The Australian

By Sean Gallagher

Earlier this month at the American Council on Education conference in Washington DC, the session on Massive Open Online Courses was overbrimming.

The audience, including many dozens of presidents and provosts from colleges and universities from all across the US, was there to hear a panel of MOOC pioneers including Daphne Koller, co-founder and co-chief executive of Coursera, and Anant Agarwal, president of edX, along with university first movers Peter Lange, provost of Duke University, and Kevin Reilly, president of the University of Wisconsin system.

Every major US university and college, public and private, is keenly focused on determining how it should strategically respond to MOOCs.

Late last week, Californian lawmakers announced intentions to force the University of California to grant credit for a range of low-cost online courses offered by providers outside the UC system. Whereas elite universities are using MOOCs to take their education to the masses, what California proposes would take mass education to the elite. This move potentially strikes at the very heart of what universities have spent centuries trying to protect — their prestige.

The reason a university such as Duke, Wisconsin or Southampton in Britain is experimenting with online education is not just because of the tremendous potential: the real benefits specific to each institution will be determined through learning by doing at all levels, from senior leadership to academics to students.

Blended learning or the "flipped classroom" — whereby students do the work via an interactive MOOC before coming to a class to interact with the instructor — is the format favoured by leading universities. In effect, MOOCs are next generation textbooks. This is where the analogy ends.

Textbooks demonstrate only one way to learn a concept. Through online communities of interactive learning, and combined with computer grading and peer assessment, students see that there are many ways of learning.

Early assessment of blended learning is positive. Agarwal reported that at San Jose State University the "retake rate" for students in an engineering course dropped from 41 per cent to 9 per cent when blended with the corresponding edX course.

It's not just the students who learn better, it is also the academics. At edX, Agarwal refers to MOOCs as the "particle accelerator of learning". Through mining data of thousands of students, the aim is to better understand how students learn and to use this feedback to continually improve how academics teach and present material. In the one year since starting operations, Coursera had registered 2.9 million students. In the first week of this month, 600,000 students enrolled.

Coursera has entered into agreements with 62 universities, including 24 outside the US, among them Melbourne.

EdX has expanded from founding institutions Harvard and MIT to 12 universities, including ANU.

The early MOOC success was in engineering courses, but now some of the highest demand is in the non-STEM disciplines such as a Duke University philosophy course called Think Again, with 170,000 enrolments worldwide. Indeed through the 12 MOOCs it offers through Coursera, Duke University is teaching into parts of the world it has never before accessed.

The recent accreditation by ACE of five Coursera courses, and with edX courses in the pipeline for ACE credit, is likely to improve low completion rates. But many foreign universities, particularly in developing countries, are already independently recognising MOOCs as credit towards degrees, such as 10 students at one university in Mongolia who have had their edX classes credited. As the motivation for taking a MOOC moves from curiosity to credit, there is likely to be an upsurge in completion and quality. Witness California.

At Wisconsin, MOOCs are an opportunity to experiment with courses on 21st century topics. An initial set of four pilot MOOCs includes one on videogames and learning and another on globalising higher education. But Wisconsin is also using Gates Foundation support to experiment with MOOCs in remedial maths.

The ACE panel discussion is just the tip of the MOOC iceberg. Privately, several leading US public universities are considering radical changes to the bachelor degree structure.

At one major university, up to one in four undergraduate courses could be taught online to allow students more time for internships and experiential learning.

But what is emerging in the US is that one size does not fit all. Each institution is aiming to create value aligned to their comparative advantage.

Australian universities need to be part of this far-reaching discussion.

This article was originally published at The Australian