How Australian universities can play in the MOOCs market

Massive open online education could be the answer to addressing community and industry needs. Head image from www.shutterstock.com

FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: The rise of online and blended learning and the development of free online courses is set to transform the higher education sector. We’ve asked our authors how to remake the university sector so it can best respond to this revolution.

For two weeks, we’ll be running a selection of their responses. The series will conclude later this month with a panel discussion in Canberra co-hosted with the Office for Learning and Teaching and involving the Minister for Tertiary Education, Chris Evans.


Universities with global reputations have been the first to establish themselves as big name players in the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) market. Their ventures, including Coursera, Udacity and edX, are all dominating this space with large numbers of students enrolled.

The billion dollar question for Australian universities is: how can we compete with the world’s most prestigious institutions in the MOOC space? On a comprehensive scale, maybe we can’t.

But their popularity has shown one thing conclusively – there is a hunger for learning out there in the community that is not being met by normal avenues.

Australian universities should embrace this challenge and see it as an opportunity to cater to this market for learning, personal and professional development by engaging with our communities and local industry to see what skills and knowledge are needed.

A fork in the road

What do we know so far? Levels of interest are staggering: courses with 100,000+ registrations. Coursera, for example, reports that more than 1.3 million people have tried at least one of their MOOCs.

Despite the excitement around these big numbers, there is still much uncertainty. Drop-out rates run at around 85-90%, with lack of time, motivation, technical and cultural confusion cited as reasons for withdrawal. Sustainable business models have also not yet been developed while it is still unclear what value completion is in terms of credit for credentials, or how MOOCs align with regulatory requirements.

But the interest in MOOCs cannot be so easily dismissed. The scale is a phenomenon which renders comparisons with traditional enrolment and retention rates unhelpful. It is one thing to withdraw from a degree where so much personal (and often familial) investment has been in the qualification and quite another when it is free, enrolment takes seconds and the decision to withdraw is painless.

Why join a MOOC?

Understanding why people have been drawn to MOOCs is a key part of the puzzle for Australian universities. Many join a MOOC to simply explore an interest or to experiment. Many others seek to develop specific areas of expertise in a range of educational, technical or professional employment settings.

As e-learning consultant Lou McGill recently noted some are motivated to join a MOOC for unique networking opportunities with others who have similar interests, those already in their preferred profession or with students currently enrolled in the courses delivered in more traditional environments.

But edX’s recent survey tells us that successful students overwhelmingly preferred their MOOC experience to their previous engagement with comparable courses.

While this may be a specific comment on the quality of the EdX course, it is surely telling us something about the learning preferences of today’s students and the extent to which our offerings are meeting their needs and expectations.

What next?

So how do we respond? One model we’ve seen already is collaboration between elite institutions both for brand positioning and shared development, like University of Melbourne has done recently through Coursera.

Another approach, as is being used at UTAS, is a targeted development of courses that relate directly to community needs.

One example is our plan for using MOOCs to help with our understanding of dementia – an area of acute social need at the local, national and global level. These MOOCs will explore the current scientific knowledge of the disease including development, progression, treatment options and societal impacts, drawing on substantial research expertise within the university.

The MOOCs are designed for a broad range of students from professional health disciplines, carers, individuals with the early stages of the disease, health policymakers and social scientists. Over the longer term, we will use analytics to assess what approaches and activities work best in terms of student learning.

While the MOOCs are designed to address an acute social need, they will also showcase the work of the university and offer an articulation to the Associate Degree in Dementia Care for students who complete the course.

Embracing the unknown

This is just one example where a university could help address an issue important to the community. But you can easily imagine many more areas where a MOOC could help with professional development or help give the training that industry needs.

There are no guarantees of success and there are considerable challenges to overcome, including the issue of the business model. But providing further information and education on the basis of need is our attempt to maximise the opportunities of this disruptive moment.

We’d love you to take part: leave your comments, join the discussion on twitter.com/conversationEDU, facebook.com/conversationEDU.

This is part three 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

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