A bold step in educating the masses by Internet

November 24, 2012 

It is no secret that the Internet has drastically altered the mechanics of learning all around the world. And yet the endless permutations and advancements continue to fascinate and amaze. The changes in how knowledge is shared and how subjects are taught have been profound over the past two decades. As profound as during the years after Gutenberg’s printing press brought books to the masses.

And as we ponder these profound changes, we are struck by another similarity between the Internet age and Gutenberg’s 15th century. While the Internet is rife with wisdom and facts and information, it also can serve as a festering pool of misinformation. We’re guessing the same was said about books during Gutenberg’s time.

The influences of the Internet are endlessly interesting, which brings us to an Associated Press article that ran recently in The Columbian. The story chronicled how the concept of a Massive Open Online Course is the latest rage.

In the example presented, Peter Struck, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has 54,000 people from around the world taking his class this fall on Greek and Roman mythology. While the works of Homer, Sophocles, and Aeschylus might often be greeted with a roll of the eyes from students, more than 50,000 people are gladly viewing Struck’s lectures online for no purpose other than the gleaning of knowledge.

The idea of online courses is not new. Colleges throughout Washington and beyond have offered online learning for several years, and some high schools are now providing students with an opportunity to pass classes through online work during summer vacation.

But, as the Associated Press article suggests, the notion of a Massive Open Online Course, providing learning opportunities from elite colleges, has expanded the concept: “In a field known for glacial change, MOOCs have landed like a meteorite in higher education.”

The Internet-based courses are offered through Coursera, from a consortium led by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and they provide instruction from 34 colleges. Courses are free, and while they don’t yet offer college credit, that is an issue that the universities undoubtedly will be compelled to address in the future.

Whether or not somebody from Vancouver who has a love of learning can someday receive course credits from Harvard without leaving their living room remains to be seen. But for now, the idea of taking “Introduction to Astronomy” from Duke University, plus “Developing Innovative Ideas for New Companies” from the University of Maryland, plus “A History of the World Since 1300” from Princeton University is a delicious prospect.

Learning for learning’s sake is one of the great joys of humanity. Some six centuries ago, Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type transformed the knowledge that was available to the masses, ushering in an era in which literacy became widespread. These days, the Internet is forging a similar transformation.

And while the Massive Open Online Course is merely the latest innovation, it makes us eager for the next changes in the way the world learns.

The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)

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