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From MOOCs to HARVARDs: will online go mainstream?

Will the hype around free high quality higher education last? Online image from

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) draw a spectrum of responses. Should we be spruiking MOOCs? Spooked by MOOCs? Or hoping the hype will fade and the fad will pass?

Most of us know the headlines. Free online courses from leading institutions, open to students in their thousands. Digital content and highly scalable courseware. Student learning supported by virtual cohorts, learner analytics, embedded assessments and digital certificates.

In some fields at least, the mass production of elite higher learning is now feasible. As a Grattan Institute report notes:

The economic key to online delivery is that marginal costs … are low. Once the course materials and assessment exercises are put online, they can be used by more students at very low additional cost.

Will an “avalanche” of high quality, low cost, mass scale online courses “revolutionise” higher education, as Pearson’s Michael Barber predicts? Will universities be dismantled in the process?

Recent reviews such as the UK government’s “maturing of the MOOC” report find credible opinion divided.

Great for learning, bad for business?

For most universities, MOOCs are both a threat and an opportunity. Terrific for the traditional academic mission but terrifying for the traditional business model. Once their quality is accepted as comparable to campus-based study, MOOCs represent what Harvard’s Clay Christensen calls a “disruptive innovation”, capable of reshaping an industry, in this case higher education.

In this future, students will face a wide range of fees for similar courses with different delivery channels. They’ll factor in the time, travel and living costs associated with fully online versus mainly campus-based study. Then, allowing for the brand recognition each institution confers with its degrees, they’ll choose their best option.

In a report on “disruptive education” Sean Gallagher and Geoffrey Garrett from the Universities of Sydney and New South Wales predict that:

“Students will only continue to pay real money for university degrees if they continue to add much more value than other cheaper and more convenient educational experiences and credentials.”

If the 2011 Base Funding Review is a guide, Australian universities aren’t ready for this. Its 130-page report mentioned online study just three times and saw no real change to the organisation or economics of higher education:

“While the increased use of ICT could arguably lead to a reduction in some costs…there seems to be a consensus in the sector that e-learning and other activities supplement rather than replace existing teaching and learning practices.”

After MOOCs, any such “consensus” is doomed. In fact, the University of New England’s Vice-Chancellor Jim Barber has called on the new Coalition government to allow for a “fully online” Australian university.

MOOC sceptics and the “hype cycle”

Yet sceptics still dismiss the “disruptive” MOOC. They say MOOCs have no sustainable business model, costing lots but earning little. They cite massive attrition rates: vast numbers enrol, but up to 95% drop out. They note that universities don’t offer degrees to students for completing a set of MOOCs; and that MOOC certificates aren’t recognised by employers the way degrees are.

These points broadly reflect recent experience. Free, world-class courses are on offer, but free degrees are not. MOOC certificates aren’t (yet) widely accepted as credit toward degrees, or as professional credentials. To sceptics, most MOOC users are intellectual tourists or institutional tyre-kickers; not serious students, intent on degrees and careers.

Up to a point, they’re right. Serious students don’t want MOOCs, they want HARVARDs: Highly Accessible (and Rigorous), Very Affordable (and Recognised) Degrees. What sceptics don’t yet quite get is how the rise of MOOCs promotes the spread of HARVARDs. And not just with scalable pedagogy: with MOOCs, leading universities boost the profile and legitimacy of online study generally.

So, will an “avalanche” of HARVARDs now swamp universities and send most of them broke? No. Can unis just stand firm until the online threat fades (like last time)? No.

More likely, discipline by discipline and market by market, HARVARDs will (loosely) follow a Gartner “Hype Cycle” of experimentation, adaptation and adoption.

A Gartner “Hype Cycle”. Source: Wikipedia.

The University of Western Sydney’s Jonathan Tapson foresees a “very slow tsunami” unfolding as MOOCs travel this innovation path over the coming decade.

A Gartner “Hype Cycle” projection for MOOCs. Source: Jonathan Tapson, September 2013.

Crunch the numbers or be crunched?

In the US market, MOOC-based HARVARDs have begun to appear. As the University of Western Australia’s David Glance notes, a new course at Georgia Tech has “disruptive” potential. It provides a fully online Masters in Computer Science for less than US$7000, while its campus-based equivalent costs $20,000+ for locals and $40,000+ for out-of-state (or international) students.

Let’s assume that in time, Georgia Tech enrols the 10,000 online students it seeks, and its Udacity partnership supports them well enough to complete. (The target here includes 6000 qualified to enter the three-year Masters directly, 2000 entering the Masters track if they do well in core subjects after pre-admission, and 2000 seeking Certificates by selecting from Masters subjects.)

On this scale, at say $6600 per Masters and $2200 per Certificate, revenue of $50m+ flows to the partnership. Georgia Tech’s 60% share would more than offset any campus-based losses, even if those 300 places all went unfilled. But note the wider market effect: at other uni campuses, Computer Science student numbers also drop. If they can’t tap new revenue, their business models will be crunched while Georgia Tech cleans up.

The end of an era?

Many students will welcome HARVARDs. So will many governments. In a speech on US college affordability in August, President Obama commended the Georgia Tech example as a way forward: “just as rigorous” yet for “a fraction of the cost”.

But for traditional universities, all this implies less public funding and/or lower fees per student, on average. And for many scholars, a sector typified by online HARVARDs is unthinkable. What are today’s markers of course quality, degree recognition and institutional status? Sandstone buildings, a research-teaching nexus, low student-faculty ratios, primarily face-to-face classes, high tuition prices, and extensive campus facilities.

In MOOC-enabled mass markets for higher learning, this elite-era cluster of features looks expensive. In places like Australia, offering online HARVARDs to local and offshore students will make sense for many.

Meanwhile, as universities adapt by blending online and campus-based study, MOOC-type pedagogy will require new mindsets and skillsets, as work roles and staff profiles change.

Faced with such prospects, many scholars will resist. San Jose State University philosophers have done so by refusing to teach a Harvard professor’s edX MOOC. Their main fears are that the trend will “replace professors”, “dismantle departments”, and create “financially stressed” universities.

From the other side, Princeton professor Mitchell Dunier has rejected an offer from Coursera to license his sociology MOOC to other universities, mainly for fear that the trend will let governments “cut funding”.

MOOC critics also warn of risks to student learning. But as online study grows ever more personalised, the claim gets ever harder to uphold. With the rise of HARVARDs, the phrase “cheap online course” may not imply “poor quality” or “low standards”. For many, it will just mean “better value”.

Then more and more students will vote with their fingers, not their feet.

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