By Sean Gallagher and Geoffrey Garrett
Perhaps the best way to understand this massive open online course revolution is to think of MOOC platforms as the iTunes of higher education.
Apple's iTunes didn't change the way music was made; it leveraged iPod technology and revolutionised how people consumed music. MP3 files are lower quality than high-fidelity stereo, but they are so much more convenient.
And live music continues to thrive. Just ask the Rolling Stones.
Similarly, we do not expect MOOCs to make the campus experience any less desirable. In fact, MOOCs may even encourage students to experience campus life and to pay more for the privilege.
Coursera and edX make content produced by academics ubiquitously available. Taking a Harvard class online isn't like being in Harvard Yard, but it is much cheaper and more accessible.
Cutting-edge MOOCs aren't mere video captures of uncut hour-plus lectures. They are typically modules of less than 15 minutes with high production values that students can select, repeat or fast forward, interspersed with mini progression quizzes, all personalised to their learning styles, needs and backgrounds.
But there are two important differences between iTunes and MOOC platforms. On the one hand, MOOCs would love to be able to generate the revenues iTunes can, and maybe soon they will by charging students for certificates, or universities for licensing content. On the other hand, whereas Apple struggled to get music companies on board, many universities are welcoming MOOCs with open arms.
MOOCs also allow universities to project their brands globally and to identify the best students wherever they are. MOOCs make possible real-time big data experiments in new pedagogy such as adaptive and personalised e-learning, peer assessment and the gamification of higher education. And administrators hope MOOC success on the global stage will inspire more innovation on their own campuses.
In the US, Georgia Tech has partnered with the platform Udacity and telecom giant AT&T to produce an online masters degree in computer science. It hopes the $6600 degree will attract up to 10,000 students without affecting its 300-student, $40,000 on-campus masters degree.
Georgia Tech's academic talent creates the classes; Udacity provides the technology to put these classes on line and the labour to interact with the students; and both will split the profits.
Closer to home, Swinburne University has partnered with SEEK in Swinburne Online to offer undergraduate degrees to students who never have to set foot on campus. In 12 months, 7000 full-time students have enrolled for what Swinburne Online calls "entirely digital" learning. And their academic performance and satisfaction levels so far are reported as similar to those for students who take campus classes at Swinburne in the same degrees.
Wither the place-based university in this brave new world?
The future is bright, but requires universities to embrace radical change to a centuries-old model, and more rapidly than normal "university time". The good news is our universities are embracing these futures with verve.
The key is to use technology to make efficiency gains, for example using MOOCs for standard first-year classes and pre-university foundation classes, and then focus on the precious things that cannot be commoditised online.
You don't need Brideshead Revisited romanticism to see that university education at its best is a rich ecosystem, from class discussions, debates and problem-solving to residential living and student services, to internships and international experiences embedded into the curriculum.
There will always be a place for the Ivy League elite. But this is a pipedream for most students. Unlike a more affordable, well-rounded campus-based experience, enriched by technology.
The greatest value of the disruptive education revolution led by MOOCs is that it is forcing universities to focus on their core competence. Paraphrasing Plutarch, that is to kindle the fire to learn in young minds.
This article was originally published at The Australian