Air Force Turns to Online Classrooms for Brainpower

Thank you to The Air Force Collaboratory for sponsoring this article. Learn how your idea could change everything.

colOnline education – it used to be a punch line, but it’s been getting a few more serious looks as of late. Why all the attention now? Because instead of having to pay for an online degree that may or may not be worth its weight in paper, there are now organizations and institutions that are making education accessible to everyone, by making it free. No, you won’t be getting any degrees or accreditation this way (at least not yet), but the skills and knowledge that are becoming so widely available have the potential to help millions develop their own careers or get access to education that they otherwise would not have.

The first service to really popularize the idea of free, accessible education was MIT OpenCourseWare, which was launched by the university in 2002. The idea was simple – take MIT’s vast cache of educational materials used in their classes, and make them available for free. That included lecture slides, videos, textbooks, and links to readings. Everything that MIT students were given to prepare for their classes was gradually made available to everyone, for free, although donations were warmly welcomed.


The problem was that there were materials to prepare for a class, but no actual class. MIT OpenCourseWare provided the raw knowledge, but not the classroom environment needed to put that knowledge into context. After all, knowledge is only half of what education is – the other half is collaboration. It’s hard to replace hearing a professor make sense of all that information, and it’s even harder to replace being able to bounce ideas off of classmates and the professors themselves.

Khan Academy, started by an MIT grad, took the next step. Instead of a heap of raw data, there were now free online lectures there to make sense of everything – someone to teach the material. It was services like Khan Academy that first brought the prospect of massively available free education into potential reality. After all, it’s hard to argue with the proposition of hearing university-grade lectures for free instead of paying thousands of dollars for them. Still, it’s hard for education to exist in a vacuum. Without feedback from a professor, or even dreaded tests or assignments, it’s hard to quantify your understanding of the material. If you don’t have a reliable way of checking your progress, it’s hard to tell just how much you have benefited from your efforts, and even harder to tell others how much you’ve benefited.


The MOOC brought everything together. Coursera and edX are two major players today, featuring entire courses from professors at top-flight universities. The information is no different – the key addition is structure. MOOCs, or Massively Open Online Courses, are designed to be like university courses, from a few weeks long to an entire semester’s worth of classes. Lectures are posted weekly for each course, instead of everything being laid bare for you at the outset. The idea of the MOOC is the recognition of the problem of paralysis of choice – with previous online education platforms, there was so much information available that it was difficult for many to figure out where or how to start. MOOCs simplify things, allowing you to take a course that strikes you as interesting, and then having the information rolled out to you gradually in manageable chunks.

And, in a MOOC, you have professors, classmates, and, yes, even assignments. The assignments don’t quite carry the stakes of your standard university assignment, but they are structured, and sometimes rigorous, checks on understanding. Instead of having professors or TAs grade those assignments (impossible, given the fact that most MOOCs end up having tens of thousands of students enrolled), most assignments are peer graded – not ideal, but it’s a great way to start up dialogue with peers and start kicking around ideas.

MOOCs, which are essentially fully-fledged courses minus the rigorous grading, have begged the question – can this be a new viable model of education? Or, are we experiencing the beginning stages of a transition in the world of education? It could be argued that the lack of graded materials isn’t a huge concern – as long as the student is driven and gets something of value out of having taken the course, that should count as a win.

The problem is, completion rates and assignment completion rates in MOOCs are extremely low. It seems that most either don’t have the time or the drive to participate fully in a MOOC, which has caused some to call into question the viability of the MOOC in the realm of education. But, I think the talk of transitions and replacements is misguided. MOOCs don’t need to replace traditional university education. In fact, it seems to me that it’s a mistake to focus on the fact that rates are low – we should be considering the fact people are completing MOOCs at all. MOOCs are free – it’s a low-cost proposition. If a person doesn’t finish a MOOC, the only one arguably losing out is that individual. For those who do complete MOOCs, great – that means we have one more method of education that works for some.

The current crop of online education platforms attracts a specific set of people – self-starters comfortable with sharing and debating ideas with their online peers. These are the very kind of people that are needed to generate new idea to solve old problems. And, organizations everywhere are recognizing the potential. That includes the Air Force, which launched their collaboration platform earlier this summer. The Air Force Collaboratory is all about collaboration between peers and the Air Force in an effort to find solutions to problems that could help save lives.

In the Air Force Collaboratory, the Air Force has released three unclassified projects to the general public, and is looking for different ways to approach modern-day problems. The first project, Search and Rescue 2.0, features several sub-projects, all of which are directed towards finding out how best to use modern technology to save lives in disaster situations. The second project, Mind of a Quadrotor, gets into harder sciences, seeking out anyone and everyone with knowledge of robotics, to find ways to code quadrotors that can do more and last longer out in the field.

The Air Force Collaboratory represents an entirely new brand of online learning – one that is wholly directed by the student, and for wholly practical purposes. It’s the crowdsourcing of brainstorming, and if two heads are better than one, the Air Force figures that the sky’s the limit when you put thousands together. Check out the Air Force Collaboratory, and you might just be one of the heads that makes a difference.

Thank you The Air Force Collaboratory and Technorati for being sponsors of this article. All opinions expressed here are my own.


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