Opportunities for distance education are rapidly moving to a new level. In the last year, start-up ventures including several elite universities have released hundreds of quality, high-level courses online – for free.
Update September 2014: 4th edition now available for folder download includes Twelve Dozen Places To Educate Yourself Online For Free.
Many of these are appropriate for humanitarians. The only essential requirements are a reasonable broadband connection and a desire to learn.
However, it's certainly not all plain sailing: completion rates for online courses are typically less than 10% of those who begin. 'How to Succeed with Distance Education' is a brand new title in our Library, designed to beat those odds. It will help you plan your own study programme, gives techniques to reinforce the learning process and strategies to overcome problems. The last part of the book is directed to those who wish to embark on a research programme.
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The potential reach of online courses is massive. One new provider, Alison (Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online) has already signed up more than two million students to more than 500 online courses. Like most of the initiatives, it is for-profit but offers free courses in “the most important basic vocational skills and training that people need” – e.g. computer skills, learning English, basic accountancy, building a website, food safety. Moreover, “many of those accessing the free courses are at the margins of formal education - low-skilled workers, the unemployed and immigrants…within the coming months, India is expected to become the biggest source of learners, overtaking the UK and US. Nigeria and the Philippines are rapidly growing markets". [source: bbc.co.uk]
The free offerings from the universities are also worth investigating, for example those at EdX (www.edx.org), a non-profit collaboration between Harvard and MIT.
A project in Rwanda – kepler.org – is addressing low completion rates by combining such online courses with local teachers who can provide face-to-face lessons – one staff member per 30 students is sufficient. A US-accredited degree is the prize for successfully completing the $1,000-a-year course.
Why is this important? According to Kepler, “Only 5% of Africa's population is able to afford any form of university education. And even those wealthy few typically graduate at rates below 40%. Without access to quality higher education, the best students in many countries are unable to use their talents to move their countries forward—even students that graduate at the top of their secondary school class are unable to escape the poverty trap, and often return to subsistence agriculture.”