The Australian

By Andrew Trounson

PATTERN recognition and data analytics are highly specialised areas and Deakin University professor Svetha Venkatesh has had to put a lot of work into getting her PhD students up to speed.

But not anymore. She merely has them take a course and test from US Stanford University through online provider Coursera. And it's free.

''It is absolutely excellent; it is like they are attending Stanford,'' Professor Venkatesh says. When, of course, they are in Geelong.

Coursera is just one of a rising number of so-called Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) providers offering free courses associated with prestigious universities and offering testing and some certification. In the most recent move, Harvard and MIT have created their edX joint venture that will offer free courses.

And if the acronym MOOC is unwieldy, then at least ''massive'' captures the impact they are set to have on higher education. Some are calling it a ''tsunami'', others a ''paradigm shift'' or ''game-changer''.

Last week, Deakin vice-chancellor Jane den Hollander announced a new strategy in which MOOC courses would be embedded in curriculum as part of a shake up of teaching and learning. Traditional lectures would go by the wayside with free content being cherry-picked online from the world's best universities. That would, in theory at least, free up academics to focus on assessment tasks and more personalised teaching, including face-to-face, video and online.

And this week University of Southern Queensland vice-chancellor Jan Thomas was in India promoting the online Open Education Resource University international joint venture in which students can access content for free and only pay if they sit exams -- a model pioneered by Britain's Open Universities, which now has 275,000 students globally.

But the potential ramifications are profound and it won't all be welcome news. Many Australian universities, perhaps all, simply won't be able to compete with much of the high-quality content on offer. And while that may force a timely refocus on the student experience and pedagogy, such as at Deakin, it raises doubts over the value of on-campus learning universities.

Australia's international market could be threatened if students in Asia simply supplemented their local degree with a Harvard course. It's an appealing and much cheaper alternative to spending tens of thousands dollars studying here.

''The Ivy League has nothing to lose because everybody will still want to go there and have the networking benefits. But a lot of other universities are going to be in the gun,'' said higher education expert Simon Marginson.

MOOCs could also drive a concentration of knowledge and content generation in the elite globally branded universities, and accelerate trends towards teaching-only academics.

The desirability of a full local degree could be undermined by students cobbling together several globally branded courses with parts of a local degree in a package that could end up being more sought-after by employers.

Open Universities Australia chief executive Paul Wappett said the attitude of employers would be critical. And he notes that the decline in university IT courses has been partly driven by the likes of Microsoft and Cisco taking over the space and employers valuing their certificates.

Melbourne University's Richard James says there is no doubt the sector is being hit by the first wave of a possible revolution. But he maintains universities remain central because of their ability to handle complex student assessment, the attraction of ''deep'' face-to-face learning, and their control over accreditation.

''We are seeing the first wave of what looks like the disruptive effects of technology. At the moment the excitement is around high-quality free content. Once that is backed by rigorous assessment, student support and transpersonal deep experience then maybe the real revolution has hit us,'' he said.

Sean Gallagher, from Sydney University's US Studies Centre, said MOOCs represented both a threat and an opportunity and he backed Deakin's move to embrace it. ''These high-profile universities have attached their elite reputations to developing this and that says that online is here to stay as part of the future of elite tertiary education,'' he said.

Deakin's deputy vice-chancellor (academic) John Catford said: ''We will provide content in ways students can access that are easier and mobile, and break it down into maybe 10 minute bites rather than 50 minute gulps.''