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ANU vice-chancellor issues MOOCs warning

Australian universities should be wary of being their “own worst enemy” when embracing Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) delivery, says Australian National University vice chancellor Ian Young. Comparing…

ANU vice-chancellor Ian Young says those giving away course content for free will find it difficult to later introduce fees. AAP

Australian universities should be wary of being their “own worst enemy” when embracing Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) delivery, says Australian National University vice chancellor Ian Young.

Comparing online course content with newspaper content, Professor Young questioned why Rupert Murdoch made the decision to deliver news content online for free.

“Once you have given away something it is very difficult then to make people pay for it.

“If you’re giving away content and you’ve got a primary product that it’s in competition with, then you better hope what you’re giving away is inferior to your primary product, otherwise it’s going to compete with it.”

Speaking at a conference on high-speed broadband and higher education, Professor Young said ANU was “cautiously watching” MOOC providers, but had no plans to join one.

“I don’t think ANU’s ever going to become a major online provider,” he said.

He added that the only reason MOOCs have managed to attract hundreds of thousands of students to individual courses was because they were being offered by ivy league universities Harvard, Stanford and MIT.

But he questioned the likelihood of these universities ever offering accredited degrees via MOOC providers for free or at a low cost.

“If you’re one of those elite ivy league universities when you make that decision to turn your product into a mass provision product you’re decreasing the value of each of those degrees,” Professor Young said.

He added that doing so would also antagonise the university alumni, potentially harming the endowments so critical to ivy league universities.

But Andrew Norton, program director of higher education at the Grattan Institute, said quality signalling and social signalling would continue to depend on branding, and perception of quality, rather than whether the course was online or offline.

“One effect of the MOOCs is likely to be to add prestige and fashionability to online education, quite independently of any real quality changes.”

Mr Norton said the most commercially valuable asset of Australian higher education providers was their right to award credentials, but he added a competitive market meant chasing marginal students – not just those who had decided to go to university but not decided exactly what or where to study, but those who were not actively considering higher education.

“The opening up of online education provides new ways to reach students that weren’t accessible before.”

Professor Young said the approach taken by the ivy league universities embracing MOOCs was entirely different to that taken by vice-chancellors in Australia.

“If the president or provost of Harvard was sitting here they would be aghast at the way Australian vice-chancellors and Australian universities look at students as a revenue source, because they don’t.”

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23 Comments sorted by

  1. Craig Savage

    Professor of Theoretical Physics at Australian National University

    “If you’re giving away content ... then you better hope what you’re giving away is inferior to your primary product, otherwise it’s going to compete with it.”

    It'll compete anyway! The lesson of disruptive innovation theory is that the organisations that do well either serve small, high-value markets, or develop new low cost models with broad reach. The disruptive product is indeed usually initially inferior, but for most consumers this is outweighed by the greatly lower cost.

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  2. Walter Adamson

    Principal

    Agree on the big picture with Craig, the universities are the collective Gerry Harvey's of online education.

    And because of this bit "If the president or provost of Harvard was sitting here they would be aghast at the way Australian vice-chancellors and Australian universities look at students as a revenue source, because they don’t." - which we all know is EXACTLY true - then their demise will be accelerated because their mental model locks them into protecting something and living in denial…

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  3. Tim Mazzarol

    Winthrop Professor, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Marketing and Strategy at University of Western Australia

    This is a very interesting discussion that reminds me of the late 1990s intense debate over the future of online learning when the early editions of Blackboard, WebCT and the like emerged. These were hailed by some as the end of the university and by others as a risk to educational quality.

    The emergence of any new disruptive technology seems to follow a similar path. Yet the comparison with the newspaper industry is probably relevant. For most of the main stream media outlets the internet was…

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    1. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Tim Mazzarol

      Tim Mazzarol: "... what is the overall purpose of our universities and what should be the funding model ...". Traditionally, universities are seats education and research. Online, I see another purpose: propaganda. That might be more kindly put: promulgating a world view and cultural perspectives.

      If education is given away, then there's no funding from that source except, perhaps, from charging for accreditation. Research pays off only if it leads to commercial outcomes. How much highly valuable research is far removed from commercial results?

