The Australian

By Sandra Peter

As Australian universities embrace free online courses and partner with world leading massive open online course providers such as Coursera and edX, they are not only changing how education is delivered, but potentially challenging the very meaning of, and what constitutes, learning and an education.

The recent report from the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre describes MOOC platforms as the “iTunes of higher education” (with laptops and tablets as the iPods for learning), revolutionising how education is developed and made available to learners.

This analogy is useful for considering a potentially more fundamental shift in the meaning of learning and education, akin to the one iTunes as a platform together with iPods as devices set off in music: the way we thought of ‘good music’. Whereas in the 80s and 90s music was about the quality of the sound — the more expensive the equipment (speakers, amplifiers, cables etc), the better the sound — in 2001 it became accessibility, convenience and choice (iTunes and the iPod). Good music became synonymous with accessible music.

The revolution was not only in how music was made available to listeners but in how people started to think about music.

Neither iTunes nor the iPod was an overnight revolutionary success. It is worth noting that Apple only managed to sell 150,000 units in its first nine months. Other products, such as the iPhone sold almost 200,000 a day. In order to move the iPod, Apple entered deals for product placement in music videos, including the then chart topping American rapper 50 Cent whose “P.I.M.P” video started with close-ups of the iPod.

Then Mary J Blige and Jennifer Lopez held iPods in their videos and Apple sold 28 million iPods in 24 months. Now the public started thinking of the best music money can buy as the one on a small white device.

It was not (only) the availability of the product that changed how people regarded what good music was. It was the way their perception was changed. The meaning of learning and education is similarly challenged today: what constitutes a good education? Who has access to it and when? Who makes it?

While Coursera offers “the best courses, online, for free”, the media has also proclaimed the “education revolution”. Education anywhere, at any time, for anyone.

Australian universities need to acknowledge the potential that MOOCs have to define a different kind (of understanding) of learning and education. They also need to consider a different set of questions. Will education become more modular (self-contained elements that can be combined), in terms of both courses and credentials? Courses are offered not only by world class universities, but also by public intellectuals, conductors and investors.

The International Monetary Fund will deliver free online economics courses through edX, while big cultural players like the BBC and British Museum will offer them through FutureLearn. Companies like Degreed validate education from both accredited (e.g. the University of Sydney) and non-accredited (e.g. the Khan Academy) sources. Yahoo sponsors employees to earn certificates on Coursera.

After all, iTunes also changed who made the music, who sold it and how many songs we bought. Universities will need to consider whether the three or four-year undergraduate course should remain the standard, and what is the impact of new educational practices is on postgraduate education and life-long learners.

A consensus mindset around what learning and education are, or are becoming, is not likely to occur soon. But the emergence of new meanings of learning and education will have implications for how universities address the question of a providing a ‘good education’: who provides it, what they provide and how they provide it.

Australian universities should be making major contributions to such debates. So far we have been cautiously framing MOOCs as second best to the existing higher education model. Many have argued that no matter how sophisticated, such courses will not be able to match or replace human interaction in a physical classroom. Open online education will never be “education of the very best sort” (Professor Mark Edmundson from the University of Virginia in The New York Times).

We recognise that MOOCs have the potential to bring technology into our courses and allow us to ‘flip the classroom’. However, higher education will not only be contested in a very practical sense, in the shape and content of educational offerings, but also in how the social understanding of education will be constructed. Who will contribute to the conversation and how will matter more than ever.

Perhaps it is difficult to know how to enter and shape the debate when MOOCs are ‘just another technology’, but if universities do not have the courage to lead the conversation now then a good education might just become “A thousand courses, in your pocket”.

This article was originally published at The Australian