In the past year it appears that an ‘accelerant’ has been added to the mix of global factors that are driving change in higher education.  In May, MOOCs – or massive open online courses – emerged on the international landscape as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard joined forces to launch ‘edX’, which offers courses to both on campus students and to millions of people around the world for free. One of the first offerings, “Circuits and Electronics” from MITx attracted a staggering 154,763 enrolments with 7,157 students making it to the end and passing the course. EdX is growing and from 2013 will add courses from ‘BerkeleyX’ and UTx (University of Texas). In parallel, two academics from Stanford University launched Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company with 33 partner universities worldwide offering courses online to students – or rather, the quaintly named, ‘Courserians’.   Just this week, the University of Melbourne announced that it has secured more than 38,500 enrolments for courses to be offered through Coursera in 2013; and separately, the University of New South Wales has already launched Australia’s first free online course in introductory computing with more than 1,000 people signing up on the first day.

So, should the University be ‘spooked by MOOCs’ – or should we be excited as educators that technology will allow a greater number of our students to access more informed content and resources than might currently be available on Wikipedia or You Tube?  Should we be excited about how such open educational resources can transform learning worldwide?  We already know from the 2010 meta-analysis from the US Department of Education that online learning methods are, on average, at least as effective as face-to-face learning; and that ‘blended’ methods, which involve both virtual and face-to-face learning, are more effective than face-to-face alone.  Furthermore, the 2012 Study of Undergraduate Students and IT by the EDUCAUSE Centre for Applied Research found that two out of every three students considered technology elevates the level of teaching, and that open educational resources and game-based learning were at the top of the list of what students wished their teachers used more.

What the advent of MOOCs has provided is the impetus for a rigorous debate on the added value of a university experience in a world where time is at a premium and knowledge is freely available. It also requires a step change in our own University’s approach to teaching and learning.  Is it time for large first year lectures to become just one of a number of unsatisfactory teaching and learning experiences of the past? Do we move to a future where students access relevant material online before coming into a virtual or face-to-face environment to work through the material with skilled teachers or great ‘learning analytic’ approaches?  Supporting students to harness knowledge to understand their world and its past, to solve complex problems, to apply to case or clinical studies or as a platform for creativity will always be our core business; and the new technologies may well support a new and more satisfying engagement between student and academic – if we get it right.

This will require, however, some of us to be brave and experiment with and apply those new technologies across courses, programs and teaching to deliver that added value.  As a university we have to support that change and acknowledge that recruiting staff with the willingness to experiment in learning and teaching, supported by our professional experts, is part of building our future workforce. For these reasons, we have signalled a clear intent to support such changes through our NeW Directions Education and Future Workforce Plans.  One of our lead strategies highlights that “’UoNline Plus’ is an initiative that will support the expansion and quality of online ‘blended’ (virtual+) approaches across 80% of the University’s courses through building academic and professional staff capacity and the provision of world-class virtual and physical learning environments”.

One of the many challenges ahead is to be clear about what we should build ‘in the cloud’ and what we should build ‘on the ground’ to support our education and research plans. It is clear that we should pause before building large lecture theatres and standard tutorial rooms and, rather, consider the types of teaching and learning spaces that will be required in the world of MOOCs, game-based learning and simulations. We are currently working to capture what some of those requirements might be – particularly for ‘The NeW Space Project’, that is currently planned for the city as a space that meets the new teaching and learning requirements, and provides access to digital resources and collaborative and engaged research. But that, as they say, is a topic for another time – funding bids, governments and budgets willing.

Professor Caroline McMillen

What are your thoughts on MOOCs?  Share your comments, we’d love to hear them.