      Most of the value of universities (not to forget other educational institutions) is public good. I'm afraid that brings us down to public funding, with all its inherent shortcomings.

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    2. Tim Mazzarol

      Winthrop Professor, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Marketing and Strategy at University of Western Australia

      In reply to David Boxall

      Hi David,

      I think you raise a very important point. The university is one of the world's oldest and most enduring institutions. Although they have their faults, the nation's universities are valuable institutions that help to shape the cultural, economic, scientific and social foundations upon which the country is built.

      If they are turned into businesses, which sadly has been the trajectory of recent decades, they lose much that is important. The "public good" argument you highlight is a key…

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    3. marianne doczi

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Tim Mazzarol

      "The key “customer value proposition” offered by the universities in the realm of education is their ability to accredit degrees" Is it? I have a degree, like many other fellow students in the Social Network Analysis paper I'm doing at the University of Michigan through Coursera. In fact, many of my fellow students have Masters and doctorates. We're doing this course because it offers us the opportunity to build our knowledge in an important area of contemporary analysis. We don't want another…

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    4. Walter Adamson

      Principal

      In reply to Tim Mazzarol

      Yes I think this is key "The future of our university sector is likely to depend on the customer’s preference". That's for certain, and if you are not in the game then you aren't going to get chosen.

      I appreciate that there are a lot of grand thoughts being expressed in the comments about the role of universities that go beyond my philosophical ken but I think they miss a few guttural points. A. International students have been treated as nothing more than financial fodder so for them more choice…

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    5. Michael J. Biercuk

      Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Walter Adamson

      Hi Walter,

      My point is that Universities are able to respond to changes in technology without the sky falling, as some seem to be suggesting.

      But moreover, it's important to note that MIT has been offering open courseware for more than a decade. During that time, anyone could pursue literally hundreds of courses (albeit not in real time). Despite this, MIT still has a crop of freshmen every year, and general US national enrolment in College/University over this period has not seen a decline.

      There's truth to the fact that some so-called "service courses" offered to broad parts of the University in early years of an undergraduate degree could well go entirely online. Or MOOCs might subsume such a role. However, there is no evidence that they will end Universities. Where, for instance, will students perform research in the sciences if a MOOC model were pursued?

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    6. Walter Adamson

      Principal

      In reply to Michael J. Biercuk

      Sure. Isn't the difference that MIT is thriving as it also actively embraces the MOOC model and therefore is quite a way down the track in understanding the structural and organisational implications? Whereas in the local case we have a totally different structural problem e.g. international students as cash cows, and are resisting MOOCs. So therefore we are already well behind.

      When someone effectively breaks the local cartels on accreditation, or comes up with an equally attractive standard…

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    7. Michael J. Biercuk

      Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Walter Adamson

      Hi Walter,

      First, my criticism isn't that MOOCs are nonsense, etc., it's that the level of histrionics about how they will kill Universities is rather hyperbolic.

      Indeed, it's a good thing to embrace new developments in technology. This trend *might* be big, especially for smaller teaching focused universities, but I personally doubt it will have much impact beyond introductory courses at elite research-intensive Universities.

      Whether MIT is embracing this approach or not, its student…

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  4. Lincoln Fung

    Economist

    I think ANU chancellor is likely to be on the wrong side and too cautious on this. As a result, the university may suffer in the longer term.
    It is likely to be a trend. The best and most successful universities out of successful embracing MOOCs are likely to be the ones combining learning and research and business innovation with online delivery.
    How to commercialise online delivery is as important to news and other contents as to university courses.
    Eventually, it is likely that some kind of universal recognition will emerge.

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  5. Michael J. Biercuk

    Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics at University of Sydney

    All of this debate is horribly depressing.

    First, from a practical perspective it reminds me of how people felt that the advent of personal tape recorders would kill University lecture courses; see "Real Genius" for a great satirical example.

    But moreover, all of this focuses exclusively on the specious suggestion that Universities do nothing but deliver lecture courses.

