Is the IMF Beating Colleges at Online Learning?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 6/24/2013 03:43:00 PM
There is a big debate raging in academia about the relevance of university education as we know it today: First, it is becoming increasingly expensive as salaries remain stagnant or even decline as in the US and other Western nations. Second, do what universities offer have relevant course content, or are they becoming increasingly isolated in ivory towers without much practical application? Third, doesn't a higher education degree become obsolete far more quickly nowadays with the rate of advancement in all fields of human endeavour?

More and more educators believe that today's university paradigm is outmoded--and I am one of those who are asking this same question. That is, what value-added does having a college degree really offer? One of the solutions proposed, of course, is delivering course content online via what they call Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) that can potentially deal with the issues raised above. First, delivering courses digitally allows universities to deliver courses--save for face-to-face interaction, of course--more cheaply and to a geographically broader audience. Second, material can be more readily tailored online to reflect the latest real-world trends and developments in various subject areas instead of sticking to the inbred world of folks who've been stuck in academia for years and years--like me! Third, updating of content is easier when you're not stuck with using sporadically updated textbooks and other dated course materials.

A potentially surprising vote of confidence in this idea is coming from, of all sources, the IMF. It faces the challenge of providing knowledge to many stakeholders in far-flung nations who wish to train officials better in matters of public financial management. Delivering technical assistance (i.e., advice) after all is one its main lines of business--see the table above taken from this 2011 IMF survey. What's more, it is in fact not hard up given steady incoming funding at this time because of various financial crises in different parts of the globe, but it is nonetheless moving with the times in trying to shift more courses online. Say what you will about the IMF--its critics are legion and include me--but it definitely has a 'brand' when it comes to public financial management. Unlike many middling universities, the IMF also does not lack takers for its educational services regardless of your opinion of its content:
The International Monetary Fund will make its training sessions on financial policy and debt sustainability available online this year to government officials worldwide, allowing it to reach a bigger audience at lower cost, it said on Wednesday. IMF financial workshops are meant to help governments address economic dilemmas and are currently held in eight training centers worldwide, meaning officials must travel and remain onsite for weeks, said Sharmini Coorey, director of the IMF's Institute for Capacity Development. That model is expensive for the IMF and its donor countries - and the classes fill quickly, Coorey said. In 2012, the IMF trained 7,800 officials in 270 workshops held in places like Singapore, Brazil, Kuwait and the African island of Mauritius.

"We have a lot of demand for our training and we don't have the scale to meet that demand," Coorey said. The online courses will be hosted by edX, a nonprofit consortium founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. So far, the platform has primarily been used to host massive open online courses, or MOOCs, from elite universities.
The learning arm of the IMF, by the way, is known as the IMF Institute for Capacity Development. Get this: the IMF is even looking to expand its 'student base' insofar as others may wish to learn more about public financial management including civil society actors, consultancies, and so forth. Its marketing is sharp, too, with course offerings being made in different languages in the near future:
The classes will be in English, but may carry subtitles in other languages. They will open first to government officials within the next few months. Coorey plans to open them to the broader public in 2014. "We hope it will enhance public awareness and elevate the debate about economic issues," she said. The financial arrangements have not been made public, but edX President Anant Agarwal said the IMF courses would bring in revenue for the consortium. If it's a success, Agarwal said he would seek similar deals with other institutions, as well as corporations and nonprofits.
Who'd think that the IMF of all institutions would be an innovator in delivering online education modules? You may not agree with IMF policies and prescriptions (I usually don't). You may not even believe that it performs its functions well as the world's lender of last resort (ditto). However, when it comes to keeping in tune with the times in delivering timely and cost-effective solutions in education, it is making noticeable strides. It's hard  to imagine, but yes, the IMF seems to understand the logic driving MOOCs more than any number of universities still wedded to increasingly outmoded learning models.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but perhaps it's time that we let the IMF show us the way in higher education.

In the meantime, repeat after me, class: Savings...good! Debt...bad!

UPDATE: Details for the distance learning modules, AKA MOOCs, are already listed online.