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How iversity is championing online learning

This exciting European online platform is attracting learners from all over the world.

Safeera Sarjoo
20th June 2016
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When you research online learning, a lot of the stats and facts come up relate to the landscape within the US. While the UK is starting to find ways to integrate online learning and people are becoming savvier when it comes to choosing how they get an education, we haven’t seen much in the way of the wider European landscape.

Cue iversity, which is an online platform that offers a number of courses for people in various languages. As an established presence in the European region delivering online courses, we were keen to speak to the founder, Hannes Kloepper, who established iversity and find out his thoughts about the online educational sphere.

How did you come up with the idea of iversity?

I co-authored a book on the future of university in 2010 called The University of the 21st Century: Teaching a new Enlightenment at the Dawn of the Digital Age. I wrote this with a philosopher of Science, Yehuda Elkana, who came at it from the perspective of his experience as a university leader and administrator who asked what universities should be teaching at the very core. My perspective was how should they go about teaching it, what role and impact is technology going to have on the way we teach and learn in tertiary education. We brought these perspectives together and after we had produced the book I thought it was time to do something about this in practice.

So iversity essentially offers online courses in a number of languages and these are available to people all over the world.

Yes, that’s correct. We started out as a platform for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which are free courses open to anyone in the world with the option to purchase a certificate and an exam. We have recently added courses that are aimed at more corporate customers.

In the US, the online learning landscape is thriving, meanwhile there seems to be slow progress in the UK. What’s the online learning landscape like in Europe?

When it comes to university education in the US you have the Babson Research Group publication that is produced by the Pew Foundation and they posed the question, ‘what percentage of students take at least one online course’ and you see that roughly a third of American students are taking at least one course online. I don’t know if there’s a similar measure for Europe or European countries, all I can say is in Germany for example, there is one institution that I know of that offers a full online degree. No public university does and that’s pretty crazy. There is of course distance education offerings but you still have to go to exam centres – there’s no way you can just do it from your desk. That says a lot. Of course the market is much more mature in the US and somewhat mature in the UK as well. I think Germany is still lagging behind quite a bit. In the corporate setting things look a bit different even though what companies do for the most part isn’t educational, it’s content delivery. It’s not really an education or experience that provides a learning environment for people to engage with material in depth. This is what we seek to do.

Why would people opt for an online course compared to a course taught at college or university?

The obvious reason is that it’s available anytime, anywhere. The flexibility of it is probably one of the biggest advantages. Then there are advantages that people don’t always appreciate. Online learning provides a different kind of diversity in terms of where people are from and what professional and educational background they bring and that can be quite enlightening. When you teach programming to someone, you just have to follow the rules, if you do that well, then you’ll learn how to code. But when it comes to other things like leadership or something related to strategy and communication, it’s really crucial to have other people and the experience they bring to the table to discuss those subjects so everyone can learn from one another.

What are some misconceptions people have about online learning and how do we combat those?

I think one is where people feel like you can learn statistics online but you can’t learn anything online that is more touchy feely or emotive. Subjects where people think you can only learn in a classroom, that’s exactly what we focus on. It’s not about right or wrong, or yes and no, black and white, but the shades of grey in between. When you have discussions in courses around leadership, strategy, PR or sales, then it’s usually the case where there’s not a definitive answer. Rather it’s this contextual truth that very much depends who you’re talking to and what it is you’re talking about and how you tailor your message to the specific context and this is exactly what we focus on teaching.

Have you ever taken an online course?

Yes, I have taken a number of courses however I haven’t thoroughly worked through a programme and sat an exam, mainly because since I established iversity, I’ve been very caught up with it. We constantly grab bits and pieces from here and there and discuss them so it’s more scattered.

With the exposure you have had with online courses, what’s your experience been like?

The fact that you have so many other people that bring their own experience, I find that quite fascinating. I often feel that there is more value in the content that is generated by the learners than what processes say because of course you can always go and read a book on any topic, whereas someone explains a theory in great detail and how things are suppose to work and you see how other people react. They then get to explain how that did or didn’t apply in agiven situation that they’ve encountered in their lives. Often this kind of interaction makes you really understand a subject in much more depth.

Do you think employers are becoming more accepting of candidates that have an online educational history?

That’s what we’ve heard from people who have taken our courses. They say they’ve included our courses on their CV or on online applications. We also see people post their certificate that they’ve obtained from our platform to their LinkedIn account, so yes I would definitely say that it’s gaining currency. One other piece of evidence is also that degree requirements are becoming less important or abolished entirely as is the case with Ernst and Young in the UK. They do not require you to have a university diploma to apply. If you can demonstrate competency in some other way, that’s fine. I think this is a very telling development.

What would you say are some areas for improvement in online learning?

I would say the issue of how you can learn things online that are non-discreet. We call it Active Social Learning because the active part is where you have to work on assignments and you have to really do the work, while the social element is learning from each other. One thing we are working on right now for example are video responses where you are presented with a situation; it could be in a sales context or a customer care context and then you are prompted to react to this situation, not in writing, but by giving a statement. So for example if you are asked what you would say to a person in a very specific situation, you then record a video response. That video becomes part of the course and people can give you feedback. There is this idea that you have peer to peer learning where you go from multiple choices to infinite choices because you can give all sorts of responses and I think this could be really exciting.

What kind of impact do you think online learning is having on the educational sector?

I think it’s a breath of fresh air. Things have been very static in many ways if you think about how society as a whole has changed in the last 100 years. It’s good for everyone involved in education that technology requires some rethinking of practices that have just been inherited without much regard to their efficiency.

What’s your favourite course on iversity?

We had a course Design 101 by a group of instructors from Sicily, Italy, which was really interesting. It inspired our thinking about didactics quite a lot because it was very community based and there were a lot of assignments requiring people to become active social learners.

Finally, where do you see iversity and online learning going in the next five years?

Really hacking away at what I described as the bigger challenge, making active social learning a reality where the interaction between people is as frequent and smooth as Facebook for example. Making that happen is already quite a challenge and there are of course other things you can do with artificial intelligence and creating robot tutors for people. A lot of the things around the authorisation of education are more complex than people think so I’m a bit sceptical of this whole idea of adaptive learning just because you need so much content, but I think by making social learning work really well that will give us something to chew on.

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