Think different: learners in charge

MOOCs have provided an incredible opportunity for millions of people to gain access to educational resources. From nuclear physics to supercomputing, liberal arts to philosophy, the Internet and educational platforms can teach anyone anything they want to know.


There have never been more opportunities to learn, more resources to learn from, or more enjoyable ways to learn.

Maker education revolution

Conventional education is struggling to provide the learning environment necessary to help raise the future innovators, problem solvers, and entrepreneurs that advanced societies need. Maker Education offers a model for education in the 21st century.

“Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humor.”
— Stuart Brown

To a large extent, the conventional, industrialised education system has indoctrinated people over several generations to believe that learning is something that happens at school, under the guidance of a teacher. So many people were brought up to believe that learning ends when school ends. The belief that knowledge is sourced from an authority, and is accessed in a passive way, was common in the 20th century.

This is changing.

In the last few years of the 20th century, and increasingly more recently, a new understanding of the mechanics of learning is starting to make headways. The Internet, affordable personal access devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones, and abundant learning materials like books and CD/DVDs, has made education accessible to a lot more people. The diversity of topics available to learn today is also staggering compared to what was available 20 years ago. From nuclear physics to supercomputing, and from liberal arts to philosophy, whatever a person wants to learn can be learned.

The Internet has been a catalyst for this learning revolution. Rapid advances in fibre optic cable connectivity has connected continents across the globe so that data can flow at almost the speed of light, and knowledge can be accessed within moments. Discovery engines like Google, have organised the world’s stored knowledge so that anything can be found, no matter where it’s stored. The proliferation of artificial intelligence powered, speech-based user interfaces like Siri (1), Google Assistant (2), Alexa (3) or Cortana (4), mean that people that can’t read or write can find the knowledge they are looking for. Dyslexia or illiteracy is no longer a barrier to entry to the Internet of Knowledge.

Organised collections of educational materials, like Wikipedia, Khan Academy and even YouTube (also a popular destination for people looking for entertaining cat videos), powerful and low-cost access devices, primarily laptop computers and tablets, and the maturity of content creation technologies like video cameras and presentation software have resulted in the explosion of the number of people who not only consume educational content, but also create it.

One of the results of all the, is the emergence of an online education marketplace in which experts create and publish their content at very low costs or free. Learners can find content in their area of interest very quickly and on-demand, and consume it when they are ready, without any obligation to operate under schedule.

One of the original contributors toward this education marketplace was MIT through its OpenCourseWare (5) initiative (MIT OCW). Starting in 2001, MIT began the process of publishing the content of the courses it already offered in its campuses to a worldwide audience, for free. Anyone could access this content, and learn from it. Videos from the actual lectures and world-class professors, course notes, workbooks and assignments were all were made available to anyone with a computer and access to the Internet. By 2015, 80 MIT courses had all the lecture videos recorded and published as part of OCW. In total, content from over 2300 MIT courses were made available online.

In 2011, OCW started to offer courses specifically designed for independent learners. These are called OCW Scholar courses. They offer more in-depth coverage of the topics presented in a way that is more compatible with the needs of self-learners.

MIT was not the only elite institution publishing its content for everyone to access. Stanford publishes many of its courses online, for free, specifically targeting independent lifelong learners worldwide. Whether you wish to learn (or relearn) calculus, big data, cryptography or storytelling, Stanford has a course for it.

But it isn’t only elite universities that are adjusting to a changing world. The educational industry as a whole is responding as well. Many startups were set up to specifically address the market need for online education, anytime and anywhere. They implemented a variety of different models as themselves are still trying to understand what works and what doesn’t. These tend to fall under the general descriptive term of ‘Massive open online course’, or MOOC.

After pioneering providers like MIT OpenCourseWare, OpenLearn (6) (Open University) and Stanford Online (7) showed that online education is a viable and engaging way to provide massively personalised education on a massive, global scale, many new profit and not-for-profit organisations began to participate.

