It was a revolution moving higher education from bricks to clicks… and now it’s started to go back to bricks again.
Online university providers, which offered people the chance to study from home, are turning full circle by creating a network of learning centres where students can meet and study together.
Instead of demolishing the dusty old classrooms of academia, the online university revolution is responsible for opening some new ones.
Coursera, a major California-based provider of online courses, is creating an international network of “learning hubs”, where students can follow these virtual courses in real-life, bricks and mortar settings.
And there are thousands of meet-ups in cafes and libraries where students get together to talk about their online courses.
This is the latest stage in the rapid evolution of so-called Moocs – massive open online courses – where some of the world’s leading universities have created digital versions of courses which are offered free over the internet.
Coursera now has seven million registered users. That’s bigger than the entire university populations of the UK and France combined.
But it seems there is an irresistible social side to learning. Finding stuff out together seems to be more appealing than following a course alone.
The Coursera learning hubs are running in more than 30 cities, from Baghdad to Buenos Aires, Moscow to Mumbai and Shanghai to Santiago.
The learning hubs are run by partner organisations, providing a place where students following Coursera online courses can come to study together and get help from mentors.
In Moscow, the learning hub is hosted by Digital October, a centre for technology and entrepreneurship. Yulia Lesnikova, director of educational programs, says it provides a more sociable way of following online courses.
“Education is a two-way process… It’s a shoulder to lean on,” she says.
Students can work in groups on practical projects together with experts available to give advice.
“Mentors give a lot of help to people who don’t understand.”
‘Like a village’
There have been four online courses so far followed in the Moscow learning hub. This includes a course about genetics created by the University of British Columbia, with students in Moscow being supported by an expert from one of Russia’s oldest genetics institutes.
There is a course on gamification from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, with sub-titles in Russian.