Thursday, 13 December 2012

Are UK universities about to embark on a global online revolution?

UK universities under pressure from US Moocs
In the USA, a global phenomenon in online learning is taking place and many education technologists are anticipating a similar wave in the UK, albeit a much slower one.

Moocs – massive online open courses – have become a national success in the USA, yet over here distance learning remains a niche concern, often seen as a side project for UK universities to cash in on international and postgraduate course fees.

The contrast between nations is stark: while UK universities have only begun to dip their toes in, venture capitalists and leading higher-education institutes in the States are investing millions into the development of ground-breaking new moocs. On offer are free online courses to mass numbers of students across the states and internationally.

Where did the concept originate? Moocs predate the digital age, trailing as far back as the early 1960s. Although only a theorised notion at that time, in 1962 this led to the American inventor Douglas Engelbart proposing a research agenda to Stanford Research Institute. Even at this time, Engelbart advocated that learning needed to be personalised through the use of personal computers and explained how this new technology in coordination with ‘an interconnected network of computers’ could create a substantial, global effect of information learning.

Since then, the idea has given rise in the USA to free, bite-size courses, ranging from the principles of starting up your own business to advanced software programming – up to 200,000 students at a time.

Over 30 of America’s elite universities now offer free courses prompting Edinburgh and the University of London to join force with the Coursera platform, an established provider in the USA.

However, the UK’s trepidation towards moocs is not without cause as commentators raise concerns that open access to free online learning environments could cannibalise traditional higher education. Speculation centres on the fear that, although moocs cannot offer or replicate the experience of campus living, students will feel this is an acceptable compromise to avoid £9,000-a-year tuition fees.

Yet many UK universities are resilient. In an interview with The Guardian, Prof Martin Bean, Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, describes the UK situation as the ‘Napster moment for higher education’.

Prof Sir Adrian Smith, the new Vice-Chancellor of the University of London expands upon this point. ‘A lot of individuals might have a first reaction that this is a threat, but you can’t hold back the tide. This is a big wave and you have to work out how to surf it rather than drown under it.’

Prof Smith’s comments are not without substance: within 24 hours of the Coursera platform launching at the Open University (Sept 2012), 9,000 students signed up on one of the five free courses available, with the figure rising to 60,000 since then.    

The reason for UK institutes’ resistance to invest in moocs is not an issue of popularity of the courses and student uptake but rather a question of revenue.

Here at LearnersCloud, we specialise in offering students quality assured cloud-based revsources that compliment in-class learning and makes revision easy. Yes, we are a business that must generate profit; however, our mission is to widen access to engaging, effective, but affordable resources – minimising our subscription prices so more learners can benefit. This is a core element of online course provision and one that UK universities should be considering. Learning should not be dependent on socio-economic background or willingness to take on a near-£30,000 loan to secure a degree.

Moocs offer some light at the end of the increasingly dark tunnel that is higher education, offering an exciting prospect that could alleviate some of the barriers to higher education. 

For now, however, moocs do not offer students an internationally recognised paper qualification. Until this changes or until businesses start to recognise and value open-course learning, moocs will not have the impact that so many of their advocates desire.

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