Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

In September UBC joined 20 other high-profile universities in a bold step that is likely to overturn much of higher education, and perhaps even the foundations of their own existence.  These universities have joined the Coursera consortium to provide massively open online courses (MOOCs) in a wide range of subjects (UBC’s first offerings are in game theory, computer program design, genetics and climate change).

MOOCs offered by Coursera and by Udacity and EdX, are open to anyone, anywhere in the world.  No fees are charged, there are no formal application procedures or prerequisites, and the courses yield no formal academic credit.  Instead of  hour-long lectures, MOOCs offer weekly sets of short, focused instructional videos, supplemented with computer and peer-graded homework, quizzes and exams.  Students ask for and receive help in online discussion forums and even get together for study groups in cities around the world.

These courses are made possible by learning management technology that eliminates the need for face-to-face lectures and human grading, so that enrolments no longer need to be capped by the size of the lecture theatre or the budget for teaching assistants.  As a result, MOOCs are already attracting many thousands of students from around the world – even hundreds of thousands for some of the first computer courses.  Here are some of the implications.

For learners who can’t attend university:  MOOCs offer most of the benefits of higher education to people in countries with few educational opportunities, and to those with limited incomes or full time jobs.  For many in this situation, the lack of formal credentials is not an issue since they are learning for purely personal reasons.  Others may take advantage of the fee-based formal testing and certification now available for some courses.

For employers:  Many of the current MOOC teach valuable technical skills such as data analysis and software design; their flexibility allows potential and current employees to build the specific skills needed by their jobs.  Again, the lack of formal certification is not a disincentive since many employers are already using competency testing for the skills they need, having found that university diplomas are poor predictors of employee performance.

For university students:  Future students may decide to instead take carefully chosen MOOCs, either full-time or while they are employed, simultaneously optimizing their learning and saving on tuition.  Current students may replace some credit courses with MOOCs, or use MOOCs as additional learning resources for their credit courses.

For university faculty:  Research into student learning shows that lecturing is a particularly poor way to teach, and many faculty are already ‘flipping’ their classes to make better use of the face-to-face time previously devoted to lectures.  They may follow the example of their students, finding that MOOC resources can complement or even replace learning materials they would otherwise have to create themselves.  Although in the short term this may increase the amount of time they have for research, in the long term it may decrease the universities’ need to hire and retain faculty.

The most dramatic implications are for the continued role of universities as providers of higher education.  For centuries higher education was a luxury available only to the elite, and the rising expectations over the past 50 years have been countered by spectacular increases in tuition.  Internet delivery of MOOCs is a ‘disruptive technology,’ allowing quality education to be delivered at much lower cost and to a much broader audience.  The elite market is likely to persist (Harvard and Oxford will hold their own) but UBC and other major universities should prepare for major shifts in the balance between education and research.

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UBC Reports | Vol. 59 | No. 1 | Dec. 18, 2012

Rosie Redfield, professor, Dept. of Zoology, and teacher of Useful Genetics, one of UBC’s first Massively Open Online Courses. Martin Dee Photograph.

Rosie Redfield, professor, Dept. of Zoology, and teacher of Useful Genetics, one of UBC’s first Massively Open Online Courses. Martin Dee Photograph.

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Internet delivery of MOOCs is a ‘disruptive technology,’ allowing quality education to be delivered at much lower cost and to a much broader audience.

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