Online students can't help being sociable

Student and laptop Online university students want to talk outside the computer screen

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, 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.

Learning together

Coursera now has seven million registered users. That's bigger than the entire university populations of the UK and France combined.

Yulia Lesnikova Yulia Lesnikova says online students in Moscow enjoy studying together

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.

Online course at Digital October, Moscow Students following an online course at the Digital October learning hub in Moscow

When students are gathered for their Mooc classes it becomes a focus for other spin-offs, such as firms wanting to recruit staff or to get students involved in developing commercial projects.

In Beijing, the learning hub has been set up with Guokr, a Chinese science-based social networking website.

Yang Liu, Guokr's education director, says studying as a group provides a way of keeping students connected. It's also introduced the word "Moocer" into China, she says.

"Learning can be very lonely, they can drop out."

Yang Liu Yang Liu says the word "Moocer" is being used in China

It can be a more effective way of studying, she says. In a group of people there's likely to be a spread of knowledge, with students able to help one another.

"It's like a village, they form a small society."

It also allows for different types of learner to be supported. About half of the people following Coursera courses in Beijing are university students, she says.

Cutting drop-out rates

But there are also isolated individuals who like the social setting, such as older people living alone or mothers looking after children at home.

Yin Lu, responsible for Coursera's international development, says learning hubs have a wide range of local approaches. They can be based around tutors or around organised projects or else emphasise the social aspect of learning.

In India, the focus is on teacher training and professional development. It means that courses designed for students in the US or Europe are being played out in classrooms in New Delhi and Mumbai.

What has become apparent, she says, is that there is a much lower drop-out rate for students who attend a learning hub.

Moocs allow anyone to enter, with no barriers from cost or qualifications, but that also means relatively few ever finish a course. Ms Lu says that the typical completion rate for a Mooc is about 5% to 10%.

Learning hub, Digital October, Moscow Practical projects are run alongside the online courses

For Mooc students attending learning hubs, the completion rates are between 30% and 100%, she says.

Ms Lu says it's likely that more hubs will open where there are concentrations of Coursera students.

But she says there are no plans for these learning hubs to become fully-fledged colleges, where students might take exams as well as follow courses.

"We exist to complement what universities can provide," she says.

But it wouldn't be difficult to imagine the commercial possibilities if they changed their mind.

'Meet-ups'

There is something almost organic about how these digital projects have taken root in the physical world.

Pompidou Centre Pompidou Centre, Paris, one of thousands of locations for online study groups

Moocs were meant to be the university courses of the laptop era, self-sustaining and free-standing, with students able to stop and start materials on the internet and get online support from social networking.

But you can't stop people from wanting to talk to each other, outside the computer screen.

As well as the more formal learning hubs, self-organised "meet-ups" for Coursera students have sprung up in more than 3,700 cities around the world, based around specific Coursera online courses.

For example, in London there are groups meeting in cafes at the British Library and the South Bank Centre. In Paris, there are meetings in the Pompidou Centre and in university buildings.

Meet-ups are held in a whole range of public places, where students want to discuss and debate these digital courses.

They're scheduled and arranged online, with the only vital ingredients being a laptop, wi-fi and somewhere to talk.

Even virtual students want to have a cup of coffee and a conversation after a lecture.

Will students always want to meet up and talk, even if they are studying online? Will Moocs end up creating their own colleges and universities?

If you are happy to be contacted by a BBC journalist please leave a telephone number that we can contact you on. In some cases a selection of your comments will be published, displaying your name as you provide it and location, unless you state otherwise. Your contact details will never be published. When sending us pictures, video or eyewitness accounts at no time should you endanger yourself or others, take any unnecessary risks or infringe any laws. Please ensure you have read the terms and conditions.

Terms and conditions

More on This Story

More Business stories

RSS

BBC Business Live

  1.  
    08:01: HOME RETAIL PROFIT DROPS

    Homebase and Argos owner Home Retail Group has reported a 5% fall in half-year pre-tax profit to £13.5m. But like-for-like sales were up 2.9% at Argos, and 4.1% at Homebase. Chief executive, John Walden said the group expects to meet City expectations for its full year profit. But he added: "as always, the full-year outcome will depend upon the important Argos Christmas trading period".

     
  2.  
    07:48: BRITISH AMERICAN TOBACCO
    Cigarettes in their package

    Cigarette-pedlar BAT has said revenue for the nine months to the end of September grew by 2.4%. "Industry volume has declined at a lower rate than last year, but is being impacted by large excise-driven price increases," it said.

