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Monday, 05 November 2012 20:38

Unis spur MOOC "feeding frenzy"


Charles Sturt University is the latest local institution to begin offering a free online course in computing as part of the open online course revolution currently sweeping the sector. While CSU is focussing on the postgraduate space with its course which begins in three weeks’ time, there are other universities – UNSW for example – offering free undergraduate level computing courses and being swamped by demand.

MOOCs – massive open online courses – offer free access to educational content although they generally don’t offer examinations, certification or credits toward other studies. While only a handful of local universities offer MOOCs at present, just about all are grappling with the concept which can act as an important marketing and branding tool both in Australia and overseas.

As Paul Wappett, CEO of Open University pithily notes however MOOCs are just OOCs until the market decides they are good enough to earn the “massive” prefix.

Open University, which was established by a consortium of seven universities in 1993 to offer higher education content initially via television and today via the internet, is itself grappling with OOCs.

Mr Wappett suggested OOCs become MOOCs by dint of their offering compelling and engaging content and courses at prices that were free or trending towards free. But he noted that they were part of a broad spectrum of online learning content already offered on the internet, in e-publications and through venues such as iTunes U.

Mr Wappett said that the challenge for universities is similar to that faced by publishing houses a decade ago, which were slow to recognise the extent of the threat from online classified advertising start-ups such as Seek. “News and Fairfax were worried about cannibalisation – but Seek came in and cannibalised it for them.”

For universities the choice is stark he warned; “They can cannibalise their own market or allow someone else to do it.”

He said Open University was currently formulating its response to the MOOC phenomenon, and expected that its first offerings would launch in 2013.

While MOOCs are proving disruptive to university business models, the advent of free computing courses could also encourage more people to consider studying ICT at university. According to the Australian Computer Society, university enrolments in ICT are less than half what they were a decade ago – MOOCs just might allow people to get a free taste of ICT and then consider it as a career.

At the University of NSW the undergraduate Computing I course which is being offered as a MOOC is intended to encourage people to consider studying computing at the university. The free course which started three weeks ago has signed up more than 2,300 participants.

Steered by Adam Brimo, co-founder of Open Learning and UNSW associate professor Richard Buckland, who both spent today spruiking the approach to institutions in Victoria, Computing I  runs for 12 weeks and essentially comprises about half of the material in the UNSW on-campus computing course. Participants expect to spend about five hours a week on the programme, which according to Mr Brimo allows people to get a taste of a university computer course, before they commit to a full time course.

Designed as a student-centric system the platform uses Wikis and social media style technologies to allow people to comment on pages or one another’s work. Participants watch lecture videos and also participate in a series of activities.

While there is no official UNSW accreditation Mr Brimo said that participants could collect an OpenLearning badge at the conclusion of the course.

Martin Hale is an adjunct senior lecturer at Charles Sturt University and CEO of IT Masters, which has put together CSU’s first post graduate MOOC for people wanting to learn how to develop applications for Windows 8 phones. He sees MOOCs as; “Number one on the agendas of the universities.

“They promise major disruptive change, just like the internet has disrupted traditional media. Universities are trying madly to work out what their future will be.”

The disruption facing the university sector was pointed out last month in a major new report authored by Ernst & Young which found that time was running out for traditional university models as new technologies and globalisation took hold.

Justin Bokor, Ernst & Young executive director, said that campus based universities would survive – particularly to service the needs of school leavers – but that MOOCs were likely to be embraced by Australia’s regional and rural students and mature age students for whom a conventional campus education might not be as attractive. Universities which did not provide MOOCs and served up “old fashioned” learning programmes would find students looking elsewhere he warned.

Where MOOCs really came into their own he said was in developing economies where, combined with a distributed network of facilities able to deliver assessments, they could prove “transformational” in their ability to provide education programmes to large swathes of people who might not be able to access traditional campus style education.

Dr Mark Gregory is a senior lecturer in the school of electrical and computer engineering at RMIT, and predicts a “feeding frenzy” among universities as they work out the best way to transition students from the free MOOCs to fee paying courses. “University business models in the next ten years will see a lot of change,” he said.

That change is already rippling across the sector.

In September the University of Melbourne became the first local institution to join online course specialist Coursera. It plans to have about 10 subjects available by the end of 2013 – seven six week courses have already been announced.

Coursera has attracted 33 universities into its fold and has more than 1.8 million people globally signed up for courses.

Melbourne is unlikely to be the only Australian institution to sign up as universities battle for student intakes. A spokeswoman for the University of Melbourne said that it had more than 52,000 people sign up for the free Coursera programmes – it’s a startling number considering the total university student population is around 50,000.

Open University’s Paul Wappett acknowledges that such rapid uptake will be cast by cynics as being a by-product of the courses being free, or as a result of rival academics signing up to have a gander at what their peers in other universities are teaching. But that he said failed to acknowledge students’ ability to seek out content which was; “relevant, authentic and engaging.

“The real revolution is not about this being free – but about the students’ engagement,” he said.

RMIT’s Dr Gregory, who stressed that his opinions reflected his position at the coal face within the university, rather than any involvement in setting its MOOC strategy, said that RMIT had started to explore its options, but would not rush out a solution. With a long term commercial relationship with Open University, RMIT like its peers needs to manage the fine balance between offering free courses that might eventually attract fee-paying students, and cannibalising itself.

Like Charles Sturt University he believes that the initial MOOC focus at RMIT will be on postgraduate rather than undergraduate courses.

While the RMIT MOOC roadmap has yet to be finalised he said; “It is going to happen and in my view there will be a lot of work done in a very short period of time.” Dr Gregory also believed that universities would start to work out ways to provide MOOC participants with some sort of credit to encourage them to transition to other courses.

Mr Hale said that for CSU the focus on postgraduate MOOCs was deliberate, as it provided people with an opportunity to update their skills with no financial risk, while encouraging people to more fully explore the benefits of continued study.

The university already offers online postgraduate training in a range of IT subjects and has 1,100 people signed on for those programmes. The only time the students attend the university is to sit examinations or to graduate.

Mr Hale said that those 12 subjects however cost $2,100 a pop. At the conclusion of the course successful students graduate with a Master's degree.

The new CSU MOOC, which is free and will run for four weeks, is expected to take savvy participants 6-8 hours a week to complete, and in the fifth week they can sit a one and a half hour online test. Mr Hale acknowledged that the security surrounding that test was loose in that it was feasible that a MOOC student could have someone else in the room with them during the exam, or even have someone else perform the test.

But whatever the situation – if the test is passed the individual receives a “badge” or certificate of completion.

For CSU however the benefit comes in the MOOC’s ability to market its other courses.

Enrolments in CSU’s Master of Systems Development have dwindled to single figures. Mr Hale said that the MOOC gave people the opportunity to “try before you buy” saying that if the university managed a 2 per cent conversion rate from the free to the paid post graduate course it would be deemed a success.


Image Credit: Sydney University,. Wikipedia

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