A few months ago, an English friend of mine who is a retired senior banker living in Johor Bahru, came to me for help. His passport was due to expire and he urgently needed to renew it. He used to be able to renew his passport at the British High Commission in Singapore, but the system has now been changed completely. The only way to renew his passport was by way of the Internet, and he had absolutely no idea what to do. After I had filled up the form for him online, and had even taken a digital picture of him to go with it, I told him the incident reminded me of the old times in Singapore-Malaya, when an illiterate migrant Chinese worker would go to a “scribe” sitting on a little stool and a table and pay the scribe a fee to write a letter back to his village.
I think most of us now know the importance of being computer literate so I won’t labour that point. But is it enough for the next generation of children to be taught the 3Rs of Reading, wRiting and aRithmatics, and the use of computers? What will the future learning environment and future learning requirements be like?
Using computers and the Internet for distance learning started in 2006. Prior to that, distance learning in the form of correspondence courses and use of radio or television was tried—but never took off in a big way. Then in 2012, with the launch of Coursera by two professors at Stanford University, and Udacity by another Stanford professor, followed quickly by edX, which was started by MIT, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) hit the news in a big way. There were talks of MOOCs being a disruptive technology to the traditional learning environment of classrooms and teachers. Professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Kohler, co-founders of Coursera, were even named jointly by Time magazine as one of the top hundred most influential people in the world that year. Many universities joined in producing MOOCs, either using those well-formed platforms or starting their own.
However, it was soon noticed that only 5 to 10 per cent of students who signed up for those courses managed to complete them, and questions were raised regarding the hype. As with all new techno- logies, there would be a slow take-off phase, followed by more rapid take-off and hype with inflated expectations. That was the situation in 2012. Inevitably, that would be followed by a deflation of the hype, to be followed by a more realistic reassessment of the technologies and their contribution to society. I think we are now at that phase.
How are MOOCs different from the old-style distance learning? As the lectures are online, one can access the lectures, and even download them and watch them anytime at one’s own convenience. There are also extensive discussion forums associated with the courses, where one can interact with other students and the teaching staff. The forums are monitored by Teaching Assistants (TA) and one can pose a question, which could be answered by another more knowl- edgeable student or by a TA within minutes, if not hours. In the middle of the lectures, the lecturer might pose a question in the form of a multiple-choice question, which one has to answer before one can proceed. This is to ensure one has understood what has been said. Either within the course or at the end of the course, there would be “exam(s)” which one has to pass in order to get a certificate. To me, this is the weakest link in the system. Since the exams are not proctored, and though there is an honour code, which forbids help from other people when taking the exams, one is never sure about who has taken the exam. In other words, cheating could occur.
I will now speculate on what the future-learning requirements will be and then come back to show how MOOCs can dovetail neatly to those requirements. I will also proceed on the assumption that the predic- tions about the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on the job market will mostly be correct; that is, more people will be required to learn AI and be skilled in the maintenance of AI, and that many traditional jobs will become redundant.
For the retirees and those about to retire, MOOCs are a wonderful source from which they can learn subjects of interest to them when they were young (but were unable to do so because they didn’t have the time). When I was young, I was interested in philosophy and as- tronomy but was unable to pursue those disciplines as I was going to be a medical doctor. Now, I have taken eight courses on astronomy and an equal number of courses on philosophy. I was also interested in computers and AI, and now I have done courses in programming as well as a course on Machine Learning by Professor Andrew Ng. The retiree could also learn something from MOOCs to help their grand- children. There is now much evidence that show that children will benefit from being taught computer programming from young. MIT has developed a Lego-like virtual language called Scratch, for children to play and learn about programming. They have even developed an app called ScratchJr, which runs on tablets, and children as young as six can play with that. A retiree can learn how to do Scratch on edX, and this most certainly will equip the grandparent to help the grand- child. It also adds to bonding between the two. Incidentally, there are even courses that teaches one how to write music!
For those in the workforce now, MOOCs are a good way to upgrade one’s skill as well as to learn new skills. I will give one example of the latter. In my work as a medical doctor, I once met a medical graduate of a medical school in Myanmar. She could not get a license to practise in Singapore and so worked as a drug salesperson. In our conversation, I learnt that she was interested in clinical research so I encouraged her to do the course on Coursera on Clinical Research. A year later, I met her again. After having done that course, her company transferred her to the clinical research section! Most of the drug sales people are either pharmacy-trained or finance-trained. I always encourage the finance-trained to learn pharmacology from MOOCs and those phar- macy-trained to learn about finance. So, MOOCs can fill in the gaps in knowledge that is required in our working life.
A recent article in Forbes1 describes how Coursera is now working closely with the corporate world to develop courses for the teaching of new skills, especially AI, and the upgrading of skills required in the corporate world. According to that article , Coursera in 2017 had 500 corporate customers, up from 30 in 2016.
For many countries in the third world, providing tertiary education is an expansive undertaking. Take for instance Cambodia. During the Pol Pot era, virtually a whole generation of intellectuals was massacred, and now medical schools face a problem of recruiting teachers. I am on an advisory committee in one of the medical schools, on how to upgrade the school. An obvious answer is to use MOOCs for some of the lecture subjects that do not require hands-on experience, such as physiology and pharmacy—and they have taken up that suggestion. I understand that more than a few universities in India and Africa have also taken that approach. MOOCs are a boon to upgrading skills in the third world.
Regarding the potential loss of jobs due to AI, what can be done? Of course one can learn AI skills from MOOCs, but what about those who cannot? There are now talks of society providing Universal Basic Income (UBI) to solve the financial problem created by massive loss of jobs. But then, what does one do if one is jobless? It is not just a question of survival, but what does one do with the spare time? Sports? Partying? Going out with friends? MOOCs permit another avenue for one to spend one’s time—learning new things.
Even though there is much talk that the world is moving into the infor- mation age, we still need cooks and chefs, carpenters, plumbers, elec- tricians, cleaners etc. Not every person is suited for academic studies, book learning or MOOCs studying. Even with AI and robotics doing most of the work, we still need people in the service industries, and people who are good with their hands. Perhaps while extending the use of information technology, there is a need to expand training in skills that require human empathy and the use of one’s hands as well.
So what does the new learning environment look like? For the very young, to learn the basic 3Rs, plus computer usage. For older children and college youths, the classroom will still be in place, but that will probably be supplemented by the use of MOOCs. For the working adult population, MOOCs will play a more and more important part in the upgrading of skills and the learning of new skills, and, contrary to current wisdom, perhaps expansion of apprentice programmes for the training of some, who are not suited for knowledge-based work, in the art and skill of craftsmanship, that of using one’s hands to do fine work.
- Konrad, A. (2017, December 20). Coursera Fights to Keep the Promise of MOOCs Alive With Corporate Customer Push. Forbes. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexkonrad/2017/12/20/coursera-goes-corporate-to-keep-alive-promise-of-moocs
DR RONALD NG
Dr Ronald Ng is a clinical haematologist who at one time was Senior Lecturer at Hong Kong University and the then University College Hospital Medical School, London University. He was also a member of the Singapore National Medical Research Council when that council was first set up some 20 years ago. He has done over 125 MOOCs from Coursera, plus many from edX and lately four from Santa Fe Institute’s Complexity Explorer. He is also a Principal Mediator at the Singapore Mediation Centre.