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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Harvard grad did it all from home

Gregor Stuart Hunter is finally a man of Harvard. His mother is surely so proud, and his alma mater at St Andrews probably less so.
Illustration by Lee McGorie / The National
Illustration by Lee McGorie / The National
This week, I am finally a man of Harvard. Mother is surely so proud, my alma mater at St Andrews probably less so.

Except instead of commuting between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Abu Dhabi at no doubt prohibitive cost, I've just finished Harvard's introduction to computer science course from the comfort of my apartment on Reem Island.

The six-month course is a product of edX, a joint venture between Harvard University, MIT and other leading lights of United States education, but it is just one of many in an explosion of "massive open online courses" - known as Moocs for short.

Consisting of companies including edX, Coursera and Udacity - some of which are attracting venture capital - Moocs represent an effort to offer college and university-level teaching free of charge across the web. And they are causing fits of profound anxiety within academic circles.

With a slew of lacklustre for-profit colleges churning out mediocre graduates in the United States with limited skills but rampant student debts, a free college education is a tempting proposition.

And for the Arabian Gulf, which has attempted to increase its numbers of universities in pursuit of a so-called "knowledge economy", there are other challenges.

The establishment of large numbers of satellite campuses of overseas universities, such as NYU Abu Dhabi and London Business School in Dubai, has led to the number of universities in the UAE almost quadrupling in a decade. But low enrolment and concerns about whether the same quality of education can be offered overseas led some universities to close their UAE campuses, including George Mason University and Canada's University of Waterloo. Michigan State University closed its Dubai campus, shelved its undergraduate teaching and ultimately relocated to a smaller site where it offers a handful of postgraduate courses.

But how well do they handle the basics of education? I chose an introductory computer programming course, given that everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to will.i.am is urging me to learn coding, and the benefits of so-called "data journalism" are starting to be realised.

The course had started to yield results in the real world even before the final exam had been marked. A more sophisticated understanding of how to extract data from web pages brought the revelation that UAE credit cards charge about 20 per cent more in annual interest than those from the United Kingdom.

The course professors and their eager teaching assistants are quite literally world-class, but because edX performs none of the preselection and filtering upon admission, I'm sure some would-be students would be horrified by the level of difficulty.

The single biggest motivating factor was a deadline of April 15 for completion to earn accreditation from edX. Whether employers will look favourably on such courses - which are usually much shorter than a four-year degree - only time will tell.

But the idea that an online course is somehow less rigorous is dead wrong. As befits a Harvard education, it is hard going. Fuelled by Red Bull and Chips Ahoy, whole weekends were lost to days and nights spent writing, debugging and rewriting reams of code.

There were plenty of fellow students eager to introduce themselves and help out on the course's message board.

And the lack of a constraints in the physical campus means that thousands of them can take part - from Uganda to Argentina to Al Ain. But there's no easy way of socialising with your classmates or developing a future professional network, depriving students of the most lasting benefits of university outside of the classroom.

It was with a certain envy that I watched course professors handing out sign-up sheets for networking events with Silicon Valley venture capital firms.

For those reasons, it won't fully replace the university experience. But it offers something else - an opportunity for every bright young teenager - as well as those quite a few years past high school - with an internet connection who is unable to leave their home country to have a shot at a world-class education. Much smaller things have changed the world before.

 

ghunter@thenational.ae

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