The Australian

By Julie Hare

Today you can study with a Nobel Laureate — at home, for free. Is this the end of traditional university education?

Last August, Diccon Close went back to university, enrolling in an esoteric-sounding course called “Maps and the Geospatial Revolution” from Pennsylvania State University in the US. It was the first proper study Close, 49, had done since he passed his economics degree in the 1980s and he was pleased with himself when he gained a distinction. To do the five-week course, Close didn’t have to fly to the States or turn up to a campus. He completed it on his laptop in moments etched out from his frantic schedule while living and working in Sydney. His cohort consisted of 48,000 people from 150 countries and they were all connected through chat rooms and social media. For all he knows, he might have had a classmate living around the corner. Best of all, it didn’t cost him a cent.

Close has worked in technology since the 1980s and had heard about massive open online courses — MOOCs — which emerged from Stanford University in California, the alma mater of the Silicon Valley tsars. The internet-based programs can handle tens of thousands of students simultaneously and the courses are taught by the world’s best professors, including Nobel Laureates. An early focus on IT and computing courses has now blossomed to include subjects across the spectrum of human knowledge: from Beethoven to bioinformatics, Buddhism to business, the big bang to big data.

“I’d had a look at what was on offer a few times,” says Close, who is the CEO of a financial services start-up called Marq Services. “As you get older you probably get a bit more curious about your brain and stuffing a bit more knowledge into it. I’d always told myself I’d enrol in one and last year I did just that.” Once he’d got his head around being a student again, the course was “lots of fun”. “I wasn’t doing it for the grade or the qualification,” he says. “I was doing it for the knowledge.”

With sublime timing, MOOCs emerged at the end of 2011 and immediately entered the zeitgeist. Since then, an estimated 10 million students have enrolled in 1200 courses from more than 200 of the world’s best universities. To date the vast majority of courses come without a qualification or academic credit, although there are efforts to make that possible in the future. But with numbers like that, it’s got a lot of people talking.

Why would super-elite universities give away their courses for free? And if courses are free, what’s the business model? Could it be the end of the campus-based university? Why would students pay fees, bother turning up to lectures, spend three years of their lives grinding away at some diploma mill if Harvard and its ilk are giving them away? Maybe they are just a fad and the hyper-connected, attention-span deficient, mollycoddled middle classes will abandon MOOCs just as they did MySpace.

Whatever their future, MOOCs are changing the way education is delivered and received. Chances are the traditional lecture is well and truly dead. “A student said to me recently a lecture is where a professor stands at the front of the class and drones on and on for 55 minutes,” says Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, a two-year-old MOOC with $60 million backing from Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If that’s how students feel, then we should listen to our customers, do something different and engage them with multimedia and online technology. Every university needs at least one lecture hall in the future, just so our grandchildren can understand this is how people used to learn.” Agarwal says university teaching hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages. A learned professor stands at the front of a class and dispenses wisdom. It might have been efficient in the pre-internet days, but it’s rarely been effective. For those at the back of the lecture theatre it should be called “long-distance education”, Agarwal reckons.

Sean Gallagher, a research associate in higher education at the University of Sydney’s US Studies Centre, agrees. “Unlike traditional online education, MOOCs aren’t mere recordings of lectures; they are typically high-production videos cut into modules of less than 10 minutes — through mini-progression quizzes — focused only on a particular concept, idea or argument,” says Gallagher, who has followed the MOOC phenomenon from the outset. “Students can select, repeat or fast-forward through each module according to their ability. If a student is having difficulty in grasping the concept, the algorithms behind MOOCs can identify the learning obstacle and take the student off to a side tutorial before coming back to the main lesson. No longer is learning a linear pathway from A to B according to how the academic who wrote the textbook thinks a student should learn.”

In other words, MOOCs are a disruptive innovation and they are attracting a lot of interest not only from students and universities but also from governments and private investors. That MOOCS are democratising education in a way that the world hasn’t seen since the invention of the printing press is one thing. That they might save governments billions in making higher education systems cheaper and more efficient to run is another. No wonder the venture capitalists who’ve invested in Coursera — the largest MOOC platform so far — think they’ve hit a rich seam.

MOOCs largely spun out of work being done by three computer science professors at Stanford University — Sebastian Thrun, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. While there had been early versions of the MOOC, in 2011 robotics expert Thrun teamed up with Google’s head of research, Peter Norvig, to deliver a course on artificial intelligence. They placed a single notice on an AI mailing list, noting that anyone with an internet connection could join the class for free. Word got around. Within two weeks, 50,000 people had signed up; eventually 160,000 from 209 countries enrolled.

The appeal was obvious. Thrun and Norvig are celebrities in geekdom and Stanford is its Mecca. “One student described it as sitting in a bar with a really smart friend who is explaining something you haven’t grasped but are about to,” Norvig told a TED lecture in 2012. In January 2012, Udacity, the first MOOC, was born. Meanwhile, Ng and Koller were also experimenting with the idea of massive, free, open courses. Ng had attracted 100,000 students in his first foray with a computer science course called “Machine learning”; the same course on campus, he reasoned, could be taught to a maximum of 400 students at a time. “We realised that this was a moment in history,” Koller told a seminar at the University of NSW last year. “Because if Andrew taught for 250 years, he would have taught 250 generations of highly privileged Stanford students. But the 100,000 that took the course online included people of every age, every background, from every walk of life and dozens of different countries, and they all had access to that amazing Stanford experience.”

Koller and Ng had big ambitions and in April 2012 they launched Coursera, with Michigan, Pennsylvania and Princeton universities as partners. Coursera is by far the biggest and most aggressive MOOC platform. In less than two years it has signed up 84 partner institutions (including three in Australia — the University of Melbourne, UNSW and the University of Western Australia), 415 courses, 4.2 million enrolments and $60 million in venture capital. Coursera is also leading the pack in new and novel ways of “monetising” MOOCs, including giving credit for a fee.

