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As the MOOC counter-revolution starts, how will Australian universities respond?

Sydney University quadrangle. Source: wikimedia

Professors of philosophy at San Jose State University have refused to teach using a MOOC (i.e. a ‘massive open on-line course’) and have written an ‘open letter’ (via the subscriber only Chronicle of Higher Education) rejecting the use of MOOCs.

Nominally the letter is written to the Harvard University professor who has designed the MOOC.

In fact, the letter is one of the first shots in the MOOC counter-revolution.

The counter-revolution had to come. And it had to come from university academics because the development of on-line courses has serious implications for these academics.

The authors of the letter note, the potential of MOOCs to create a world of higher education ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. The authors fear two classes of university:

“[O]ne well funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant”.

This anti-MOOC protest highlights a simple point. On-line materials, like MOOCs, can be a complement or a substitute for the on-campus experience. As a complement they can improve student learning. As a substitute they can save money. The question for Australian academics is simple. Which way will our universities go?

MOOCs are simply an early stage of on-line education. Poor quality MOOCs involve videoed ‘chalk and talk’. Higher quality MOOCs are based around short videos that use a variety of approaches to communicate with students. One example, by Kevin Werbach from the University of Pennsylvania is discussed here.

But as Professor Werbach notes:

“The biggest thing I learned is that MOOC students want to feel like they are interacting with a real person”.

This is a problem for MOOCs. How do you have a ‘massive’ course but maintain interaction between the teacher and the students and, more importantly, between the students themselves? While MOOCs can deliver excellent on-line material that can replace lectures, they cannot easily create the environment where students can interact and learn from each other.

One potential future for MOOCs and other on-line material is as an input to an inverted classroom. Courses will be redesigned so that students do the preparatory work (on-line) before class, are tested (on-line) before class then come onto campus for interactive learning such as moderated question-and-answer session and facilitated problem solving and debates. If used in this way, on-line materials will revolutionise university education and improve student learning.

Is this possible? Yes! I am beginning the process of ‘inverting’ my large first year microeconomics course and I am not the first by a long way.

However, on-line materials may also be used as a substitute for on-campus learning. Rather than enhancing the classroom, on-line materials may be used to replace lectures, reduce student contact hours and push the professors out.

This risk is real. Universities are businesses, whether we like it or not. University administrators have budgets to meet and the demands on scarce university funding always exceeds the size of that funding. Administrators may see an opportunity to reduce the funding for teaching (along with academic headcount) by using on-line material as a replacement for student face time.

This risk is greater in an ‘undifferentiated’ university sector like Australia.

In the United States, some universities compete on teaching excellence. It is not surprising that the elite liberal arts Amherst College decided not to follow the MOOC route. Its reputation depends on its teaching. In the competitive US higher education market, Amherst competes by the quality of its teaching and its on-campus experience. When you depend on quality teaching for your student income, on-line materials will be a complement, not a substitute for on-campus interaction.

So in the US, liberal arts colleges will have an incentive to use on-line material to improve teaching. And, hopefully, they will drag other universities in their wake.

In contrast, Australian universities generally do not compete on teaching quality. Student demand depends on history and research reputation. When student demand is, at best, loosely connected to teaching quality, the incentives to use on-line materials as a substitute to save money will be tempting for university administrators.

So Australian tertiary education is fast approaching a tipping point. Will on-line material be used to complement and improve the on-campus experience? Or will it be used as a money-saving substitute that downgrades student learning and reduces academic employment?

Join the conversation

21 Comments sorted by

  1. Lee Emmett

    Guest House Manager

    I'm sure there could be some real advantages, such as interactive use of Skype to network could assist greater participation by students in remote areas. Research and learning by individuals in isolation won't reach the same potential as that achieved in group situations, where conversations often generate new directions.

  2. Tim Pitman

    Senior Lecturer at Curtin University

    Overall, I am very supportive of MOOCs, I think the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. However there are certainly two injustices built into the system.

    The first that higher education sector hierarchies are perpetuated. E.g. EdX is only Harvard and MIT. You have to be an elite institution to be included. Signing up for the MOOC reinforces the superior position of these institutions.

