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By JONATHAN DASON
brats@thestar.com.my

DESPITE being enrolled for a diploma in Communications and Media Studies at a local university, Muhammad Hafiz Mohd Hidzir is also taking an online course in Computer Science offered by Harvard University via its massive open online course (MOOC) platform, edX.

“I did not want my interest in information technology to go to waste,” said the 19-year-old.

With over seven million people registered at websites offering MOOCs like Coursera, the MARA University of Technology student is just one of many students taking online courses that are different from their own educational backgrounds.

Although online learning has been around for decades, inroads for students have only been made in recent years.

With the New York Times crowning 2012 as the “Year of the MOOC”, this education format is heralding change in the education sector by offering courses to a world wide audience, and all that’s needed is an Internet connection. Even though MOOCs, in general, do not award recognisable certificates, the courses, however, are offered for free.

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Web learning: Coursera (top) is a website that offers massive open online courses (MOOC), something which Harvard University in the United States (above) also does through a dedicated platform, edX.

Professor Dr Mushtak Al-Atabi, the man who pioneered the first MOOC offered by a Malaysian university commencing in March 2013, compares the taking of a MOOC to reading a book. “No one gives you a certificate for reading a book,” he said, adding that a person would read a book to gain more knowledge and acquire new skills. “So, a MOOC is an opportunity for a person to learn.”

The professor, who is also the dean of the school of engineering at Taylor’s University, shared that previously, people had to go to a university or attend a pricey training course to learn. “But now, you have the entire world to pick from. There are MOOCs on almost anything and they are done by various professors from a variety of institutions.”

Despite increasingly massive enrolment figures – the course “Beauty, Form and Function: An Exploration of Symmetry” by Nanyang Technological University in Singapore attracted upwards of 13,000 enrolments – MOOCs are often plagued by low completion rates, with many critics seeing it as an indictment of the MOOC format.

However, co-founders of Coursera, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, pointed out to The Chronicle of Higher Education that most students who register for a MOOC have no intention of completing the course.
“Their intent is to explore, find out something about the content, and move on to something else,” said Koller.

Mushtak sees MOOCs as a tool to up excellence, saying “an excellent lecturer can teach up to a 100 students once or twice a week. But if you put that lecturer on a MOOC platform, he or she can reach up to thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people.”

The Professor revealed that the reputation of an institution is placed on the line when they decide to run a MOOC. In his words, “success, like failure, will be public. A bad lecture could be damaging to the institution.”

Taylor’s University recently launched a MOOC on the OpenLearning platform which aims to not only equip students from the university but also students from the rest of the world to build and fund their own companies. The 15-week course, Global Entrepreneurship, is a collaborative course between Taylor’s University, the Education Ministry, OpenLearning and Australian crowd-funding platform Pozible.

So far, over 1,500 people from over 100 countries have signed up for the course. A scroll through the MOOC’s OpenLearning page reveals a country leaderboard with the captions “This course represents the world” followed by “When one in 72,000 people in each country joins, this will be the first truly global MOOC.” Professor Musthtak explains that the number is derived from the ratio of a country’s number of citizens to the world’s population.

Partaking in a MOOC that comprises a global student audience could be particularly challenging, especially when it requires students to form teams to work on projects.

“It’s a concern, whether discussions (in the group) can be carried out effectively as the members of the group may come from different time zones,” said Vivian Po, a student currently taking the Global Entrepreneurship course. The 25-year-old would naturally prefer her questions answered right away, rather than having to wait for her messages to be replied the next day.

Being easily accessible and entirely available online means that MOOCs provide a unique opportunity for people to connect and learn in ways that have been rarely seen before.

“Education not only liberates, it also empowers” said Musthtak. “We have to face it, there are many people in the world who would like to receive an education but don’t have access to it. Now, all you need to do is to give them access to the Internet and everything will work out fine.”

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