Back in Boston, Agarwal was watching with interest the goings-on at his alma mater. The former head of computer science and the AI lab at MIT had been experimenting with online learning for a decade or more and had already created a multi-user laboratory called Websim. “I used to teach a subject called ‘Circuits and electronics’, which doesn’t make sense unless you can build something,” Agarwal says. “In 2000 I created Websim, and as early as 2003-04 it was available to students around the world. There would be 200 students a day doing my labs.

“MIT had its open courseware philosophy and I was also heavily influenced by Salman Khan, who had been a student of mine, and what he was doing with the Khan Academy.” Created in 2006, the online education site — a MOOC precursor — has as its motto “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere”. By December 2012, just eight months after the launch of Coursera, Agarwal had persuaded MIT and Harvard to chip in $30 million each and edX was born.

Universities around the world, including Australia, are clambering on to the MOOC bandwagon. An early adopter was Brian Schmidt, Australia’s most recent Nobel Laureate and an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, who pestered his vice-chancellor until the university became the first in Australia to sign up with edX. (The University of Queensland followed later.)

Schmidt’s first foray into teaching a MOOC is called “The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe”, which kicked off on March 25. Well over 10,000 students enrolled to find out what scientists do and don’t know about the big bang, what the universe is made of and whether there’s life outside Earth; all they needed was high-school maths and physics, and curiosity. “For me, MOOCs are about how I can be a better teacher and how I can teach people who aren’t students at ANU, such as secondary students and people overseas who might want to take my course,” says Schmidt.

Schmidt and his ANU teaching partner, Paul Francis, describe the process of transforming their first-year course into a MOOC as long and arduous. They had to rethink the traditional one-hour lecture and transform it into short, dynamic information grabs interlaced with documentaries and pop quizzes. “It’s not just how you learn to teach but how you help with the learning process,” says Schmidt. “I might give a lecture and everyone loves it, but if I ask them to tell me what they have learnt afterwards they can hardly recall anything. So what’s the point in coming to listen to me lecture? Maybe students should get that information online before class, in a similar fashion to how MOOCs are constructed. Then, when they come to class, we can discuss in detail the subtleties and nuances which are harder to address online.”

Agarwal agrees: “Most of the video downloads happen between midnight and 2am, so why we’ve been dragging kids to class at 9 in the morning I don’t know.”

The most prolific enrollers in MOOCs are people like Diccon Close: white, educated, male, middle-class. They originally took computer-based courses but languages, art, history and economics are increasingly popular. “The typical MOOC student looks a lot like the traditional online education student — a mature-age, self-directed learner wanting to complement their existing qualifications,” says Gallagher.

MOOCs are also transforming the lives of people shut out of the traditional educational experience because of poor health, geography or poverty. Agarwal tells the story of a 15-year-old Mongolian high school prodigy who was one of 150,000 students to enrol in his first circuits course and one of only 30 to get 100 per cent in the final assessment. He’s now studying at MIT.

Koller tells the story of Daniel, a severely autistic 17-year-old with a spoken vocabulary of around 150 words who communicates by typing on his iPad. Daniel enrolled in a contemporary poetry course run by the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a course that’s difficult even for Penn students,” said Koller. “Daniel was the star. He said it was the first meaningful education experience he had ever had.” Daniel has now completed six courses on Coursera.

Coursera offers courses in French specifically targeted to sub-Saharan Africans and courses in Spanish for Latin Americans. edX has gone a step further. In partnership with Google, it has made its platform freely available. So far the French National Ministry has created France Universite Numerique (FUN), a Chinese MOOC called XuetangX has started and Queen Rania of Jordan has announced an Arabic portal. edX has also done a deal to take MOOCs to school students the world over. “I call MOOCs the ultimate democratiser,” says Agarwal.

MOOCs aren’t without critics. They point to massive drop-out rates — of the 150,000 who enrolled in Agarwal’s first course, just 7250 passed. “By one measure a retention rate of 5–6 per cent doesn’t look great,” says Agarwal, who notes the drop-out rate is consistent across all MOOCs. “It would be unacceptable for a university to have attrition rates like that but it’s comparing apples and oranges. Open means anyone can take it — we have 11-year-olds enrol, right up to 88-year-olds; people from all walks of life. But if you get a place at MIT, we only admit about seven per cent of applicants so you have a lot more skin in the game in terms of tuition fees and status. But we’ve found that for a small fee of just $25, people can get a verified certificate which authenticates that it was you who took the course. Suddenly, the retention rate shoots up to 60 per cent.”

While Agarwal is a cheerleader for changing on-campus learning, he does not think the physical university campus will disappear any time soon. “The university campus is a rite of passage; you have discussions with other students, you learn by interacting with others, you are growing up, learning how to research and work with professors and get inspired by those around you.” Schmidt agrees: “MOOCs are putting some universities on notice that they will be a proverbial dodo bird if they don’t adapt. But to do MOOCs in a non-trivial way is not cheap. We want to make the on-campus experience better, not replace it.”

Since completing “Maps and the geospatial revolution”, Close has enrolled in and dropped out of two IT-related MOOCs, saying they were too technical and difficult. But he is enjoying his fourth MOOC — an introduction to computers on edX — and hopes to complete it. “It’s not just about trying to keep up with changes in IT, but going to the philosophy of programming and being able to see through some of the corporate clutter when I am trying to make decisions about buying some product or platform.”

Asked whether he is an evangelist for MOOCs, Close is unequivocal: “More people should take advantage of them.”

This article was originally published in The Australian