Open online courses are the one genuinely transformational trend in education. But nobody knows if they’re here to stay, and if so, for better or worse.
The Ernst & Young report on the future of higher education released this week should focus academic minds on a future with no guarantees. “Our primary hypothesis”, the report says, is that “the dominant university model in Australia … will prove unviable in all but a few cases.”
Of course they would say that, wouldn’t they? University of the Future is a marketing tool, aimed at persuading universities to use the services of Ernst & Young’s higher education consulting division. But that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.
The report sees five “mega-trends” that will transform the sector — globalisation, declining government funding and so on — but the only one that’s genuinely transformational is: “MOOCs and the rise of online learning”.
Anyone in higher education not spooked by MOOCs (that is, “Massive Open Online Courses”) should be. It’s not so much that you can do them anywhere, any time, or that they’ve been pioneered by the biggest brands in the business (Stanford, Harvard, et al.), or that they handle tens of thousands of students at a sitting, or even that they’re free. The really spooky thing is that they’ve hardly started.
It’s only five years since the first proto-MOOC was developed, just two years since the first real launch. Where will it go in the Ernst & Young timeframe of 10-15 years?
Some academics have comforted themselves with the thought that real higher education, the kind you get on campus and pay for, offers content and skills plus social interaction and networking plus assessment and a credential. MOOCs, they say, offer only the first of there.
Not so. A colleague recently enrolled in a MOOC offered by the high-end Wharton Business School in the US. Yes, she did get the same content as the paying customers, delivered by streaming video lectures, interviews with key industry figures, and print and online reading. But she also handed in five assignments. They were scored automatically, or marked by five fellow MOOCers using clear assessment guidelines. My colleague interacted with others through an online forum and a local face-to-face group as well as through the assessment process.
Since she cleared the 70% hurdle she also got a statement of attainment. That is not, the blurb makes clear, a credential of the Wharton Business School. But how long before such statements turn up in applications for jobs and promotions? Or to support an application for entry to a mainstream course? Or for credit?
MOOCs are the spectacular end of a “mega-trend” that is just getting into its stride, a change in the nature of change. On the face of it universities have done nothing but change for decades. In 1950 there were just six universities with a grand total of 30,630 students. Now there are more than that in a single university — and there are 39 universities. Then, one in five students were women; now, more than half. In the mid-1980s there were virtually no fee-paying university students in Australia, now it is a multi-billion dollar industry. And so on.
But all this was mostly just change in scale. The universities were simply doing more of what they had long been doing: research, teaching, and credentialing, and they taught in ways familiar across the generations — lectures, seminars, and assignments; terms (or semesters) and long vacations; three years for an arts degree, four for engineering, five for architecture, six for medicine.
For the most part this was a very agreeable kind of change. Academics endured a decline in working conditions and perks, certainly, but endless expansion also brought unprecedented career opportunities. For the officer class, presiding over burgeoning empires has been nothing but fun.
But the kind of change foreshadowed by the MOOC phenomenon is quite different, in three respects. First, it is bringing technology into the heart of what universities do, for the first time ever. What sense do student:staff ratios make when my colleague’s MOOC enrolled more than 80,000 students? And “graduated” more than 8000? Moreover, technology brings new players into what has been an exclusive preserve. One vice-chancellor is quoted by Ernst & Young as seeing Google as the main competitor within the decade.
Second, while universities have moved some technology-based materials and technqiues into their mainstream programs, and have shifted load from tenured staff to casuals and part-timers, they are certainly not used to wholesale technology-labour substitution or to re-engineering an entire labour process. If universities want to know what happens if you get technology-driven change wrong — or late — they need only consider Fairfax.
Third, planning for old-style change was not much more than extrapolating from growth trends. But it is impossible to tell where the new kind of change is going, or how quickly.
The universities’ online public outlet The Conversation has been running a forum for academics on MOOCs and their implications. Think of a prediction and you’ll find it there. Some Australian universities have already joined the MOOCs rush, others say they won’t, but none of them knows what’s the smart thing to do. For their part, Ernst & Young run three “scenarios” for the coming 10-15 years, which is another way of saying that they don’t know either.
*Dean Ashenden was co-founder of the Good Universities Guides