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Deadset? MOOCs and Australian education in a globalised world

FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: We continue our series on the rise of online and blended learning and how free online courses are set to transform the higher education sector. Today Ruth Morgan looks at the…

Australian humanities subjects need to get on board with MOOCs and develop Australian voices in online learning. World image from

FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: We continue our series on the rise of online and blended learning and how free online courses are set to transform the higher education sector. Today Ruth Morgan looks at the cultural dimension of online education and where Australian history fits in.

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, allow students to choose from a host of courses from leading experts for free online. A veritable smorgasbord of learning awaits the online student, or so it would seem.

But look closer and ask yourself, how much choice is really on offer?

Last month, Professor Simon Marginson warned that for all the excitement over this new paradigm, “MOOCs mean the homogenisation of knowledge, learning and culture”. After all, at this stage many of these courses are based at American Ivy League universities, offering their particular view and course content.

How then will the rise of online education affect how courses about Australia, its peoples, politics and histories, are taught?

An Australian perspective

Australian universities are now just beginning to develop their own MOOCs – largely courses with a global focus – but American MOOCs still dominate.

Already online education has brought its own kind of cultural cringe – we assume if it’s from overseas, it must be better. As Communications Minister Stephen Conroy put it earlier this month, “What is a lecture worth if the best lecturer in the world at MIT is online for free for all to access?”

In some cases this might be true, but there are many subject areas, particularly in the humanities where Australian students need local knowledge and understanding. Indeed, why would MIT or any American university offer courses that focus exclusively on Australia’s Federation in 1901 or its development during the nineteenth century?

Having an Australian voice in Australian education is an important asset. And whether you are a student of the sciences or the humanities, mathematics or philosophy, your teacher will leave an imprint of their background, principles and worldview in the way they convey their course.

As an historian, far be it from me to gaze into a crystal ball, but there are some clues about the future implications of online education for humanities students, or at least for the teaching and learning of Australian history.

The future of Australian history

Recently, there have been questions raised about the future of Australian history as a national project and as a field of scholarly research.

Earlier this year, higher education commentators observed the decline of undergraduate enrolments in Australian history, such that some universities had considerably reduced their offerings in the field.

Australian historians, too, are changing their outlook and increasingly looking at their research in broader terms – weaving Australian stories into larger global tapestries.

But neither of these trends signals the demise of Australian history: often students gravitate towards Australian history in their later studies, while Australian readers voraciously consume books about the nation’s past.

MOOCing Australian subjects

Although there are questions about the US dominance of MOOCs so far, there may also be opportunities here for Australian historians and humanities teachers. By definition, MOOCS are very “open” and could help present the growing transnational, global and comparative approaches in Australian history to students both at home and abroad.

In doing so, these online courses might attract new audiences to Australian voices and stories, which could provide Antipodean insights into global issues and debates.

But just as “face to face” teaching and learning in the bricks and mortar university requires a consideration of both course content and its communication, so too does its online delivery. This approach requires more imaginative approaches than simply making “chalk and talk” lecture recordings available online.

Already the move towards applying national standards to the teaching of tertiary-level history has encouraged greater scholarly engagement with the ways that the discipline is taught in Australian universities. In online learning too, we need the same examination of pedagogy and teaching quality.

What next?

In light of government and institution budget pressures, it is not surprising that many academics view this brave new world of online learning with some anxiety. They can take some relief in the views of Professor Stephen King, who recently argued that, “The internet will augment but not replace the face-to-face experience”.

For the humanities, this face to face experience can not be substituted. It is only there that the teacher and students can engage directly with each other, the course material and the events of the day, and in doing so, take part in the intellectual discussions and debates that shape their discipline and our nation.

Nonetheless, Australian historians need to look closely at how we teach the skills of the historian, of historical thinking, research and writing in the online environment and investigate how online and face-to-face learning can complement each other.

The series will conclude next week with a panel discussion in Canberra co-hosted with the Office for Learning and Teaching and involving the Minister for Tertiary Education, Chris Evans.

We’d love you to take part: leave your comments, join the discussion on,

This is part eight of our series on the Future of Higher Education. You can read other instalments by clicking the links below:

Part one: Online opportunities: digital innovation or death through regulation?, Jane Den Hollander

Part two: MOOCs and exercise bikes – more in common than you’d think, Phillip Dawson & Robert Nelson

Part three: How Australian universities can play in the MOOCs market, David Sadler

Part four: MOOC and you’re out of a job: uni business models in danger, Mark Gregory

Part five: Radical rethink: how to design university courses in the online, Paul Wappett

Part six: Online education: can we bridge the digital divide?, Tim Pitman

Part seven: Online learning will change universities by degrees, Margaret Gardner

Join the conversation

8 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Smithers

    logged in via Twitter

    Sorry Ruth, I could not disagree more. There is nothing to stop Australian universities running MOOCs other than their own lack of vision and almost complete aversion to risk and change. I certainly think that Australian universities should be offering open courses and, indeed, open courseware. It is in everybody's interests to do so and to do so very soon. They've had plenty of forewarning.

    I also think you're quite wrong about the ability for humanities courses to be delivered online. There are many examples of very good humanities courses being delivered wholly online. If I had a dollar for every academic that told me that their discipline was different and couldn't possibly be delivered online then I'd be a rich man (well slightly better off anyway).



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

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Mark Smithers

      But this article doesn't argue that history can't be taught on line; it argues that Australians need to be taught Australian history with ' local knowledge and understanding', whether taught on line or face to face. Further, the article argues that all subjects should have 'an Australian voice', again regardless of how they are taught.

    2. Mark Smithers

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Penultimate paragraph:
      "For the humanities, this face to face experience can not be substituted. It is only there that the teacher and students can engage directly with each other, the course material and the events of the day, and in doing so, take part in the intellectual discussions and debates that shape their discipline and our nation."

    3. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to Mark Smithers

      In fact, my recent experience showed that Australian universities can NOT teach the humanities well. The problem is these universities with 30,000 and more students are just too diverse compared to even 20 years ago. Trying to teach Medieval History, complex philosophical texts, comparative religion in tutorials with 25 or more students, whose ATARs range from 99.9 to 75.0 is impossible. On current ATAR equivalents, before about 1990, most students at Melbourne/Sydney uni had ATARs of 90+.


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  2. Joseph Bernard


    One of the few things that we can be sure of, is change.

    Online courses and libraries are a magnificent resource that we should exploit.

    Courses still need people to explain, teach and assess students. Now we have the opportunity of teaching far more people than ever before.

  3. Nanette Kerrison


    Other areas where American online courses cannot assist Australians are in the fields of Australian law and Australian accounting/business. Unfortunately universities (and other higher education providers) here generally see those subjects as cash cows, and generally only disseminate them with large fees (if not high entry scores as well) attached, limiting their accessibiilty.

    Humanities in Australia seem to have been fighting a rear-guard action certainly for all of my adult life. I have noticed that the reaction to MOOCs here on theconversation has been coloured by the ongoing desperate struggle humanities' departments here have simply to survive.

  4. Jane Louise Hunter

    Specialist in technology and curriculum in teacher education at University of Western Sydney

    About to do my first MOOC through Edinburgh University in January 2013 - interested to understand the student experience 'first hand'. I taught Masters degrees to teachers in education in the late 1990s ... I wonder how much has changed? Back then evaluation suggested postgraduate students did still want to meet face-2-face during the course at some stage. Can you learn to teach in a school classroom without 'live' interaction at regular intervals? Would we accept as 'good enough' the doctor or dentist who had only ever studied online?