Elite universities with global brands — and those with at least national prominence — will be least affected by the sudden onset of "massive open online courses" (MOOCs), because they will always have markets for people willing to pay for the elite model of education, says a new report by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.
Prepared by William Lawton and Alex Katsomitros, the report, MOOCs and Disruptive Innovation: The Challenge to HE Business Models, says it is also clear that many in the elite group of universities have calculated they have little to lose by joining the MOOC club now to extend their reach.
Later they may increase their intake to degree courses and help to meet their widening-participation obligations.
"Universities could therefore use MOOCs as a way of determining whether disadvantaged groups or those with poorer school results might in fact thrive on their degree courses," Lawton and Katsomitros write.
They say that the most far-reaching impact of MOOCs may be pedagogical rather than in relation to internationalisation strategies and recruitment.
Because MOOCs offer a "scaled consortium model for teaching delivery", there is reason to believe such collaboration could be adapted for fee-paying students taking regular undergraduate degrees.
"Some American universities have for years substituted video and linked PowerPoint presentations for lectures in introductory computer science courses so that class time is spent on interaction and problem-solving.
Flipping the classroom
"This 'flipping the classroom' or 'reverse teaching', as it is called, could conceivably be applied to universities across whole sectors. If introductory lectures were provided online en masse to a consortium of subscribing institutions, it would free resources to focus on hands-on seminar and laboratory teaching and learning."
Then again, the report says it could just mean employing fewer lecturers — although that is likely to be resisted by the education unions. In any case, universities would still need academic expertise, but the question is what kind and whether they would need as much.
"Some will argue that mass online delivery is not about learning — and they are correct insofar as it is no substitute for the intrigue and stimulation of face-to-face tutorial discussions with the smartest students and world-class teacher-researchers.
"But MOOCs tap into a thirst for knowledge. Add to that what governments and universities say about the need for widening participation in higher education, the challenge will be how they manage to harness what is now available in a way that retains the purpose, value and relevance of higher education," argue Lawton and Katsomitros.
The 4 000-word report describes the beginning of the MOOC movement, noting that the University of Manitoba in Canada is credited with having offered the first MOOC in 2008 — a course that was credit-bearing for 24 students at the university and non-credit-bearing for 2 200 who registered for free online.
But it says the real disruption came from Stanford University last year when a free online course on artificial intelligence attracted more than 160 000 students from every country except North Korea; 23 000 completed the course.
Lawton and Katsomitros give an overview of three MOOC companies that have developed in the past year — Coursera, edX and Udacity — and explore the challenges they pose to traditional models of delivery in higher education.
They say the major innovations with MOOCs are not the elements of access to academic staff, peer interaction, wiki-style forums and automated assessment — because these are all part of the online offerings of traditional universities over the past few years.
No, "the disruptive innovations are shifting costs from students to institutions, shifting costs from students to future employers, matching students to jobs via a database or individually and combining these with supervised, in-person exams at locations around the world".
The authors point out that the scale of MOOCs also means if one in 10 students completes a course that has 50 000 students enrolled, a $100 completion certificate fee brings in $500 000.
"The modus operandi of the traditional higher education sector is taking a lot of money from a controlled number of students. With MOOCs it is charging hundreds of thousands of students a minimum fee. Koller of Coursera calls it a 'real democratisation' of higher education."
The authors say completion rates are poor compared with traditional universities, but they argue that as institutions learn to integrate credits from MOOCs into degree programmes, the starting numbers and completion rates will both rise.
"All industries have to cope with the disruption of the unfolding digital revolution and education is no exception," they conclude.
This article was first published by University World News, the international weekly higher education e-newspaper: universityworldnews.com. It is republished with the permission of UWN and the author