     
  3.  
    SUPERGROUP Via Twitter James Quinn Executive Business Editor, Telegraph

    tweets: "Strong comeback from Sutherland who fell victim to all he tried to achieve at the Co-op Group, and can be credited with rescuing Co-op Bank."

     
  4.  
    07:29: SUPERGROUP
    SuperGroup chief executive, Euan Sutherland,

    Former Co-op Group chief executive Euan Sutherland is back having been announced as chief executive of SuperGroup this morning with immediate effect. He was previously CEO of Kingfisher UK, which operates B&Q, Screwfix and TradePoint.

     
  5.  
    07:21: GERMAN GROWTH BBC Radio 4

    Germany has very low unemployment, Dr Stephanie Hare, senior analyst for western Europe at Oxford Analytica tells Today. "Making more jobs for Germany isn't the issue here," she says. "We need stimulus and investment in countries that are going to help boost the future of Germany's trading partners in the eurozone. So we can either increase demand in Germany, or Germany could be part of a wider European solution to increase stimulus in its eurozone trading partners." She points out Germany has benefitted from other countries investing and stimulating its economy once or twice in the past century.

     
  6.  
    07:11: EUROTUNNEL

    Eurostar results yesterday, Eurotunnel results today. Revenues for the third quarter of 2014 increased 7% to €343.9m (£271.5m).

     
  7.  
    06:57: UK BORROWING Radio 5 live

    "The main reason tax receipts aren't as high as you'd like is the increase in personal tax allowance," says Alan Clarke, UK and eurozone economist at Scotiabank on Wake Up to Money. He's talking about yesterday's disappointing figures. There are more people in work, though, which means less spending on benefits, he says. Low-paid jobs mean that doesn't help as much as you may think, points out presenter Mickey Clark.

     
  8.  
    06:47: GERMAN GROWTH BBC Radio 4

    Christian Schultz, senior economist at Berenberg Bank, tells the Today programme Germany needs to work on its infrastructure, but even if it started to work on inward investment now the effects would not be felt for several years. This as more political pressure builds on Germany to act to avert another eurozone crisis. But German inward investment doesn't solve the problem, he says. "How does Germany fixing some bridges make French and Italian entrepreneurs invest more?"

     
  9.  
    06:34: STORM POWER
    storm

    The UK's wind farms generated more power than its nuclear power stations on Tuesday, the National Grid says. The energy network operator said it was caused by a combination of high winds and faults in nuclear plants. Wind made up 14.2% of all generation and nuclear offered 13.2%. As BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin reports, for a 24-hour period yesterday, spinning blades produced more energy than splitting atoms.

     
  10.  
    06:24: CITY POWERS Radio 5 live

    On things like transport and education, local government can make better decisions, says Alexandra Jones, chief executive of the Centre for Cities, which does independent research and policy analysis on UK city economies on 5 live. "Whatever you're doing in a city, you have to balance the books, though, she says. Competitiveness on tax becomes a "race to the bottom" she adds.

     
  11.  
    06:13: CITY POWERS Radio 5 live

    "I think there's real momentum... this is the biggest opportunity in decades to transport the relationship with local government," says Mr Wakefield on 5 live. The debate for Scottish independence shows there are a lot of people interested in local powers, he adds.

     
  12.  
    06:04: CITY POWERS Radio 5 live

    Allowing UK cities to make their own decisions on tax and spending could boost economic growth by £79bn a year by 2030, a year-long study has concluded. "More people want local powers in Leeds," says Councillor Keith Wakefield, leader of Leeds City Council on Radio 5 live. He thinks councils can target some spending more efficiently.

     
  13.  
    06:01: Howard Mustoe Business reporter

    Good morning! Get in touch via email at bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or on twitter @BBCBusiness

     
  14.  
    06:00: Matthew West Business reporter

    Morning all. We have the latest minutes from the Bank of England's September Monetary Policy Committee meeting at 09:30; Argos and Homebase owner Home Retail Group publishes interim results before that and there are trading updates from GlaxoSmithKline, British American Tobacco and Everything Everywhere. We'll bring you it all as it happens.

     

Features

From BBC Capital

Programmes

  • Smart glassesClick Watch

    Smart spectacles go into battle – the prototypes looking to take on Google Glass

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.