Massive open online courses are just the newest component of a broad digital transformation that is occurring within the educational sector. It’s still too early to call them the future of Russian education.

The MOOCs industry will grow and expand over the coming years. Photo: AP

Russia’s launch of the Open Education online platform resulted in a lot of buzz in the nation’s education community. For the first time, Russian educators saw an attempt to integrate massive open online course (MOOCs) into a rigid educational system at the national level.

However, we should not forget that MOOCs represent only a tiny part of the tectonic changes that are happening in the educational industry now.

Thanks to the digital revolution, today we are witnessing the radical transformation of the educational system into the educational sphere, in which a predictable linear educational path is changing to a non-linear educational trajectory.

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While a decade ago, it was clear that a person has to pass through standard educational stages (primary school – secondary school – university); today one’s educational path can be absolutely non-linear.

Anyone can use the whole variety of tools to educate oneself: official degrees, training classes, online courses, private lessons, simulations, internships, Wikipedia, blogs, or even online games. In addition, MOOCs are just one of the possible instruments that a person can use in his or her educational path. Thus, there is no reason to overestimate their importance.

Probably, the biggest implication of MOOCs is that educational content becomes a commodity. In the previous era, possession of knowledge and education was one of the major differentiators for the elite, and universities were created to develop, store, enhance and transmit this knowledge to people.

Today, thanks to digital transformation and global connectivity, we are witnessing the rapid commoditization of knowledge and the democratization of access to it. The two most profound examples are Wikipedia, which has more than 35 million articles and MOOCs, with more than 16 million registered users around the globe.

It is clear that it is no longer important how much knowledge one possess, but the ability to make sense out of it and to apply it in real life. This means that, in any case, the Open Education project will not protect Russian universities from the competition. Success is the result not of the knowledge base, but of “sense making” ability.

For sure, the MOOCs industry will grow and expand over the coming years. What does it mean for institutions? Most likely, it will transform the industry structure, wiping out the majority of educational providers. As with the AppStore or Google Play, we will see a very limited number of “star” institutions or even individual teachers that will deliver massive courses (“massive” in this sense means courses for millions of people).

Other institutions will have either to focus on niche value propositions or become integrators of third party content, and this will dramatically transform their operating model. The third possible model is a platform where such courses will be taught, but there will not be many such platforms, either.

What Russia is trying to do now is to launch such a platform in order to secure its place early as the global leader in Russian-language education.

The biggest obstacle for MOOCs today is that the process of knowledge acquisition and retention is still very complex, and the Open Education project will face this challenge as well. For example, according to Knowledge Acquisition Pyramid, reading, listening and watching video helps to sustain only 35 percent of transmitted knowledge.

One needs to discuss and implement with practical examples in order to acquire necessary knowledge. This is one of the major reasons why companies do not accept MOOC certificates as a proof of competence so far.

What is interesting is how Russian universities will integrate these online courses in their curriculum.

Will they become an important part of degrees? Or, will they remain stored in the national online platform, providing just a one-time opportunity for Russian students to learn from the best national universities?

We do not know how the educational industry will look in the future. In addition, the reason for that is a total uncertainty around the role of an “educational guide,” or a subject, which will guide an individual through a personalized learning trajectory. In the previous pre-digital world, it was the school and the university.

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However, today these institutions become just particular stops on the educational path, along with diverse tools, resources and institutions. Who will play this important role: the school, the teacher, the family or some new player whom we still did not invent?

This is the main challenge that the educational industry is facing today, and not only in Russia.

The competition between formal and informal educational models is increasing, and universities will have to prove their relevance in order to sustain their position or even to survive. It is impossible to do so just by translating courses into an online format and placing them on a national or international e-learning platform.

This relevance is achieved by addressing the most critical challenges that individuals and society face, and by providing students with the best available educational resources located all around the world. This means a radical shift in mentality for educational institutions, which they will have to embrace if they want to stay competitive in a new and volatile world.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.