What would Constitute Evidence that Open Education is helping a Global Economy?

July 23, 2012 at 2:07 am 8 comments

Another piece, this time in the NYTimes, makes the claim that open education will have vast impacts on the global economy, especially in the developing world. Set aside that it’s very hard for any education interventions or reform to have economic impacts, it’s clear that any education effort has to be broad and touch many people to have an economic impact.  Daphne Koller makes a comment in the Chronicle about Coursera “changing the lives of millions of people.” Does it? Will it? Do we have any evidence than any on-line site does? Notice that ALISON (an Irish system described in this piece) admits that the bulk of its learners are in the developed world. There are developing-world users of MIT OpenCourseware, but not a large percentage and those users are mostly just getting a piece of information, not doing long-term studying (as best we can tell from the usage statistics). The results on the new MITx course are just out, and they’re mostly serving US, India, and UK, with 7K students finishing.

What kind of usage would lead us to believe that an open education site is having an impact on the global economy?  I completely believe that open education has the potential to have a huge impact. The question is: is it? What measure are we hoping to achieve that would indicate that we’re on the right track?  If we didn’t achieve that standard, how do we need to change/improve the model so that it did?

I don’t need job stats or improvements in GDP to be convinced that open education is reaching that impact. Let’s consider the statistics given below. We have a worldwide shortage of 40 million college students, the article says, and it’s probably a much greater shortage in the developing world (e.g., if you count available job openings, you’re not going to count jobs that don’t yet exist but might if there was a dramatic improvement in education and entrepreneurship). How about if one of these sites had 1 million students (which still means it’ll take 40 years to address the shortage), in the developing world, each of which visit the site more than four times in a month, spends more than 3 hours on-line, and actually posts something (homework, feedback to peer students) at least once a week? That feels like a minimum to indicate real studying at a scale great enough to potentially have an impact. Can we find those kinds of statistics for any of the sites? Perhaps for all of the open education sites summed together?  At 100K students per course, it’s conceivable that we could reach that goal — if the students stuck around.

If we’re not seeing that, is there something wrong with our models? Maybe there are other factors that we’re not yet identifying that prohibiting open education from having the broad reach that could result in an impact on the global economy.

This is good news for everyone, but it is particularly good for the vast number of people around the world whose job prospects are constrained by their skill levels and who lack the resources to upgrade them through conventional training. It’s a problem that a company based in Ireland called ALISON — Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online — is helping to address with a creative model.

ALISON provides free online interactive education to help people acquire basic workplace skills. It’s not a megasite. It has a million registered learners, the bulk of whom live in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Nigeria and the Middle East, where ALISON has 200,000 students. It is adding 50,000 learners each month, but the kinds of services it offers are likely to proliferate in the coming years.

To understand why, we only have to think back to last week, when the big news was the release of the June jobs report, which found that the unemployment rate had stalled disappointingly at 8.2 percent. As always, the story behind that number is more noteworthy than the political spin it gets. According to the Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for people in “management, business and financial operations” is nowhere near 8.2 percent; it’s only 3.8 percent. For workers in “installation, maintenance and repair,” it’s 5.3 percent. It’s workers in certain occupations — like “transportation and material moving” (10.3 percent unemployment) and “construction and extraction” (13 percent) — who are experiencing the most severe economic pain.

That’s because the skills of many workers are increasingly out of sync with the demands of the job market, and the gap is likely to grow, particularly given that only a minority of companies provide formal training to employees. This isn’t just an American problem, however. There are 200 million unemployed people around the world, 75 million of whom are youths, and many lack rudimentary workplace skills — the ability to use a computer, make a budget, communicate in an office environment. According to a study published last month by the McKinsey Global Institute, by 2020, the world will have a surplus of up to 95 million low-skill workers and a shortage of up to 40 million college graduates.

via Open Education for a Global Economy – NYTimes.com.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Gary Stager, Ph.D. (@garystager)  |  July 23, 2012 at 3:15 am


    I’ve been teaching online for more than 15 years and even think I have a handle on how to do so in a student-centered constructionist fashion.

    That said, not a single one of the prophets proclaiming the profits to be found fron online learning has addressed the economics of it. How will faculty be compensated, especially if courses are free and ”open?” What does a credit-hour mean online? I taught 1 credit course that required as much of my time online as a 4 credit course, but was paid 1/4 as much.

    There are a zillion other labor issues that need to be resolved, especially since so many moneyed interests want to replace teachers with YouTube videos.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  July 23, 2012 at 6:53 am

      Hi Gary,
      It’s a good point. If we were going to scale up MOOCs to have an impact on a global economy, we’d need to resolve these economic questions. Eventually, the VC funding for Coursera and Udacity and EDx will dry up, long before we create 40M graduates.

    • 3. Andy Ko  |  July 23, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      One possibility is that we’ll just keep the economic model we have now: college students (and states) subsidize MOOCs indirectly by paying tuition, which pays faculty salaries. There’s still Coursera’s funding to work out, but it’s possible that university’s might just pay a subscription fee for the courses they offer. The economic benefit to universities would be positive press and advertising, like it is now.

  • 4. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  July 23, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    I doubt that online courses will help at all with “many lack rudimentary workplace skills — the ability to use a computer”. There is a certainly level of computer access and literacy required before an online course is even potentially useful.

    Coursera has to improve a lot to offer much competition with universities (see http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/coursera-course-catalog and associated comment).

  • 5. Seth Chaiken  |  July 23, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    Re: Low usage of MIT OpenCourseWare and similar resources by students…What about faculty, including those in developing countries, who access these resources for information to support their teaching? The impact would be greater than what the usage statistics would indicate.

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  July 24, 2012 at 3:55 am

      Agreed, that would amplify the impact. I wonder how we’d measure that.

  • 7. AMERICAN KIDS ARE UNEDUCATED / Economy / Dr. Pinna  |  July 25, 2012 at 9:23 am

    […] What would Constitute Evidence that Open Education is helping a Global Economy?(computinged.wordpress.com) […]

  • […] I agree with the importance of reaching underserved populations, I am not convinced that MOOCs are currently having much of an effect in the developing world or to broaden participation to students who don’t have much […]


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