Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

The challenge of online education

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The following article deals with the topic “ Roundtable: Education and Media” which is currently discussed at the Global Economic Symposium in Rio. The author intends to enrich the discussion at the symposium with his personal stories and ideas.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

This morning’s panel on “Redefining Universities” at the Global Economic Symposium 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, posed some very interesting questions about the quality of online education and ways of measuring its quality given the explosion of courses available online.

This panel discussion was off-the-record, so any quotes I use will be anonymous.

The major concerns of the panelists was how to prepare global standards of quality assurance of online learning, given the rapid growth of for-profit educational courses that may not have quality as their main concern. There were many worries expressed too about the high dropout rates in higher education in general, and in online courses especially. “A poor person is already pressed for time having to work full-time, and then studying online on top of that can be very trying for them,” said one panelist.

Another panelist said that he thought making online university courses free of charge that lead to a degree was a mistake as this did not give students a sense of having a stake in their education, leading to much higher dropout rates. “Even if the student only paid $100 for each final exam they took, that would be enough of an investment in their education to give it value to them,” said another panelist.

Yet another panelist said he thought it was wrong to assume that absolutely everyone was suited to studying online for a higher degree, noting that standards for online technical learning that has traditionally been taught at vocational schools would be different from standards used to test university students.

The difficulties in certifying the quality of online courses, as well as testing those students who study online, was pointed out by the panel. They also pointed out resistance to accepting online degrees will come from traditional brick and mortar universities, especially the for-profit ones, as they will view online learning as threat to their existence.

I think all of these concerns are valid. Unfortunately in the world we live in today, most people still look askance at persons with online degrees, doubting their quality and credibility. Distance learning is unfortunately still looked at being third-rate at best, as many people think the lack of monitoring of the whole learning and testing process, that occurs in traditional classrooms, makes the value of online degrees highly suspect.

This is why global, or least regional, standards of quality of both the actual content taught in online courses and in the testing procedures is essential. I think that demanding that online students take final exams in a physical classroom with a teacher monitoring the process, would ensure that no one cheated on them, adding immensely to the credibility of all who earn online degrees. This would open more doors to such degree holders in terms of finding jobs, since employers would be assured that the job-seeker has met some minimum standard of quality education, and that they have not cheated their way to a degree.



rasheedabou Twitter: @RasheedsWorldRasheed

I am a Saudi-American journalist who grew up in Switzerland and Brazil. I studied at Swarthmore College in the US, and then worked for 20 years in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a reporter, editor and columnist in English-language newspapers. I moved back to Brazil in 2008, and am now a columnist on the Arab world for O Globo newspaper and a correspondent for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. I speak English and Portuguese fluently.