In 2012 the world of free online education, particularly in the field of computer science, has expanded and evolved beyond recognition. Collectively the Khan Academy, Codecademy, Coursera and Udacity offer 10 different free computer science courses. Udacity is one of the most recent start ups. Created by ex-Stanford professors, they have enabled free online education to become comparable to the university class room experience for the first time. Although the models of teaching differ between each company, they offer the same thing – an education where the only barrier to learning is access to the internet. This education revolution will no doubt have great implications for the developing and western world.
In the developing world, 115 million children under the age of 12 do not receive an education. Of these children 3/5 are girls and the likelihood of a child attending school correlates strongly with family wealth. In many countries primary and high school education is not free and many parents cannot afford to educate their children, with those that can often favouring their sons. The potential for these free online education courses in the developing world is immense. Through not charging fees or enforcing a strict classroom timetable online courses have the opportunity to remove the poverty, class and gender barriers to education. As with traditional class room education, these courses will help individuals become better educated, enabling communities to lift themselves out of poverty and experience the associated benefits, including better health, increased life expectancy and immigration opportunities.
In the developing world, free education has implications not only on an individual level but also country wide. Certainly, it is computational developments such as the Rural Telemedicine project in the Aravind Eye Hospital, Southern India that are furthering countries development. Educating individuals in computer science will enable these developments to be sustained without requiring outside intervention or aid.
The rise of online education also has the potential for impact in the western world. Indeed, it will make it far simpler for individuals living in rural areas to access educational resources and provides people with the opportunity to study at their own pace alongside a full time job. In the UK approximately 50% of people study at university, however the advent of new online education courses has the potential to increase this number greatly, possibly creating an (or furthering the) educational class system. Many believe an education class system already; that an Oxbridge or Ivy League education sets you apart from other degree educated individuals. Online degree courses will have to fit into this already existing system, potentially becoming a separate additional educational tier. In order for free online education to have the most impact on the western world it needs to gain the support of both the general public as well as businesses. Without public and business support, these online courses will remain at the bottom of the educational class system, below that of the traditional degree. Many of the online providers are already attempting to boost their standing within both communities. For example, Udacity and Coursera ensure that all their teaching staff have had previous experience in lecturing at well known universities. In addition, Udacity has recently announced their intention to run testing centres for individuals who wish to obtain official credit for the course to make them more desirable to employers.
In summary, online education has great potential to revolutionise learning and have a large impact upon society, with the biggest potential for social change being in the developing world. Maximising impact in the western world relies on generating buy in from the public and business sectors. Online education providers will have to focus on this first before this revolution can achieve its full potential.