By Julie Hare
In just more than 18 months, the very model of the modern university has been put on notice by an online phenomenon emanating from the US's Ivy League.
The acronym for this sensation is ugly: MOOC — massive open online course. But only fools would underestimate the impact of MOOCs on Western universities and masses of undereducated people in the developing world.
Some say MOOCs will be the biggest upheaval to higher education since the invention of the printing press. Others are more circumspect; but few are ignoring this powerful, disruptive innovation.
MOOCs are essentially online platforms that deliver high-quality courses to anyone, anywhere in the world, for free. But the real kicker is they are delivered by the world's best professors from the world's best universities (think Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just for starters) in subjects ranging from philosophy to physics, data analysis to Darwinism, nanotechnology to nutrition.
MOOCs came into being after computer scientist Sebastian Thrun and his Stanford University colleague Peter Norvig experimented with putting their first-year introduction to artificial intelligence course online and made it available to anyone for free. Much to their surprise, more than 160,000 students in more than 190 countries enrolled. Soon after, they created a privately owned MOOC called Udacity.
About the same time, two other Stanford professors were coming to a similar conclusion. But Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, both computer scientists, decided to take the idea a step further.
A course Ng posted online attracted 100,000 students; the same course on campus could be taught to a maximum of 400 students at a time.
"We realised that for Andrew to teach 100,000 students in the traditional way, he would have to take that same class for 250 years," Koller told a closed-door seminar of Australian higher education heavyweights at the University of NSW earlier this month.
"We realised that this was a moment in history. Because if Andrew taught for 250 years, he would have taught 250 generations of highly privileged Stanford students.
"But the 100,000 that took the course online included people of every age, every background, from every walk of life and dozens of different countries, and they all had access to that amazing Stanford experience."
Koller said it was a turning point. They realised that with such vast numbers the cost of educating each additional student was closer to zero than $1. After much discussion, including with Stanford president John Hennessy, the decision was made that "the proper thing to do would be to spin it out of Stanford" and include more of the world's best universities.
What became known as Coursera included Michigan, Pennsylvania and Princeton universities, along with Stanford, as its founding partners. Launched in April last year, it now has about 84 partner institutions from around the world, including three in Australia (Melbourne, UNSW and University of Western Australia), and 415 courses. So far 4.2 million students have enrolled in at least one course from nearly every country in the world.
Six months after Coursera's launch, Harvard and MIT got in on the act with the creation of edX. It soon added the crown in the public University of California system — Berkeley. But while Coursera is growing at an exponential rate, edX has chosen a less ambitious, less aggressive path. It has 28 partner institutions, including the Australian National University and the University of Queensland, 44 courses and one million students.
Koller told the UNSW seminar MOOCs were changing lives. She cited Daniel, a severely autistic 17-year-old with a spoken language of about 150 words who communicates by typing on his iPad. Daniel enrolled in a contemporary poetry course last year run by the University of Pennsylvania.
"It's a course that's difficult even for Penn students," said Koller. "Daniel was the star student on the MOOC. He said it was the first meaningful education experience he had ever had, after a life of special ed where it is enough to sit still and be quiet.
"This course required vigorous interaction with the content. And to some extent it has helped him overcome the severity of his disease."
Koller says many Coursera students — known as Courserans — are those "shut out of the traditional education experience" because of poor health, geography, poverty or other reasons.
There are courses delivered in French specifically targeted to sub-Saharan Africans and courses in Spanish for Latin Americans. MOOCs are getting people into their first white-collar jobs, Koller says.
Then there is another cohort of Courserians, people such as Lauren Reader, who works at the University of Melbourne and who has what she calls "an education addiction". Reader has four qualifications: a bachelor of arts, a graduate diploma in theology, a graduate certificate in international and community development and a diploma in professional writing and editing.
She also is studying for a masters degree in education policy.
Despite the alphabet of letters behind her name, Reader enrolled in an introduction to philosophy from the University of Edinburgh on Coursera last year.
