The Australian

By Julie Hare

Two more Group of Eight universities will sign up with education technology platform Coursera today. The signing coincides with a report that predicts massive open online courses will be the biggest upheaval to higher education since the printing press.

The University of Western Australia and University of NSW will each put a small number of courses on Coursera next year, with both describing the process as experimental and a learning experience.

"We expect to put up three or four courses over a couple of years. We'll be looking to offer areas of research strength at UWA presented by people who are dynamic and attractive in an online format," said Alec Cameron, deputy vice-chancellor (education) at UWA.

UNSW will start with just two courses, first-year physics and systems engineering, said acting vice-chancellor Iain Martin.

"(Online) brings benefits of broader exposure of UNSW to a much bigger audience," Professor Martin said.

The official signing of UWA and UNSW to Coursera will take place at a closed-door seminar in Sydney today that will include Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller.

A report on MOOCs titled Disruptive Education: Technology-Enabled Universities by Sean Gallagher and Geoffrey Garrett will provide the foundation for discussions.

Writing in the HES today, the authors liken the advent of MOOCs to iTunes. "Apple's iTunes didn't change the way music was made; it leveraged iPod technology and revolutionised how people consumed music," Gallagher and Garrett write. "While MP3 files are lower quality than high-fidelity stereo, they are so much more convenient.

"But live music is thriving in the iTunes world. The Rolling Stones tour more (often) and charge more for increasingly elaborate concerts."

Dr Gallagher told the HES that he believed MOOCs were here to stay and that in many respects Australian universities were ahead of the curve because of their long history of distance education provision.

"The fundamental courses, such as macro-economics, the sciences, maths and even some histories, will be taken up by the world's best universities. It will be hard to compete with those brands. But in the longer term there will be room for collaborations as academics become curators of content," Dr Gallagher said.

"But, fundamentally, it will be those universities that understand their strengths that will cut through and find their own space."

Dr Gallagher pointed to Colorado State University, a well-regarded second-tier institution that offered introductory computer science for $89 in return for credit at the university.

"Not a single student took it up. Why would they when they can do a much better MOOC with professors from Stanford, Georgia Tech or MIT? But Deakin University took another tack, which was to present one course in an area of expertise — emergency planning — which is attractive to people who would go to Deakin to do that course anyway, and they get credit."

While UWA had experimented with a platform called Class2Go, developed with Stanford, Professor Cameron said the lure of Coursera was the critical mass of globally recognised universities signed to the start-up.

"For the next stage of our development we needed to learn how to use open online courses for our international development. Which platform would attract millions of eyeballs? On Coursera, we will participate not only in collective learning within UWA but also from all the other institutions on the platform."

Like UWA, UNSW had experimented with a less visible online platform last year. It offered an introductory computing course through Open Learning, an online education start-up created by UNSW academic Richard Buckland and graduate Adam Brimo.

Dr Gallagher said that with the MOOC bandwagon rolling along at a rapid rate it was never too late to join, but "there is some advantage in being an early adopter rather than a first mover because you get to learn from the mistakes of others. For Australia, being early adopters is a good strategy."

Coursera has at least 85 universities offering 393 courses and four million students. "Universities must either believe MOOCs won't adversely affect, but might even enhance, their place-based educational materials or they are resigned to the inevitability that MOOCs will very quickly destroy the traditional university, so they had better get into the new game fast," write Gallagher and Garrett.

This article was originally published at The Australian