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What MOOCs mean for universities – revolution or evolution?

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James Sankar, AARNet’s Director,  Enterprise Services reports:

This was the topic of a free public forum led by leading international higher education and business panelists:

  • Professor Daphne Koller, founder of the world’s leading MOOCs platform, Coursera, based in the Silicon Valley,
  • Professor Fred Hilmer AO, University of New South Wales Vice Chancellor, and
  • Mr Andrew Stevens, Managing Director of IBM Australia and New Zealand.

The event coincided with the announcement of the University of New South Wales and the University of Western Australia joining Coursera, and the release of a report on MOOCs, titled Disruptive Education: Technology-Enabled Universities by Sean Gallagher, COO, United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney and Geoffrey Garrett, Dean, Australian School of Business, UNSW Australia.

Here is a summary of the main points in the report and from the panel discussion:

5 out of 8 Group of Eight universities are adopting MOOCs

The University of Melbourne data noting 30% of their students reside in Australia.  MOOCs offer global brand promotion and the ability to record user’s digital interaction for better pedagogy research. Courses can be offered in more personalised pathways – yet still offered at scale – and are influencing online degree interactivity for student centred learning.  Coursera’s signature track uses user online behaviour pattern recognition software and ID verification to provide credentials and accreditation for a small fee.

$800K revenue has been achieved within two years of the Coursera start-up.

This is unheard of in Silicon Valley where it is not expected until years 5-7.  A further $42M venture capital investment has just been announced.  Daphne Koller asks that we view MOOCs like the first theatre like productions on the first moving pictures. As MOOCs are so new, she said we should expect them to evolve, and with personalisation flexibility and access to big data it has the potential to radically shift pedagogy in ways that we’ve not seen since the invention of the printing press.

More on Daphne Koller’s experience with establishing Coursera.

After five years of development a platform was launched in September 2011 via Stanford University and by January 2012 Coursera was spun out of Stanford. In April 2012 four universities delivered the first courses.  Today Coursera has 4.35 million students participating in 400 courses with an aspiration to have 5000 courses in three years’ time.  Participants range from 10 year olds to a group of 80plus year olds.  Some in the 25-40 range are taking courses to enhance their careers, others later in life are taking courses in areas of personal interests, and others simply want access to education that is not possible in many parts of the world.

There’s an expectation now of a marketplace for courses to choose from for subjects and I realised there’s currently no ranking capability but maybe that is in development?’

Accessibility to education is a key driver for MOOCs alongside reducing lecturer time for teaching foundational and first year courses that generally are repetitively delivered each year.  Coursera has introduced self and group peer assessment to overcome the challenge of managing massive numbers of students. Most students take the assessment seriously and reading other student contributions has helped them develop perspectives.  It is a step ahead of discussions on online forums.

Coursera boasts the greatest amount of student-centred learning interaction data on the planet.

Personally I believe academia needs access to that to ensure the pedagogy related data can enhance the quality of delivery of content and the art of learning in both a self-directed, group and student mentor way.

Some universities are adopting the MOOC platform and ramification aspects to support the local lecturer; others are seeing MOOC as a means of bringing guest expert Nobel Laureates to the classroom. However, this was tempered by concerns that the masses will be influenced by a celebrity speaker’s view impacting on the localisation of ideas.  The other view is that MOOCs will enhance subjects such as the humanities because of the richness of diversity views and cultures that ever before which is exciting both academics and researchers.

Examples cited as online education success stories

UNE has a rich history of delivering courses online whilst Swinburne’s venture with Seek.com has enabled 7,000 new students, they key is how to deliver online education at the lowest possible cost base without impacting the quality, experience and brand.

In an era of uncertainty MOOCs provide universities with options

UNSW have reviewed the MOOC phenomenon and believe that in an era of uncertainty you need options, this is where their investment with Coursera provides them with an option to be part of the MOOC experience, and to judge cost and benefit, to consider capability for attracting students and to combine with on campus experiences in the form of blended learning before determining sustainability.

MOOCs will do to academia what Amazon has done to books and web services

IBM believes that MOOCs will do to academia what Amazon has done to books and indeed web services, with Coursera leading the way.  Universities will need to review their funding, competitiveness and performance levels and take appropriate steps to participate with MOOCs in ways that require innovation at a rapid pace in step with new forms of online engagement whilst at the same time maintaining the operational aspects of running a university.  The challenge is doing both with limited time, capital and skills.  Another analogy given for the online shift was that the top four banks will face increased competition from global players like Google wallet and Paypal should banking licences be issued. Banks will have to respond to further automate their services and we should anticipate fewer branches.

Three key sectors were identified as yet to be transformed by the new online digital world.

These were Government, Education and Health.  The winners in education will be those that recognise future students do not want to consume content delivered over hours on campus in lectures and realise that MOOCs may be the first incarnation but not just a fad that will go away.  When educational content becomes a commodity universities need to know what their new value proposition is, they need to change the way the existing model delivers products and services and more fundamentally change the value provided to transform and embrace the new paradigm based on what has been learned from student interactions.

Some members of the audience pointed to critical studies on MOOCs stating basic pedagogy was not met, however this was countered by the fact the courses were short and designed to spark interest to learn more and that there was a realisation that this is a new area and will develop over time. Fortunately universities are watching and participating in this shift and not resisting like the record labels did which incidentally led to the rise of Apple iTunes and artists receiving new revenues and sold out concerts via less than high fidelity tracks accessed conveniently online on mobile devices.

Whether we’ll have MOOCs in 3-5 years is unknown, but the digital engagement and pedagogy research presented today has the opportunity to fast track personalisation of education to the masses at a low cost.

Universities need to determine how best to respond in order to be a winner and not a loser.

Below is an interesting info graphic of the MOOC players today and represents the level of interest and investment that demonstrates the global competition each university much consider carefully.


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