Online open education: yes, this is the game changer

The rise of open online courses will affect almost every part of higher education, including the international student market in Australia. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Mass Open Online Courseware (MOOCs) is less than a year old but it is already clear this will be the game changer in higher education worldwide. Right now it is reverberating through Australian universities like a tectonic shock.

The new paradigm, first developed in late 2011 by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig at Stanford University, now based in Silicon Valley, will be as disruptive to conventional delivery in higher education as the internet has been for book publishers, newspapers, and the retail giants.

Just the beginning

Thrun’s first course in artificial intelligence quickly enrolled 160,000 students. His crucial innovation was not free courseware, which was ten years old, but online grading in multiple choice format and certification at the end of the program.

Students weren’t able to be credited in conventional degrees but could receive a “Statement of Accomplishment” that carried the Stanford brand. It was not a substitute for Stanford degrees but a new kind of prestige credential adapted to the internet.

The course involved student-to-student tutorial discussions, work groups and support systems. In the MOOC format, queries can be routed through FAQs and students can assess each other. It’s free, dirt cheap to run, rigorous in standard and brings you the world experts.

Physics from Higgs or Hawking beats the local science teacher any day. Especially if you don’t have one.

Thrun’s company Udacity now has more than 20 staff pumping out courseware. Two Stanford colleagues have created the parallel company Coursera which is building global enrolments in over 50 programs, using name professors from Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Harvard and MIT have formed a partnership under the name “edX”.

The economics of disruption

The MOOC paradigm disrupts normal higher education for reasons that are inherent in the economics of internet-provided goods. Firstly, it is disruptive because open access knowledge is a “public good” that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable.

As the late Elinor Ostrom said in her 2009 Nobel Prize lecture:

“Public goods are both non-excludable (impossible to keep those who have not paid for a good from consuming it) and non-rivalrous (whatever individual A consumes does not limit the consumption by others).”

It’s a good description of the web as a whole. But prestige higher education provided free of charge has another feature that looks more like a market. When competing for free hits from the public, MOOCs from household name Ivy League universities have a decided edge over Snake Gully College. It’s not just an advantage, it’s complete domination.

Open courseware has the same logic as the winner-take-all markets in celebrity actors or top movies or music. A tiny handful of producers and products dominate the global market, overwhelmingly. After all, there is only one Elvis, and only one Harvard.

How does “free” make money?

Can universities make money out of MOOCs? As with Google, the free service creates a global public, which can become the platform for advertising, and for commercial services such as advanced assessment and grading, employment placement, individualised counselling and publishing. edX and others might also place a low cost pay-wall in front of their advanced programs. It would be risky, but still far cheaper than conventional higher education delivery.

And if employers agree the contents of MOOCs look attractive, the alternate credential represented by MOOCs will generate employability benefits as well. “Graduates” could entice employers with half a dozen prestige MOOCs on their CVs, in place of a three-year degree in business or computing.

Adding or replacing?

The MOOC model has the potential to disrupt conventional Australian university education in two ways—as a substitute, and as a supplement.

MOOCs’ full power as a substitute is yet to be tested. The orthodox degrees provided by leading global universities (which means the American Ivy League and a few others) will retain their social and cultural capital and career forming benefits.

Worldwide promotion of the brand via MOOCs will enhance the value of those conventional degrees. The internet is effective in building status. The question is what happens to other universities; especially given that employer take-up of MOOCs is unknown.

The international and domestic market

It is likely that Australia’s role in international education will be affected. The rapid growth of the Asian middle classes means that overall demand for foreign education will continue to grow. Some students will still enrol in English-speaking countries because of the benefits of immersion in the language, cultural knowledge and life-skills. Australia will still be competing with other English-speaking countries there.

No doubt, though, some international students will decide that free Harvard or Stanford MOOCs on their CVs are a more cost-effective proposition than spending $40,000 or more per year for three or four years in Australia.

There will be less disruption of first-degree domestic enrolments. The HECS-HELP income continent loans system lowers financial barriers, and many students like the onsite experience where they can meet each other. But some will opt for MOOCs if the “Statements of Accomplishment” work with employers.

The effects might be greater among lifelong learners, those seeking skill-upgrading, a change of direction or just interesting courses. Many will find attractive not just MOOC contents but the flexibility offered by online learning.

A changing role

If lectures, tutorials and assessment become more global, like textbooks did in the twentieth century, then Australian universities will have to reinvent themselves. It is likely they will step up their role in brokering work experience during degrees and become more serious about vocational and career counselling at the point of departure, possibly moving into employment placement at scale.

We can expect a multiplication of support services and facets of the extra-curricular student experience, and in some institutions, a more pronounced emphasis on graduate research programs where intensive teaching will remain essential.

Some universities will use MOOCs to slash their personnel costs, though academic capacity is the weak spot in many institutions, and Australian universities need research outputs to hold up their heads in the global market.

MOOCs put unprecedented pressure on the teaching/research nexus. Perhaps teaching-focused academics will be pared back and more research-only positions created. The main onsite work in the future could be research not teaching.

Global influence

But there will be a nagging question to deal with, one that was always implicit but was never faced: “What is an Australian degree and what does this mean in terms of course contents?” Some Go8 universities may float their own MOOCs but they will be hard-pressed to win in that game.

They will cut little ice against Stanford and Cambridge et al in the Atlantic countries. They might become major players if they adopt a strong Asia-orientation and market hard in the region. The Australian National University (ANU) with its massive concentration of expertise on China, Japan, Indonesia and other Asian countries, is the institution currently best placed to follow that path.

No doubt most Australian universities will develop a blend of local and global contents. But they will find themselves continuously pulled towards the global side of the equation, which will compel both the university producers and student consumers. In this we see the mixed benefits that globalisation always brings, and the combined economic character of MOOCs as both public good and winner-take-all market.

In that respect MOOCs are like the internet itself, they represent a tremendous worldwide democratisation of knowledge, bringing, as British poet Matthew Arnold put it, “the best which has been thought and said” to every corner of the planet.

There is another side to that coin, of course. As Arnold’s high Victorian educational mission always implied, MOOCs could enforce an unprecedented level of global sameness in higher education. MOOCs mean the homogenisation (and in this case the Americanisation) of knowledge, learning and culture.

These certainly are interesting times.