Udacity, Coursera, and MIT edX, to name a few, appeared after 2011 and became successful and established MOOC platforms. They are still dependent on traditional high-education institutions for their content and legitimacy. Their success prompted entrepreneurs to attempt the next step in the evolution of MOOC, by creating platforms targeting content creators with no formal affiliation to a degree-granting institution, for students who are interested in more informal educational experiences.

Khan Academy (8) has innovated in the way that complex topics are presented to students of all ages. This is a not-for-profit organisation with financial backing in the form of donations from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Google and many others. The videos produced by Salman Khan are innovative in their use of electronic ink on the screen instead of a marker on the whiteboard, and his ability to deconstruct complicated topics, from mathematics to history, to simple, short lectures that the student can assimilate quickly. Khan Academy also uses gamification, a term used to describe the use of techniques and practices from the video game industry to make tests feel more like a game. The expected result, is that through gamification, student engagement with the content is increased.

Another MOOC that has shaped independent learning over the last few years is Udemy (9). Udemy’s innovation was in its decision to tap on the expertise of people outside of established, conventional education. For Udemy, anyone can be an instructor, just like anyone can be a learner. But unlike Khan Academy, Udemy is a for-profit business, and shares the revenue it earns directly from students with its instructors. This business model has resulted in thousands of people with a passion for teaching to monetise their dedication and skills by producing courses that thousands, and in some cases hundreds of thousands, of students can access for a small price.

The emergence of MOOCs in its many forms has been an incredible opportunity for millions of people to access educational resources. We can argue that this kind of revolution in the way that knowledge is disseminated has only been observed twice before in human history: after the invention of the Gutenberg press in the Holy Roman Empire by Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith in 1440, and after the invention of the World Wide Web in 1992 by Tim Berners-Lee, an English scientist at CERN in Switzerland.

While there is a lot of educational activity activity in cyberspace and the Internet through the various MOOC platforms, the opportunities for learning are not confined there. There is plenty happening in the ‘real world’. The effect of globalisation, and global trade and the dramatic advancement in manufacturing, has led to countless high-quality physical educational products at very low prices. While in the 1980s and 1990s hardly any school would have been able to afford a microscope for doing biology experiments or an electronics kit for learning electronics, these learning tools are now within comfortable reach of most people, at least in the developed world.

A microscope with 200 times magnification can be purchased for $50 and can give a child a detailed view of the microcosm. The microscope can even be connected to a computer via a standard interface so that these images can be captured and shared online with friends and colleagues, or digitally enhanced and optimised with free image manipulation open source software.

Children can learn electronics with the help of inexpensive kits that contain microcontrollers, motors, lights, mechanical components, wires and prototyping areas. They can even program robots before they can properly read and write by using graphical programming languages.

People can convert their home into a chemistry lab with a $50 chemistry kit, and use it to learn how digestion works by observing how carbohydrates, proteins and lipids react to different digestive enzymes.

“Learning never exhausts the mind”
— Leonardo Da Vinci

People can convert their backyard or their balcony into an observatory and learn about the Moon, the planets in our solar system, constellations and galaxies using a $100 telescope.

Mineralogy, geology, palaeontology, crystals, physics, medicine, electronics and much more is all within reach of more learners than every before, using near-lab-quality materials and a good dose of experimentation.

Aristotle said that learning should be done best by doing:

“Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it … We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate ones, brave by doing brave ones.” (10)

The good news is that, in almost every conceivable way, the best time in human history to be learning anything is today. There has never been more knowledge to learn, more resources to learn from, and more fun ways to learn. 

Interesting readings

Maker Education Revolution

Learning in a high-tech society.

Available in PDF, Mobi, ePub and paperback formats.

Using Maker Education as a model for education in the 21st century, Dr Peter Dalmaris explains how teachers, parents, and learners can apply the educational methods of inventors and innovators for the benefit of their students and children.

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