MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are gaining a lot of attention. Some commentators believe that these free internet-delivered courses are the future of university education.
Others meanwhile argue that MOOCs are simply an updated version of the old-fashioned correspondence course.
The reason MOOCs are getting this attention is the recent involvement of elite American universities such as Stanford, Harvard, and MIT. These universities, through different platforms, are putting their courses online for free, with some offering accreditation.
However, within all the commentary on the rise of MOOCs, the death of the university campus has been grossly exaggerated.
Current online courses are often based on videos of “chalk and talk” lectures. If you thought your economics lecturer was boring in person, try watching him or her on a 50 minute internet video!
MOOCs will not threaten existing university education – and are unlikely to survive – unless they adapt to the internet as a medium of delivery. This involves short audio or video clips based on single topics that can be adapted into different course sequences and used by the students in conjunction with other online tools such as social media and blogs.
For most tertiary students, MOOCs will simply be one part of the university learning experience. They will not supersede on-campus classes for the same reason that telecommuting has not made the office redundant.
People like to interact in person with other people. And students learn from other students. The internet will augment but not replace the face-to-face experience.
A celebration of integration
So what is the future of Australian university education? I think it will involve four integrated elements.
First, the class will be “inverted”. Students will be expected to access a range of materials about a topic before coming to class. Some of this material will be free on the internet, some will be provided on the internet by publishers (and may be tied to a textbook) and some will be provided by the lecturer (e.g. moderated web discussions).
Second, students will be assessed on the material before coming to class. The assessment will involve an online test, with each test worth a few percent at most. The test helps students understand how well they have learnt the material. Importantly, it provides the lecturer with feedback before the lecture.
Third, the lecturer will provide a “classroom experience” to students based on their test results. The lecturer will design the class material to address those areas where the students are having the most trouble.
In the short term, many classes will still require a large lecture format. But the presentation will be dynamic. Even large classes will involve peer-to-peer interaction (periods where students are given a question and a minute to discuss it in pairs) and real-time student feedback (using technology to enable students to answer questions in real time).
Fourth, there will still be small-group tutorials. But these will be based around problem solving in groups with tutors as moderators. Students will present answers and work in groups, learning the “soft” skills that have disappeared from many current university courses.
Ultimately with some courses, the large lecture may disappear – replaced by smaller classes to provide feedback, allow better discussion and to focus on applying new knowledge through problem-based learning.
The professor will design the course and guide the tutors who will, in turn, guide the students. However, many tutors can cost more than one lecturer – so some universities will baulk at the cost of this final step.
Can this be done? Yes! It is already being done in some of our leading university courses. But at present, reform is being led by individual academics who are devoted to teaching.
Their institutions, at best, simply cheer them from the sidelines, and, at worst, get in their way.
But change is inevitable. Competition for students is intense between Australia’s middle-ranked and lower-ranked universities. Some of these universities have downgraded their on-campus experience – ignoring or undermining their key advantage over MOOCs and other online courses.
If these universities do not change then they will lose students and financial resources, both to internet courses and to universities that do change.
In contrast, universities that act early can build a reputation for innovative, high-quality teaching. While our elite research universities are always likely to attract top students, most Australian universities need to sell themselves on teaching quality.
A reputation for innovative teaching will be invaluable in the fight for domestic and international student dollars.
The biggest barrier to change may be the academics themselves. They will need to be at the forefront of educational reform. However, it is much easier to drag out the yellowed lecture notes for another year rather than to learn new technology and redesign a course.
Incentives at all our universities are based on research output, so academics have little incentive to embrace educational reform. The universities that succeed in transforming education will not be those that work on a top down approach. That cannot work.
Rather, it is the universities that develop the incentives and motivation for “bottom up” academic-led reform who will be tomorrow’s leaders in tertiary education.