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Mass-educate: classless future for universities

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

12
  • 1
    Luke Miller
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    This was a fascinating piece. Thanks!

  • 2
    paddy
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Excellent piece. The disruption to previous models is going to be an awesome thing to behold.

  • 3
    blackdog
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    This is an interesting article but has a few assumptions. Universities already use technology throughout their teaching. I’m an offcampus student and can do all my teriary education online, access library books online, access peer-reviewed journals online, read digitalised books online, phone or email lecturers, have online study groups and peer assisted groups.

    A second assumption is that hardcopy newspapers have fallen by the wayside due to technology alone - there could be many reasons for this demise, including management styles, lack of understanding true market demands, and poor content of newspapers, ie diversity of content and editorial style.

    Quite a non-critical view of this open learning system. And a non-critical approach to an underlying set of beliefs about the expense of teriary education…along economic rationist ideology…something that is also an assumption that this is an acceptable, desirable change.

    Always dictatoships attack higher learning - once neoliberalism fully invades and rules over higher learning, we will see the fuller disintegraion of society (undesirable change)…all the humanness, social, subjectivity, creativity, diversity…all removed because it’s too expensive and cannot be put into economically justified terms. All the nuances and qualities of face-to-face education gone…to save a few bucks, to make some people rich, to undermine the professionalism and to make authentic quality higher learning cheapened.

  • 4
    Stevo the Working Twistie
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    The biggest threat to universities as far as I can see is that the next generation of potential undergrads already knows everything.

  • 5
    Dr Dagg
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    As a working academic in Australia, the thing I’m scpetical about is how this will translate into quality in the long-term in an international context.

    The current crop of MOOCS are rigorous and if there is one thing my international students can’t cope with is rigour. So I’m sceptical how they will cope at the MIT/Stanford/Harvard/Wharton level.

    Also, if the MOOCS are based on peer-assessment they’ll likely take a plummet in standard. Academics often get students to provide peer assessment of contribution in group assignments to ensure “equity”. Our students at least never fail each other. I’ve hardly ever seen an unfavourable report and never from an overseas student. That is despite students telling tales of everything from plain free riding to stealing others work through to stalking and sexual harrassment.

  • 6
    Kieran Crichton
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    The only remarkable thing about all of this is that anyone thinks it’s a surprise. Like just about anything involving the future of universities, all it proves is the more things change the more they stay the same.

    Universities in the English-speaking world were forced into public outreach in the nineteenth century. Their answer was extension lectures, getting their professors out in the public square to talk about their disciplines.

    Many university extension schemes included an optional assessment task, ostensibly leading to a certificate of attainment, which was awarded on condition it not be used as a qualification. Sound familiar?

  • 7
    Posted Saturday, 27 October 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    This is another bombastic advertising brochure for Ernst & Young’s higher education consultancy. It follows Ernst & Young’s ‘Higher education and the power of choice’ of July 2011.

    This latest from Ernst & Young is as exaggerated and misleading as its 2011 paper which made 5 claims which have turned out to be as wrong as they seemed at the time.

    No one has yet explained why moocs will succeed when their antecedents failed: Oxford, Yale and Stanford’s AllLearn failed after an investment of $12 million from 2001 to 2006; Columbia University invested $15 million in its failed Fathom from 2001 to 2003; the UKeU failed after an investment of £50 from 2000 to 2004 and NYUonline failed after spending $25 million from 1999 to 2001.

  • 8
    Dean Ashenden
    Posted Monday, 29 October 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Ah, Gavin, always good to have you marking essays. Not sure how my piece qualifies as either bombast or as advertising for Ernst & Young when it noted, at outset, that the report is a marketing tool designed to serve the purposes of Ernst & Young. As for your implied predictions about MOOCs, you may be right, or the many other industry insiders who take a different view (see link to The Conversation) might be right. My conclusion is, I think, the safer: at this early stage, no-one, including Erst & Young - or you - knows.

  • 9
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Monday, 29 October 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    If universities want to know what happens if you get technology-driven change wrong — or late — they need only consider Fairfax.” Imagine if your current Vice-Chancellor was the CEO of Fairfax at the time! Gulp!

    The responses on here are great. Stevo and Paddy particularly. I can see the rearguard action from the academics, which will stand for all of about 10 years because they will have retired by then and the new world order can take over, or something like that. God knows, the students will take about 15 seconds to get on to this, so it won’t be the clients holding back the change, in fact it seems likely they will virtually demand it.

    This is huge, the biggest threat to the university industry ever. While universities are wonderful things, and face to face teaching is so nice, it’s hard to see how this can’t be replaced by youtube lectures and forums replacing tutes. The education and credentialling part of universities is a wholly replaceable system, and you wouldn’t need to maintain a multi-billion dollar campus.

    I love working in a uni, but the level of waste inherent in the current model is phenomenal.

    The research side, well I would advocate keeping that, but you wouldn’t need so much infrastructure for that compared to all those classrooms.

    I don’t think that students are that much into the ‘community’ side of things anyway, they carry their communities in their pockets don’t they?

  • 10
    Norman Hanscombe
    Posted Monday, 29 October 2012 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Does any of this matter? The time has long passed when university qualifications meant something because students were expected to reach levels somewhat more demanding than most of the population could handle. As standards were changed to enable more of us to glory in having a piece of paper, the pieces of paper lost value. Why not simply continue this process at a faster rate so that everyone can have a ‘university’ degree, and we can boast of ‘leading’ the world?

  • 11
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    @ Dean Ashenden

    Sorry, I didn’t make myself entirely clear. I wasn’t marking your essay, but Ernst & Young’s.

    I make no prediction about moocs, but merely observe the failure of their several predecessors founded by elite universities with big budgets.

  • 12
    Dr Dagg
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    The problem with Doggie’s argument is inferring anyone with an opposing POV must be a luddite. It is possible to view a new technological change and reject it because it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There is a decade long history of failed attempts in this space so really the argument is how to get it to work. Discolosure: I am biased I put up sone of an ATN unis first ever on-line units in ‘90’s and its a debacle I’m not keen to revisit.

    With the MOOCS is it the technology or the institution they are signing up for?

    Australian unis have already mastered students doing 1/3 or even 2/3 of their degree somewhere else and then providing the final year. Isn’t the issue more that big first year units are the often the money spinners?

    My money is on quality and exclusivity. The Australian university that can pull off high fees for exlcusivity and high standards. Is that where Melbourne Uni is heading?

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