    The second is a form of 'fast time' vs. 'slow time'. MOOCs are education in fast time - free, but their benefit is mitigated. A traditional education is done in 'slow time' and as you observe, carries with it extra advantages. Put bluntly, for many Ivy League/Oxbridge graduates, the benefit of the personal networks they create in residence are far more valuable than the degree they are awarded. MOOCs do give disadvantaged person an opportunity to get a free education, but at the same time they remain excluded from the real power.

    1. David Glance

      Director of Innovation, Faculty of Arts, Director of Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Tim Pitman

      Hi Tim,

      Edx has more universities participating now - including ANU and UQ - so not just Harvard and MIT - it is Coursera that is limiting the membership to the top 5 universities in each country (apparently).

      The SJSU professors were being asked to use the Sandel MOOC in a flipped classroom mode - they would have continued to offer their students contact hours and face-to-face engagement - just not the lecturing bit.

      We are doing this at UWA with a course from Stanford next semester.

      Personally, I think they have done the SJSU students a disservice by denying them the opportunity to really engage with one of the leaders in this area - who just happens to be from Harvard.

  3. MOOC News & Reviews

    logged in via Twitter

    Students want to interact with a real person, as you say. But when people use that as knock on MOOCs, they assume two things that aren't necessarily true -- that there is interaction happening in traditional college classrooms and that interaction is not happening in MOOCs.

    A large number of the students in MOOCs are "non consumers" who couldn't previously access college courses, either because of distance, work responsibilities or cost. So they weren't interacting with professors anyway. A large…

    Read more
  4. Lincoln Fung


    I think each Australian university and all as a whole need to develop a strategy to take the advantages of MOOCs and its contribution to a real education revolution to greatly increase productivity per teaching staff by appropriately using MOOCs and to free more staff time to engage in research.
    A good university administrator would consider that and lead his/her university staff and students in that revolution.
    Any individual academic staff or university that resist changes will be a loser down…

    Read more
  5. Trevor Kerr


    StephenK says "Australian universities generally do not compete on teaching quality. Student demand depends on history and research reputation ..." Geography and distance between metropolises count for something, too, don't they? It would be useful to know how much choice students have, in US and EU. In Europe, if people want to be truly competitive, wouldn't they need to be fluent in more than one language? Wouldn't that, in itself, be an enrichment to the educational process?
    It may that on-line courses are not, in the first instance, mere money-making exercises, but they are an essential element in tertiary studies in *this* country.

  6. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    Given that universities were derived from the teaching institutions of a medieval church which decided that the scriptures should not be available to the general population, then is it not possible to conclude that some academics have not evolved very far from those dark ages roots in the last half- millenium?
    Adam Smith pointed out that the various professions, like the trade guilds, had an interest to restrict their memberships in order that an oversupply did not lead to people "working" (if such…

    Read more
  7. Tim Mazzarol

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

    Hi Stephen

    Thank you for the interesting article. I think there is a good deal of hype surrounding MOOCS that has begun to cloud the debate. In my view the opportunity to make better use of online learning is something all universities and other educational institutions should embrace. However, I don’t think it is a matter of MOOC or no-MOOC, but that the online learning technologies are a useful tool not a replacement for face to face education.

    Currently the offline learning process involves…

    Read more
  8. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    "So Australian tertiary education is fast approaching a tipping point. Will on-line material be used to complement and improve the on-campus experience? Or will it be used as a money-saving substitute that downgrades student learning and reduces academic employment?"

    But the latter option would only happen in a world where universities have become corporatised and have teaching staff working under a vast raft of senior executives who had their KPIs linked to cutting costs and....

  9. Craig Watkins

    logged in via Facebook

    Thanks for the article! I see the best part of this article is the level of thought displayed in the comments. MOOCs may be a new buzzword, but the concept has been around for quite a while (evolving slowly with technology). It is great to see that it is now gaining more widespread interest and discussion. Better late than never perhaps! (As the "industry" is as yet far from mature it is still not necessarily too late to make the right strategic positioning moves.)

    One way or the other greater online components will be a HUGE part of the future of education. The question is not the extent, although there will be "devil in the detail". The question is not even "when". The question now is how to ensure this potentially "disruptive" change doesn't cause too much disruption to education institutions that have been napping on the issue for too long.