"I chose philosophy because it is one of those subjects I've always been interested in but am never going to take for a full degree," she says.
Reader took the seven-week course while doing her masters, working full time and rearing a toddler. Time poor, she says she didn't make the most of the online student forums and peer learning that are a feature of MOOCs. But she has no doubt as to the value of the experience.
"I feel like I really learned something. I now have a much greater understanding of the basic tenets of philosophy. It enhanced my general knowledge and changed the way I see the world."
Some say the threat MOOCs pose to the modern university is that students will choose free online courses over paid on-campus degrees. The most at-risk will be lower-status universities that fail to differentiate themselves in a crowded market.
Others say this is a far-fetched fantasy, pointing to the fact that so far MOOCs have yet to find a successful way of "monetising" the innovation. Most courses — which are usually six to eight weeks long, requiring five to 10 hours doing the course and recommended readings — offer only a certificate of completion but not a stepping stone to a full qualification.
A small number of universities are experimenting with putting courses on a MOOC for free but charging for assessment, tutor feedback and credit, working on the premise that a critical mass of numbers will compensate for the vastly reduced fees. But there is no evidence yet that this is a viable business model.
A recent report from the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney argues that while MOOCs are certain to cause upheaval to the traditional campus-based university, ultimately they also could enhance the student experience. It says the vast amount of data garnered from MOOCs about how students learn is radically shifting ideas about pedagogy.
Authors Sean Gallagher and Geoffrey Garrett say packed-to-the-rafters lecture theatres will become a thing of the past as students learn the basics in their own time and engage in enriched small-group tutorials to debate the issues and peer learn during teaching time.
They use the analogy of iTunes. "ITunes didn't change the way music was made; it revolutionised how people listened to music. Instead of having to buy whole albums, listeners create their own playlists and only pay for what they want," Gallagher and Garrett write. "But live music is thriving in the iTunes world. The Rolling Stones tour more and charge more for concerts than they have before," they say, by way of explaining the traditional campus won't disappear but evolve.
They argue that three types of degrees will emerge from the disruption caused by MOOCs. There will be massive, online, no-borders, low courses, which are already emerging; there will be a continuation of online degrees that are closer to conventional degrees and offered to relatively small numbers of students at a time; and there will be hybrid degrees that integrate technology-based learning into a "rich campus-based experience".
Gallagher agrees the future of universities that fail to differentiate their on-campus or online offerings or get on the MOOC bandwagon too late with a pastiche of poor-quality courses could be looking down the barrel of a gun. But he says high-quality, elite, student-centred universities will thrive, especially for school-leavers, and the experience could be much richer than it is for many students today.
Older, mature-aged students are likelier to head down the MOOC or distance education path, he says.
Felicity Walsh, an artist and single mother of 13-year-old Xavier, has never been to university but gained a diploma in graphic art from a private college years ago.
Walsh heard about MOOCs at a dinner party attended by a group of academics excited about the profound impact they were having in educating Africans with no access to basic resources, including textbooks. Walsh's curiosity was piqued and she signed up a few weeks later. Her course is from the highly ranked liberal arts Wesleyan University; it's called The Modern and Postmodern, a tour through philosophy from Kant at the end of the 18th century to today. Her teacher is Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth.
"I'm doing it out of interest. I just wanted to become more well-rounded. Because I've done so much reading over the years, this adds a timeline to some of the concepts and ideas I've come across along the way," Walsh says.
"And I'm really looking forward to the class on Blade Runner. I've seen the movie many times, in many different circumstances and in many different frames of mind. I can't wait to see what Michael S. Roth has to say about it."
Meanwhile, from next year, anyone, anywhere, with an amateur interest in astronomy and an internet connection will be able to take classes from Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt. Schmidt is ANU's star turn on edX and the class he is teaching — the same as his first-year introduction to astrophysics course — will require only a basic knowledge of calculus and high school physics.
This article was originally published at The Australian