Monday, August 20, 2012

Online Open Education: Yes, This is the Game Changer

MUNICH, GERMANY - JANUARY 23:  Sebastian Thrun...
Sebastian Thrun of Stanford University speaks during the Digital Life Design conference (DLD) at HVB Forum on January 23, 2012 in Munich, Germany (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
by Professor Simon Marginson, Professor of Higher Education at University of Melbourne, The Conversation:

Mass Open Online Courseware (MOOCs) is less than a year old but it is already clear this will be the game changer in higher education worldwide. Right now it is reverberating through Australian universities like a tectonic shock.

The new paradigm, first developed in late 2011 by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig at Stanford University, now based in Silicon Valley, will be as disruptive to conventional delivery in higher education as the internet has been for book publishers, newspapers, and the retail giants.

Just the beginning

Thrun’s first course in artificial intelligence quickly enrolled 160,000 students. His crucial innovation was not free courseware, which was ten years old, but online grading in multiple choice format and certification at the end of the program.

Students weren’t able to be credited in conventional degrees but could receive a “Statement of Accomplishment” that carried the Stanford brand. It was not a substitute for Stanford degrees but a new kind of prestige credential adapted to the internet.

The course involved student-to-student tutorial discussions, work groups and support systems. In the MOOC format, queries can be routed through FAQs and students can assess each other. It’s free, dirt cheap to run, rigorous in standard and brings you the world experts.

Physics from Higgs or Hawking beats the local science teacher any day. Especially if you don’t have one.

Thrun’s company Udacity now has more than 20 staff pumping out courseware. Two Stanford colleagues have created the parallel company Coursera which is building global enrolments in over 50 programs, using name professors from Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Harvard and MIT have formed a partnership under the name “edX”.

The economics of disruption

The MOOC paradigm disrupts normal higher education for reasons that are inherent in the economics of internet-provided goods. Firstly, it is disruptive because open access knowledge is a “public good” that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable.
As the late Elinor Ostrom said in her 2009 Nobel Prize lecture:
“Public goods are both non-excludable (impossible to keep those who have not paid for a good from consuming it) and non-rivalrous (whatever individual A consumes does not limit the consumption by others).”
It’s a good description of the web as a whole. But prestige higher education provided free of charge has another feature that looks more like a market. When competing for free hits from the public, MOOCs from household name Ivy League universities have a decided edge over Snake Gully College. It’s not just an advantage, it’s complete domination.

Open courseware has the same logic as the winner-take-all markets in celebrity actors or top movies or music. A tiny handful of producers and products dominate the global market, overwhelmingly. After all, there is only one Elvis, and only one Harvard.

How does “free” make money?

Can universities make money out of MOOCs? As with Google, the free service creates a global public, which can become the platform for advertising, and for commercial services such as advanced assessment and grading, employment placement, individualised counselling and publishing. edX and others might also place a low cost pay-wall in front of their advanced programs. It would be risky, but still far cheaper than conventional higher education delivery.

And if employers agree the contents of MOOCs look attractive, the alternate credential represented by MOOCs will generate employability benefits as well. “Graduates” could entice employers with half a dozen prestige MOOCs on their CVs, in place of a three-year degree in business or computing.

Adding or replacing?

The MOOC model has the potential to disrupt conventional Australian university education in two ways - as a substitute, and as a supplement.

MOOCs’ full power as a substitute is yet to be tested. The orthodox degrees provided by leading global universities (which means the American Ivy League and a few others) will retain their social and cultural capital and career forming benefits.

Worldwide promotion of the brand via MOOCs will enhance the value of those conventional degrees. The internet is effective in building status. The question is what happens to other universities; especially given that employer take-up of MOOCs is unknown.

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