Alma mater in cyberspace as Web courses take off

Online open courses offer anyone with an internet connection access to the kind of lectures previously only available to the privileged few from universities such as Yale and Liverpool.

Internet-based higher education is set to take off this year, delivering lectures and courses from the best universities to anyone with a computer and a fast connection.

Already students in regions such as the Middle East are using the internet to enhance their professional qualifications by taking online courses from leading western universities without the need for expensive overseas living costs.

Internet-based university-level education such as that being offered by western universities like Stanford and Yale is now quickly spreading across the world.

England's Liverpool University, for example, is one of those partnering Laureate Education, a global network of accredited campus-based and online postsecondary institutions offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 740,000 students around the world.

The university awards online degrees and offers internet-based programmes from its faculty of medicine, school of management, department of computer science and its law school. Typically, online students taking advantage of programmes such as Laureate Education are qualified professionals seeking to extend their knowledge base. For this reason, universities such as Liverpool charge fees for online degree-level qualifications.

Western universities offering online courses are now increasingly attracting students from regions in other parts of the world.

Rachid Khalil, for example, is a Lebanese architect enrolled in Liverpool's online master's degree of project management, with a specialisation in construction and infrastructure.

Mr Khalil is already a registered architect and a member of the Order of Engineers and Architects of Beirut, Lebanon since 2005 and holds a master's degree in Architecture from the Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik in Lebanon.

He is far from being a typical postgraduate as he runs his own Lebanon-based practice and is working on projects spread over the Arabian Gulf, Italy and Turkey.

Many online students based in the Middle East are also attracted to internet-based courses with foreign universities in order to strengthen their grasp of overseas management practices.

Sohail Abdulkhaliq Mohammed, for instance, works for the Saad Group in Saudi Arabia. As the company has interests spreading across the world, he was anxious to use his master's of business administration (MBA) to gain a more global experience of business than he would have by enrolling at a Saudi university. He says: "I opted for the University of Liverpool Online for my MBA specialising in international business because it gives an insight into the management function in international settings."

Last November, the Arab world held its first global conference to encourage online learning at the inauguration of the International Council for Open and Distance Education Standing Conference of Presidents 2012.

The conference, held under the patronage of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, launched a one-year global campaign to promote e-learning.

But the full power of online learning for improving and honing the skill sets of professionals and would-be professionals across the globe is only starting to be realised.

Until the development of the internet, universities had barely altered their methods of teaching since before the invention of the printing press.

For example, the traditional university lecture, in which a professor addresses students in person in a hall or large classroom, was originally introduced in an era before books could be cheaply printed and there were not enough to supply all students. These types of medieval lectures still form the basis of many university degree courses.

But the internet allows the same lecturer to address not dozens or hundreds of students but millions if a video of the lecture is distributed online.

However, the full potential of the internet to offer high-quality education free of charge has, until now, been blocked by a series of hurdles. These included a lack of bandwidth in the developing regions of the world; an absence of any real commercial interest in offering free higher education; and, not least, the reluctance in the United States. Institutions such as Yale and Stanford, traditionally bastions of privilege, are now offering what are being called "massive online open courses", Moocs for short.

Moocs offer anyone with an internet connection free access to the kind of lectures and course material previously only available to the privileged few. Now anyone with a command of English and a broadband internet connection can study at the highest level, whether they live in Cairo or Kolkata.

Stanford is using the internet to open its doors in this way as part of an initiative aimed at extending technology and skills to the developing world. In the second half of 2011, the university offered a course in artificial intelligence free of charge over the internet.

What distinguishes this course from others on the subject that are also freely available online is that it is run by two leading experts in the field of artificial intelligence. So far, about 160,000 students worldwide have registered for it and 20,000 from 190 countries have completed it successfully.

However, they were not awarded standard degrees but were sent a "statement of accomplishment" by the tutors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig.

Other leading US universities are also now following Stanford's lead and starting to offer top-flight learning for free over the internet. Open Yale Courses, for instance, now provide courses spanning the full range of liberal arts disciplines, including humanities, social sciences and physical and biological sciences for free online.

If the world's top universities continue to open their doors to online students, the power of the internet will be harnessed to educate the world to a level previously attainable only for a privileged few.