, principal and vice chancellor of the University of South Africa; and Sanjay E. Sarma, director of digital learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. Moderated by Vivienne Parry, a science writer and broadcaster who reports for news outlets including the BBC, the forum covered the many varied facets of open learning and education in the digital age.

In his opening address, Norwegian Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen celebrated the recent successes of open access and open education resources. But he also noted that these resources are not the end goal: “They are a means to achieve other goals, providing the best possible education, building good and resilient universities, and making sure that education contributes toward a better world.”

The panelists agreed that online open education offers unparalleled opportunity to meet these deeper goals. “Digital spaces allow universities to have an impact on our communities in ways that we’ve never had before,” said panelist Martin G. Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University in the United Kingdom. “More than ever, our job has got to be to help our students transform information into meaningful knowledge.”

The ability to meaningfully teach students around the globe – especially in developing countries – is an important part of democracy, said Mandla S. Makhanya, principal and vice chancellor of the University of South Africa. “That’s why you find that in many countries it’s actually those in the universities that will stand up to the injustices,” he said.

However, the lack of infrastructure in developing countries restricts open education; underrepresented students are simply missing the computers and internet connection needed to access online courses. To address this, the University of South Africa is constructing brick and mortar buildings where students can stream online content. “It’s a challenge that can only be afforded by universities that have the means,” Makhanya said.

There is still a way to go before reality meets the dream of open education, said panelist Sanjay E. Sarma, director of digital learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. “For all the great work we’re doing, our gender diversity is rather abysmal right now, and a lot of the people taking our courses are very well educated people or the children of very well educated people,” he continued. “So we have a lot of work to do to make sure that underprivileged child or adult is taking the MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course, one of the main tools of open education."

In the coming years it will also be important to determine how to best train, support, and reward the professors who give open education courses; what sort of credit or degrees should be awarded to those who pass the courses; and how to build a community of online students who can network and learn from one another.

On the whole, however, the panelists remained undaunted. Open education will play an important role around the world, they said, as long as it enables quality learning. “Now, more than ever, the point is not knowing something, but knowing what to do with what we know,” said panelist Monique Canto-Sperber, President of Paris Sciences et Lettres in France. “Traditionally, the notion of education involves forming the mind – that is to say, internalizing resources and transforming them into personal assets." If the spirit of inquiry and the ability to apply what’s learned can also be imparted, she continued, “online tools of education could challenge restrictive access to universities, giving all students a way to access the best education.”

"The work we are highlighting this week through the Kavli Prizes are examples of excellence in science and in long-term curiosity,” President of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters Nils Chr. Stenseth said in his welcoming remarks. “By taking advantage of the internet and technologies, we might indeed be able to provide such excellent science training all over the world, including the less developed parts."

"It’s been said that a well-educated public is essential to a well-functioning democracy,” said Robert W. Conn, president and CEO of The Kavli Foundation. "Science matters. Education matters. The future democracy is really going to depend on how well countries do in those kinds of subjects, particularly in education."