MOOCs. It’s such an awkward acronym. It sounds like it should be the name for a new type of children’s shoe. Or else a type of synthetic milk.
But the MOOCs – massive open online courses – are threatening to shake up higher education. And it’s a subject that deeply divides opinion about the future shape of universities.
Online courses have been around for a long time. But their image has been radically transformed by the intervention of some of the world’s most prestigious institutions.
Harvard, MIT and Stanford, along with dozens of other top universities, are offering online courses without charge to students anywhere in the world.
It is only a year since this new wave of online universities appeared, but they’ve grown with remarkable speed. Millions of students have signed up, in a way that would be impossible in any traditional university.
But what comes next?
The biggest challenge will be to find ways to assess and accredit such large numbers.
It’s still not entirely clear how this will happen, when individual courses might have tens of thousands of students.
There are some science or maths subjects that might work for automated marking, but it gets very tricky for anything that requires an essay. There have been experiments using peer assessment, where students mark each others’ work, but would this really be acceptable in a high-stakes exam? Unlikely.
And if online degrees are to have an equal status they need to overcome this hurdle in a way that inspires confidence.
There are MOOC-sceptics who say this is where the hi-tech bubble will burst, with lots of hype and not much substance. Millions might register for courses, but only a small fraction will ever complete. And for those who pass, it’s not clear what this is worth.
They say that the university experience – the teaching, learning and socialising – cannot be replicated on the screen of an iPad.
And anyone who has had to put up with an unreliable videoconference will know the limitations of sharing via technology. Imagine a three-year long stilted conversation.
But it would be a brave person who would bet against the impact of the internet.
And the spectacular appeal of the MOOCs so far shows the scale of the global appetite for affordable, accessible higher education. The demand is clear and the incentives are there for anyone who can make it work, with online university networks such as Coursera and edX already experimenting.
Perhaps new industries in marking and validation will grow alongside online universities. New technologies generate their own economies, in the way that the expansion of the internet spawned Google and Facebook. This could become a lucrative market for someone.
It’s also important to remember that the “better” model might not always be the one that succeeds. Going to a traditional university campus for three or four years might be a “better” experience, but if the costs are prohibitive, then it isn’t going to survive unchallenged.
A luxury car might be faster, safer and more comfortable, but most of us are still going to be driving something much cheaper.
The impact of MOOCs is not only going to be about attracting new types of student. It is going to have an impact on students at traditional universities.
University leaders are already talking, at least privately, about threats to the future of the lecture. When students can stop, start and fast forward recordings of lectures from a world expert, why would they want to sit scribbling notes in a lecture hall at their own university?
Such instant globalisation could mean that universities have to compete for the attention of their own students. It might mean that they have to work much harder on teaching and talking to students.
The availability of so much free online content also raises far-reaching questions about the purpose of a university. Of course, learning has its own value, in terms of culture and society. But students paying large sums of money and running up debts are going to want to make sure they’re getting something more than they could have found online for free.
It might mean a hybrid between traditional and online degree courses, with universities putting more effort into teaching and drawing on material from many other institutions. Courses might be part-residential and part-online.
That also raises another question about who would be the winners and losers from such an online shake-up.
Will it be universities that benefit from reaching a wider global audience? Or will it be US-based delivery systems that become the success stories? In online markets, there are often global mega-brands that dominate – so what will that mean for the futures of local universities? Will they become like small shops pushed into the shade by the supermarket chains?
So happy first birthday new MOOCs. Even though we’re still not sure what you’re going to be when you grow up.