    Universities are fundamentally about the *generation and dissemination* of knowledge. These two purposes cannot be…

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    1. Tim Mazzarol

      Winthrop Professor, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Marketing and Strategy at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Michael J. Biercuk

      Hi Michael

      I agree with your views that universities do a lot more than just teach. However, the problem is the funding formulas for our universities. There is some money from research, but often not enough to underwrite the full range of staff and program costs that make up the current environment.

      If student enrollments decline, particularly full fee paying students, the impact will be job losses. This is the reason why we need to ask the question, what is the purpose of our universities…

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    2. Michael J. Biercuk

      Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Tim Mazzarol

      Hi Tim,

      I certainly agree that the funding model is lacking. My question is really why University leaders fail to argue from the perspective of the breadth of University contributions in education.

      I think that applying a line-item approach to cost-recovery in a University is deeply flawed. That is because the dual purposes of research and education cannot easily be extricated. I'd therefore say that we as academics should refuse to argue on these grounds and form a united front explaining…

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    3. Tim Mazzarol

      Winthrop Professor, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Marketing and Strategy at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Michael J. Biercuk

      Hi Michael

      I think we're actually a lot closer to agreement than might be seen. I generally agree with you that a more multifaceted approach to funding is needed. I also agree that a university's contribution cannot be and probably should not be measured in narrow, direct financial returns.

      I don't deny that salaries can be funded from ARC grants but in the broad they are not available for this and are not usually sufficient to fund long term stable appointments.

      So the nub of the problem is to find a way to widen the debate over what a university is for and how it should be funded. At the end of the day universities are expensive institutions and there are many different funding models around the world.

      Australia's higher education funding model has gone through many changes over the decades. I suspect it will be going through some more changes in this one.

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    4. Michael J. Biercuk

      Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Tim Mazzarol

      Hi Tim,

      Thanks for the response. It does seem we are largely in agreement.

      Now, let's get down to the actual business of explaining to the public and the government what the true purposes and values of Universities actually are!

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    5. Craig Savage

      Professor of Theoretical Physics at Australian National University

      In reply to Michael J. Biercuk

      I don't think it's clear that the "generation and dissemination of knowledge. ... cannot be separated".

      This proposition has been the subject of extensive research and debate. My evaluation is that the evidence favours the separation of teaching and research. It's a question of focus. The exceptions may be a few universities of the caliber of Harvard or Cambridge, that can afford the best academics in the world. And of course genuine partnership, such as a quality PhD education.

      For example, the CSIRO does excellent research but does not teach. The US system of diverse universities, some of which only teach, has been admired world wide. However it appears to be undergoing fundamental change as the economics of university teaching is becoming unacceptable to both students and academics.

      Don't be depressed Michael: it is inspiring to see people getting a quality of education they had never dreamed of. MOOCs have already made the world a better place.

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    6. Michael J. Biercuk

      Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Craig Savage

      Hi Craig,

      Sorry, but as you might expect I strongly disagree. Forgive the bluntness of my reply.

      First, I agree that there is a diversification of universities in any country. I would not, however, say that the diversification of universities in the US is so well admired. I think an objective reading would show that the Universities that are truly admired abroad are the research intensive Universities where research and education are closely linked. That being said, I am in favor of seeing…

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    7. Craig Savage

      Professor of Theoretical Physics at Australian National University

      In reply to Michael J. Biercuk

      Like the idea of God, I think the idea that research and teaching are linked would be promoted even if it weren't true. Universities get their prestige from research, but many get significant income from teaching. Hence the desire to link them.

      However, research seems to show no correlation between research productivity and teaching effectiveness: http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/tomprof/posting.php?ID=1037

      Arguably, the main outcomes of the fashion for linking research and teaching have been to remove good teachers from the classroom so they can research, and to remove good researchers from the lab so they can teach. Unfortunately, there are not enough of those wonderful, overworked, academics who excel at both to go around.

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    8. Michael J. Biercuk

      Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Craig Savage

      Hi Craig,

      Invoking a concept that is not falsifiable here doesn't make much sense - I provided historical evidence in support of my claim that research and education are linked.

      Let's also be clear that there is more to teaching than just lecture courses.

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