MOOCs or campus? In the future, you choose

MOOC graduates would throw their laptops in the air instead. Chris Ison/PA

A napster moment; the end of boring lectures; a tipping point. These are all common responses to the emergence of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses. Now, simply using a laptop or iPad, hundreds of thousands of students can tune in to lectures from anywhere around the globe. It is said that economies of scale and consumer choice will transform the traditional business models of higher education, rendering the campus largely redundant.

There is no doubt that MOOCs are a wake-up call for universities, but the beginning of the end for all but a handful of centres of higher education? Not just yet.

The use of distance learning as a cost-effective and convenient alternative to campus based education is not new. In the UK for example, the Open University has offered a wide range of courses to students for decades. It is unsurprising that in 2012 they launched Futurelearn, a UK-led online platform, with courses available sometime later in 2013.

MOOCs will no doubt drive down the price of some university degrees. And developments in distance-learning platforms may – in some cases – remove the requirement for attendance at a campus. This could be transformational and particularly exciting if it heralds a new dawn of open access education.

Perhaps more prosaically, MOOCs are seen to offer a solution to the issue of student debt. In the US, student loans are estimated to exceed $1 trillion and in the UK, the taxpayer faces anything up to £3-4 billion in write-off costs for the current loan scheme. But high quality distance learning fit for remote education by thousands of students cannot be developed on the cheap, whether students pay or not. Online learning materials are notoriously expensive in terms of staff time, as are the costs of developing robust and sophisticated methods of assessment. These are all essential for validating learning outcomes and degree programmes of value to students and employers.

The current dropout rates for MOOCs – estimated at 90 in every 100 students – are simply not acceptable for a mainstream degree programme. So while MOOCs matter, they are in themselves unlikely to directly replace mainstream degree programmes.

When considering the possibilities offered by MOOCs, it is vital to remember that education is not a one-way transfer of information from teacher to student – if it were then a student could simply read a book and do the requisite coursework. The most substantial investment in the education process is the time an individual spends in understanding a subject through various learning activities, of which a lecture is one element. So the real question is not what will MOOCs do to universities, but what students want from online, campus or blended degree programmes.

But MOOCs are a warning shot across the bows of universities, which need to become much more flexible and responsive to the individual needs of students. Universities will need to provide the opportunity to study a degree through either traditional campus-based study, fully online courses, or a blend of the two.

The most tantalising prospect that MOOCs offer is the possibility of a truly personalised educational experience: a vision of a student who is not shackled by a lecture timetable, availability of a tutor, a library or perhaps even a specific degree programme. The student of the future may choose to learn in isolation, intensively over a short period, using online videos, blogs, tutorials and social networks. Or they may fit their study around childcare, or a job. Most importantly, they will have choices that fit their circumstances.

Of course, lest we forget, there are subjects where physically studying in one place will always be necessary. Learning through virtual experience may not always be sufficient. Just as we might prefer car drivers to have driven a real car before taking to the road, we might wish for doctors to have seen patients, or for our scientists to have carried out real experiments in real labs. For many, campus universities will therefore remain an essential requirement for successful acquisition of the skills necessary for professional practice.

For others, the campus experience may become optional, or even viewed as a luxury, but campuses will remain an important option. Even if the time people spend on campus is reduced, or becomes more intensely focused around periods of face-to-face study, it will remain a vital part of university education for many.

So yes, the days of the purely bricks and mortar university may be numbered. What MOOCs give us is a glimpse of the future, an educational experience personalised to the user – the student – and their needs. In education, as with healthcare, a one size fits all approach is over. Universities will become hubs for meeting, learning and networking, but not as now.

Flexibility is the future – and MOOCs are the change which will blow fusty ivory towers open the world over.