  10. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    I think the mooc champions did their cause a disservice by their inflated rhetoric about destroying universities' 'business models', etc. In Australia the better approach is to start with online education which includes moocs, which all Australian universities offer to varying extents blended with their face to face education.

    The issue then becomes what is the best way for each institution to extend and improve blended online learning. Australian universities are experimenting in different ways which hopefully will result in some exciting new forms of education. This would be rather different to the 1 true way advocated by some mooc champions.

  11. John Holmes

    Agronomist - semi retired consultant

    Please define your terms. I may not have consumed my morning cup of coffee but I cannot find a definition/explanation of "MOOC" so consequently I give this paper a fail.

  12. Allan Lindh

    Turkey Farmer

    Don't know if you allow Yanks to butt in, but something important is going unsaid. Not all classes are the same. Philosophy, English, History and the like can only really be taught with small classes and direct one-on-one contact between students and professors and students. They are about thinking, talking and writing, and it must be an interactive process. Attempts to teach them online are a joke.
    Technical subjects, however, Physics, Math, Modern Biology etc. can in part be learned very efficiently…

    Read more
    1. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Allan Lindh

      Allan, I agree almost entirely with what you say. The only caveat I would make is I don't see a reason why an undergraduate MIT course should be any better than say the University of Ballarat. Since the instructors at both institutions will understand the material equally well, the excellence of the course will depend on the skill of the teachers. It is when you get to the post graduate or maybe higher undergraduate that a difference in quality should begin to show itself.
      A found this discussion about rigour and MOOCs interesting and insightful (especially since I am taking both courses).
      I think a traditional university is still interested in ranking students to some degree, whereas I think where MOOCs will thrive if they concentrate on creating an environment where all participants can master a set of skills

    2. Allan Lindh

      Turkey Farmer

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      In my experience, the difference between a course in Math or Science at Caltech, and one covering the same material at Washington State University (a good ag school in Washington State) is the assumptions that are made about the preparation and ability of the students. At Caltech they start at a high level, and make large conceptual leaps from class to class, problem set to problem set. At Wazoo (as we fondly call Washington State) they go slower, more rote work. That students differ in ability is just a fact, in my experience, and therefore Universities vary in how material is presented. The beauty of MOOCs is that very capable students can attempt very high level presentations at MIT for instance, no matter where they are in world. It is a question, however, how many high level MOOCs there need to be in the entire world for the same subject material.

  13. Sandra Simons

    L&D Coordinator

    Throughout all the comments below, has anyone actually been a student to use the MOOC's methodology?
    How was the experience, did it satisfy your preferred method of learning ie visual, auditory, kinaesthic?
    Were you able to use the technology?
    Do you have the necessary equipment, bandwidth, etc etc etc?
    What were the results?
    Do you feel you would have done better with having something explained, debated at the time of your question/s?

    As this is the first of a new 'type' of instruction…

    Read more
    1. Tim Mazzarol

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

      In reply to Sandra Simons

      Hi Sandra

      I have enrolled in MOOCS via Udacity and Coursera that lie within my domain of expertise. I have also examined MOOCs in other fields and some of my students have taken MOOCs.

      My own experience was that these courses - the ones in my field of expertise - were nicely presented with quite good software. They typically had a series of short video clips with a hand on a white board writing up key points as a voice over gave the lecture.

      These were animated representations of a real…

      Read more
  14. Ramesh Fernando

    logged in via Facebook

    I should point out, I was looking up Jeff Borland taking his Coursera course on the Wealth of Nations and found this website, I am Canadian of Sri Lankan ancestry, but the point is MOOC allow excellent profs like Prof. Borland to be viewed by us Canadians, Asians, Latin Americans, Europeans, heck even poor Africans if they can get a wireless Internet connection. I have also taken classes with profs from French (France) universities, and find it helps to get the best. Prof. Borland's lectures advertise the University of Melbourne. Similarly, I am taking a course on Computational Finance and Financial Econometrics from Eric Zivot at University of Washington, I am actually thinking of doing the masters Computational Finance and Risk Management as I find Prof. Zivot along with having checked up on U of Washington having R. Douglas Martin, experts in S-Plus and R, I would very much like to learn from them.