As Massive Open On-line Courses become commonplace among leading universities and companies, experts weigh the risks and opportunities of e-learning and the implications for the future of education in Russia.

Some experts argue that it is very difficult to find the right balance between education and entertainment. Photo: Reuters

Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs) are a boon for businesses, self-taught students and universities. The revenues from self-paced e-learning courses will grow about 9 percent from 2010 to 2015 and reach almost $50 billion, according to the 2011 Comprehensive Report of the Ambient Insight, a market research firm that identifies revenue opportunities for global learning technology suppliers.

E-learning – which means education using the internet and multimedia tools – is becoming more commonplace not only in the U.S. (which accounts for more than 50 percent of the worldwide e-learning market), but around the world.

Ambient Insight predicts that India will see market growth of almost 60 percent from 2010 to 2015, followed by other Asian countries like China (about 50 percent), Malaysia (about 40 percent), Indonesia (about 25 percent). The list of the top 10 countries that will see five-year growth also includes some Eastern European countries such as Romania (38 percent), Poland (28 percent), Czech Republic (27 percent), and Ukraine (20 percent).

Meanwhile, Russia seems to be falling behind in applying e-learning techniques in education, as indicated by the 2012 report of the SeeMedia e-learning service agency, which conducts webinars and on-line training. Business education has spurred e-learning in Russia, but Russia has still failed to keep up with other countries like the U.S.  Educational experts say Russia may be lagging five-to-seven years behind the rest of the world.

The SeeMedia reports cites VP Group and Blackboard on-line service companies that estimate Russia’s share in the world e-learning market in 2 percent. Smart Education, a Russian internet portal, says that more than 30 companies deals with e-learning in Russia. Meanwhile, the portal echoes it introducing 35 top Russian e-learning sources.    

All this indicates that the e-learning market in Russia is in an embryonic stage. Yet the potential is estimated to be high: Russians spent about $10 billion annually to enroll in on-line courses in foreign universities, as the SeeMedia report cites The Economist Intelligence Unit. According to forecasts made in 2012, Russia’s annual growth in e-learning market might be 20-25 percent. 

At the same time, CNews Analytics assumes that business and corporate sectors are developing faster in this field, with e-learning in government sector hampered by conservatism in Russian universities, the lack of up-to-date legislation in this field as well as financial difficulties.   

Dmitry Repin, the director of the Moscow-based Digital October technology center which seeks to foster MOOCs in Russia, claims that Russia has no less potential to develop e-learning than other countries.

Yet he admits that Russia faced some problems, including the need to localize content by translating it from English into Russian and a difficult adjustment of online courses to Russian universities’ curricula.

How to motivate students to take e-learning is another difficulty, according to Repin. The need to develop game learning techniques, foster effective feedback and provide employment guarantees are yet further challenges. 

Repin believes that MOOCs might undermine the competiveness of Russia’s universities in the long-run.

“One day our best universities will face rivalry from the world’s other leading universities, which for three-five-seven years will improve their on-line programs and offer them in different languages,” he warns.  

MOOCs: Two-sided coin

While Russia tries to keep pace with the U.S. and other countries developing MOOCs, it should take e-learning with a pinch of salt while listening carefully to the skeptics. Those critical of MOOCs point out to lack of control from professors and the absence of face-to-face communication in e-learning regardless of numerous advantages of MOOCs (including flexibility, time-efficiency and convenience).

As a Gallup report on higher education and MOOCs found out in early May, in 2013, only 3 percent of college and university presidents in the U.S. believe that MOOCs are improving the learning of all students, with 28 percent strongly disagree with them and 31 percent questioning MOOCs.

“More than one in 10 (11 percent) say MOOCs are fostering creative pedagogical strategies,” the Gallup report adds. “Likewise, a small number (8 percent) say MOOCs are reducing the cost of education for students.”

To sum up, most U.S. university presidents raise their eyebrows at massive open on-line courses and question their quality and effectiveness, taking into account the amateurish nature of MOOCs that don’t guarantee that one will be competent and high-quality.

Amidst their warnings, one question comes to mind: Should universities really focus on MOOCs and invest in it their time, research and money? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to focus on improving the overall quality of education in Russia?

Jack Goldstone, U.S. well-known sociologist and professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, thinks that the biggest problems with MOOCs are low completion rates – as low as 1 percent.

“MOOCs will not be the magic bullet that allows for great education while bypassing the existing school complex,” he told Russia Direct. “People want MOOCs to do to schools what Amazon has done to bookstores.  But that won't happen.  Amazon took a product (books) that were delivered in one form – bound pages in brick and mortar stores – and delivered it a different from – digital pages transmitted on-line. But MOOCs are not just delivering the product MOOCs are not just delivering the product – they claim they are the product and can substitute for the existing product of in-class faculty engagement with students.”

Moreover, Goldstone doesn’t believe that MOOCs can help students build analytical and expression skills.

“So far, it does not look like this will work, any more than television or lectures on tape or correspondence schools have replaced conventional universities,” he said.

Some experts warn against one-size-fits-all approach in e-learning. For example, William C. Wohlforth, Daniel Webster Professor at Dartmouth College’s Department of Government, argues that “online works better for some subjects than other, and for some levels than others.”

“There is a risk of trying to use the technology for subject or levels for which it really does not work,” he argues.

At the same time, while talking about rivalry between e-learning and bricks-and-mortar education, he admits that MOOCs turns out to complement the traditional education rather than compete in most cases.

According to him, online material may be useful to bring some students unto speed on some subjects.  The growth of MOOCs has encouraged traditional institutions to think more about “what goes on in a classroom and what the benefits of direct faculty-student interaction are,” Wohlforth said pointing out using MOOC-like technology might optimize on-campus education and make traditional institutions much better.

“There is an old saying: The second mouse gets the cheese,” he told Russia Direct. “Moving too fast on MOOCs might have been costly mistake for some schools. It made sense for rich and big institutions to make this move first and figure out the model. In the end, my bet is MOOCs in one form or another are here to stay – not as transformative as boosters originally thought, but still a useful tool.”

Meanwhile, Goldstone argues that it is very difficult to find the right balance between education and entertainment.  According to him, MOOCs that do not make learning fun do not keep interest or motivate effort for learning.

Nevertheless, although MOOCs don't yet seem good at providing in-depth knowledge or skills, “they are OK for introductions to new areas or basic math or language skills,” he concludes.

At the same time, Digital October’s Repin is more bullish about e-learning. He believes that competitive capability of MOOCs will significantly increase in long run, when students start working not on academic disciplines in the framework of MOOCs, but rather on real applied projects of IT industry. 

“Now we need to try many different approaches, make hundreds of mistakes, but understand what exactly work better in online education and, then, create content in accordance with working and effective methods and technologies,” Repin said. “Because average professor in Russia is hardly likely to teach you critical thinking, you’d better develop effective technologies and then teach people this valuable skill in online regime by involving in this process superstars.”