The Sydney Morning Herald
By Josephine Tovey
Courses from two of Australia's major universities will be online and free to anyone in the world next year, as more institutions embrace a mass online model of providing free classes described as the "iTunes of higher education" in a new report.
The University of NSW, along with the University of Western Australia, will announce on Wednesday they are fully embracing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), partnering with the world's largest providers of the free courses, Coursera, which already runs online courses for Stanford and Columbia universities in the United States.
MOOCs are short courses offered exclusively online and free of charge by universities, which provide education in a subject but generally do not result in a formal qualification or credit.
A report published on Wednesday by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney about MOOCs argues that, rather than posing a threat to traditional universities, free online courses could offer opportunities to universities to better use technology and gain a greater global profile.
But critics argue the advent of MOOCs has been over-hyped, pointing to high non-completion rates and continuing preference among employers for qualifications gained at an institution.
UNSW's acting vice-chancellor Professor Iain Martin said the partnership with Coursera would help boost the university's digital education profile.
"Importantly, it is also an excellent opportunity to incorporate some of the best online teaching practices and technological advancements into degree programs taught at UNSW,” he said.
Initial UNSW courses offered will be in science and engineering and will begin in 2014.
The announcement comes as a new report says the free courses, also offered by universities including Harvard and Princeton, are here to stay.
The report argues the internet is challenging universities in the same way it has challenged other businesses such as the music industry, and swift adaptation is required.
University degrees are increasingly like a live concert by a band, the report says — immersive, at a cost and only available to a limited number of people — while the providers of MOOCs are the "iTunes of higher education", making a much cheaper version of the music available to all online.
"It's not as if iTunes killed the Rolling Stones or going to a Rolling Stones concert, in fact maybe those are even more attractive now because you can buy a playlist on iTunes," said Professor Geoffrey Garrett of UNSW, co-author of the report.
"Yes it's true people can access your material now more conveniently than they ever could before, but some people still want to experience the real concert, or the real education."
Open Universities Australia made a foray into MOOCs this year, offering free courses to 25,000 students with a completion rate of about 26 per cent.
Mr Garrett said at the moment the MOOCs were about the experience of learning, not an accreditation, so were in some respects, akin to adult education courses.
"Instead of getting it from the local TAFE, you get it from a Harvard philosopher."
This article was originally published at the The Sydney Morning Herald