Learning without boundaries through online courses

  • Nation
  • Friday, 19 Sep 2014

EXCLUSIVE: Malaysians are exploring niche areas of study via online courses, and it’s shifting the educational landscape.

PETALING JAYA: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are about widening my horizons and going out of my comfort zone to learn things I did not get to pursue in university, says computer science graduate and IT service provider Ricky Soo.

Soo is among an increasing number of Malaysians actively pursuing Massive Open Online Courses and believe they are a valuable educational tool that expands one’s knowledge and skills, at virtually no cost whatsoever.

MOOC portals have popped up in the last decade, but only gained real prominence of late. Some of the well-known ones are Coursera.org, Stanford Online, Open Education Europa, edX, and udemy, which offer hundreds of free courses from top universities worldwide.

Courserian Soo , who actively organises local ‘meetups’ between other Courserians and online learners, says he delved into MOOCs because he wished to discover new things.

Soo is one of the administrators for the Coursera Malaysia Study Group (not affiliated to Coursera), created for members to discuss and share their MOOC experiences.

To date, the Facebook group has over 200 members, though only a handful show up for the meetups.

“The first meetup I organised, only seven people turned up. Each person shared something they learnt on Coursera. We then did a few follow-up sessions on learning in general, and those became popular,' he explains.

These meetups, Soo says, are important to retain the social aspect of learning, as MOOCs limit the amount of physical interactions and discussions between students.

The peer assessment format is also a refreshing change from the norm, says Soo, who is a firm believer in the “wisdom of the crowd”. 

“When you have such a large number of students in one class, those assessing your work are anonymous and also random. They have no motivation to be biased or unfair towards you,” he said.

With the growing appeal for MOOCs, which also provide paid options for those seeking further accreditation, Soo believes traditional institutions will struggle to cope if they cannot reinvent their business model.

“Definitely, it is going to be quite hard for some tertiary institutions, especially if educators are not open to it. But disruptive change can be good, as long as they are prepared to embrace it.”

Evolving from the concept of distance learning, MOOCs provide a full-fledged learning environment in the form of lecture videos, notes, reading materials, assignments and discussion forums.

They have no age limitations or restrictions based on academic qualifications as MOOCs commonly cater to beginners. Advocates say it is the perfect platform for students and professionals, both young and old, to seek niche areas of study outside the domain of conventional education.

But despite the apparent ease with which they can be pursued, online learners believe there are challenges for Malaysia to adopt MOOCs holistically .

School teacher Apple Aipei, 26, says the relative rigidity of the local education format will make adapting to MOOCs harder.

“In Malaysia, we have a fixed path to follow, from primary school all the way to a university degree, and perhaps Masters and PhD. In the West however, people are more likely to experiment with different learning pathways.”

Apple, who has completed several MOOCs in the past, also believes employers have yet to value the certificates and qualifications obtained via this method.

Fellow Courserian Dr Foo Chee Yoong, 33, agrees, saying that during interviews he had attended in the past, companies were surprised to find out that he possessed these “side qualifications”.

Dr Foo, who works at a research institute under the Health Ministry, says staff in his department are encouraged to upskill themselves by taking up MOOCs.

“MOOCs are a more cost-effective way to train your staff, because getting expertise from outside is expensive and time consuming. 

“However, despite the push to upskill, very few staff actually take up the offer. We try to provide incentives, but the response is still lukewarm.

In Malaysia, one of the main proponents of the online learning initiative is MyMobileUniversity, a platform that hosts hundreds of online and digital learning resources, including MOOCs.

Its chief operating officer, Rani Wemel, says the portal was set up to provide free and quality education to a larger segment of the population, many of whom are not privileged enough to gain access to such learning platforms.

“MyMobileUni started out as a one-page CSR (corporate social responsibility) project ten years ago. But it has since become a social enterprise, with over 20 channels on our webpage linking access to a range of online learning resources.

“We have content for all ages and for all disciplines, whether its marketing, branding, health, academia, or even pre-school learning,” she says,

Wemel, who is also co-founder of MyMobileUniversity, believes it has become increasingly crucial for graduates to leverage on online learning in order to re-skill or upskill themselves, which would altogether improve their job prospects.

With over 2,000 MyMobileUni subscribers to date, she feels educators should not be afraid to embrace this new form of learning.

“Malaysia has the infrastructure to implement this, and in fact, it has already been outlined in the National Education Blueprint. It’s only a matter of setting an effective timeline and not delaying its implementation.

“MyMobileUni also has special focus channels for teachers to equip themselves with new content, basic things like optimising the use of online learning aids. It is a way for them to upskill themselves,” she said.

The next step for MyMobileUni is to encourage corporations to get onto the bandwagon and train their staff through digital resources.

“We are currently approaching these organisations and asking them to create a channel with us for a nominal sum. We will help them curate the learning resources they think is useful for their staff," says Wemel, adding that the company recently launched its iOS and Android mobile applications to enable greater access to learning resources ‘on the go’.

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