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Can technology widen access to education?

Can technology widen access to education?

“Chickens are more complicated than you would think,” announces Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh.

If this seems an odd statement for a principal to utter, the context – the range of subjects available online from the university – is no more conventional.

O’Shea was speaking at Holyrood’s Learning Through Technology conference, taking the audience through the history of teaching technology, from the early beginnings of programming up until the present day.

Of particular interest is the use of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – freely accessible and open-licensed courses provided online.


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More than a million people have signed up to Edinburgh University MOOCs, which offers courses on subjects ranging from microbiology through to one focusing specifically on chickens. MOOCs are a subject which O’Shea is clearly enthusiastic about.

He says: “Last year we introduced the first real-time MOOC. During the Scottish referendum we had a MOOC that ran called ‘Understanding the Scottish Referendum’ and on a day-to-day basis it changed, because every day the polls changed and we didn’t know the outcome, because we didn’t know the outcome of the referendum. There had never been one before.

“Most of the MOOCs we offer are free. On the other hand, we have 64 online masters. If you do an online masters in microbiology or in equine health it is very helpful to have a MOOC on microbiology or equine nutrition.”

Around 40 per cent of users already have a masters, with a further 30 per cent already holding a degree.

“A year-and-a-half ago we had about three quarters of a million MOOC learners and about 50 online masters, comapred to about 30,000 students on campus. We are seeing more and more online masters and more and more online MOOCs.”

One big advantage to using digital technology as a teaching aid is its global reach, with MOOCs allowing the University to reach students in 200 countries. And the further technology spreads, the bigger the reach.

O’Shea says: “If you have the opportunity and you are really serious about education and computing, go to Uruguay.”

The reason? The success of One Laptop per Child, a project aiming to give every child a “rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop.” The project has been understandably challenging, yet Uruguay has seen success.

O’Shea says: “People tried to do it in the United States and failed. They tried to do it in the Republic of Ireland and failed. They tried to do it in France and failed. But in Uruguay every single child, even in areas where schools do not have electricity, are sitting there with personal computers.”

It is technology’s power to widen access to education that is perhaps most exciting. The most obvious example of this is in distance learning, though its potential does not end there.

Terry Trundley, Head of IT at Edinburgh College, explains to delegates how his team has created what he calls a “digital ecosystem”, which allows them to monitor where students come from and where they end up.

The data the team gathers can be held against the Index of Multiple Deprivation, allowing the college to better understand the success of its attempts to widen participation.

Another example is offered by Craig Mill from CALL Scotland, who runs through how communication and assistive technology can be used by people with disabilities – with software allowing dyslexic users to highlight or play text as audio holding huge potential for learning.

Clearly, though, there is still room for progress.

For a start, while MOOCs allow greater reach in delivering education, the vast majority of users are already well educated. Meanwhile, although online courses allow students to build up credits, there are still problems in getting different universities to recognise them.

And while the applications for technology are wide-ranging, there is still no substitute for human interaction in learning.

O’Shea acknowledges as much in describing the University of Edinburgh’s online masters in advanced surgery. To some, the idea of being given an online masters in something as important as surgery would sound worrying. 

The Edinburgh University principal rejects this. “It’s not scary, because you can only take the course if – a) you are a qualified surgeon, b) you are at a hospital that allows you to do surgery and c) you spend a fortnight at the end of the course being examined by the Royal College of Surgeons.”

In this sense, technology and traditional teaching go hand-in-hand. 

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