Thursday, October 11, 2012

MOOC and You’re Out of a Job: Uni Business Models in Danger

RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology)...
RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) University City Campus - Francis Ormond Building (Completed 1886) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Dr Mark Gregory, Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University, The Conversation:
FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: The rise of online and blended learning and the development of free online courses is set to transform the higher education sector. We’ve asked our authors how to remake the university sector so it can best respond to this revolution.

For two weeks, we’ll be running a selection of their responses. The series will conclude later this month with a panel discussion in Canberra co-hosted with the Office for Learning and Teaching and involving the Minister for Tertiary Education, Chris Evans.

Consider this scenario.

There are 36 universities employing 36 academics who each offer a first year mathematics course. The 36 universities collaborate and develop a single first year mathematics course which is available to all students online and for free. Do the universities need the 36 academics? Does the government need 36 universities?

The answer to both questions, of course, is no. Academics and universities have been quick to jump on the MOOCs bandwagon, but they may become less enthusiastic as we begin to see the dramatic, and perhaps unintended consequences in store for higher education.

Why academics should be wary of MOOCs

At the moment, academics already use technology in the creation and hosting of courses, usually through a Learning Management System (LMS). The LMS, unlike a MOOC, is only accessible by university staff and students. Job promotions and university income depend on this course development, particularly through book publications later on.

So if most academics already use an LMS, why should the use of MOOCs be any different? The problem is that MOOCs change several dynamics associated with course delivery; changes academics may have not considered.

One of the first reasons academics should be worried is the potential for completed MOOCs to count towards “prior learning credits” which include working, training, volunteering and activities in the community that can count towards a formally recognised qualification.

So far only a small number of universities worldwide have offered credits for MOOC courses, and if they do, students are required to undergo additional university examinations. But prior learning credits could be awarded to students who have completed a MOOC without additional university assessment.

Chari Kelley, vice president for, which is a subsidiary of the US Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), recently said regarding prior learning credits based on MOOCs “we are set up to do that. The infrastructure is there.” This gives MOOCs the potential to be recognised in university programs - allowing for greater competition between them and traditional universities.

Slippery slope to outsourced education

Another issue is the way open online education could affect the privatisation of higher education and the role of academics.

Already technology has facilitated a move away from chalk and talk lectures towards more project based learning, workshops (sometimes online) and online forums and meetings. Many academics have also embraced multiple choice or online examinations through their LMS.

This shift in course delivery has also seen the academic’s role change, becoming more akin to course coordinators. Universities are hiring casual staff to manage student projects, workshops and online activities. Academics are now primarily responsible for setting and marking examinations.

The next logical step along the MOOC pathway is for universities to collaborate and develop examinations that are based on the MOOC courseware. The examinations can then be centralised and outsourced.

Students would attend examination centres, be verified and carry out multiple choice or quiz type questions that are machine markable. With this achieved, the academic no longer has a role in course delivery and is too expensive to keep on as a course coordinator.

Not possible?

It’s already happening in the world of multinational companies. They offer industry qualifications and training by private education providers. The final qualification examination is carried out through local accredited testing centres.

Non-technical people verify the identity of the person completing the examination, oversee the person carry out an online multiple choice examination, and issue a certificate if the person is successful.

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