Learn to love the MOOC

Last updated 12:00 24/07/2013
AWAY WITH CHALKBOARDS: Massey University wires out to the world - the first tertiary establishment in New Zealand to offer free courses online for the masses.

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Fancy picking up some knowledge from a Harvard University expert? A free ivy league education for the masses is just a click away and one New Zealand university has leapt to catch hold of the bandwagon.

So what is a "MOOC" and why is the concept being eyed uneasily by the rest of our tertiary sector? Talia Shadwell looks into Massey's latest venture.

In the high stakes world of higher education, which pits world-ranked universities against one another in a bid to attract international student cash, academics' wisdom doesn't come cheap.

Not any more.

Last year, technology online magazine Wired reported that when Harvard Professor Michael Sandel simulcast his popular US $7500 (NZ $9400) Justice class free on iTunes, it collected 12 million hits.

This week Massey University vice chancellor Steve Maharey announced his university's plans to wire into the higher education concept he labelled an "international revolution".

The university has become the first tertiary establishment in New Zealand to wade into the multimillion-dollar world of massive open online courses - better known as MOOCs.

MOOCs are characterised by video links, interactive learning and discussion forums. Grades and feedback tend to be crowdsourced and they can be completed in weeks.

By the end of this year, Massey will wire its academics' knowledge out to the cybersphere free of charge, joining the likes of Harvard, Stanford and Princeton universities.

However, participation in a MOOC won't furnish learners with a gilded alma mater - the online courses do not yield academic credits towards a degree.

But that's not the point, as Donna Wells, Mindflash.com chief executive writes for Wired. She claims MOOC's real niche lies in businesses - instead of displacing workers to conferences for professional development, the appeal in setting them an online course is obvious.

On a more altruistic level, the concept of free, wide-reaching education blasts elitist and geographical barriers to higher education, Wells claims.

But as democratic as the MOOC "movement" (as it has been tagged by technology bibles) might seem, it has attracted widespread criticism.

Australian software expert David Glance has noted the escalating attacks on the MOOC concept. He says its detractors fear that education will be emasculated and professors replaced by cyber talking heads.

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Fifty-eight faculty of arts and science staff at Harvard even wrote to their dean, concerned the concept had not been thoroughly investigated.

And in New Zealand, ahead of Massey's announcement on Monday, the Tertiary Education Union came out swinging.

National president Lesley Francey labelled MOOCs a threat to jobs and traditional academia.

Writing in the University's magazine Otago Vice Chancellor Harlene Hayne was unconvinced about the new technology's viability, arguing that the business model for MOOCs "hangs by a thread". 

Their fears are taking shape, as by the end of this year, anyone with an internet connection will be able to get a taste of what Massey has on offer - without paying the thousands in tuition fees traditionally required.

Massey has hooked into Australia's Open2Study MOOC platform for an undisclosed sum, joining Macquarie University and RMIT in the game. Massey's professors will soon deliver online lectures in a mixture of six- to eight-minute videos, animations, simulations and quizzes. The courses will take 30 seconds to enrol in and can be completed in about four weeks.

But with no obvious financial returns in sight and the university staying mum on the cost of the scheme at this point - why is Massey doing it?

Simple, say those in the know. For a New Zealand university battling to be the best in its chosen fields, offering up specialist courses like complimentary hors d'ouevres gets it noticed by those who really matter - internet audiences.

So says Massey future education expert, Mark Brown, the architect of the university's MOOC programme.

"There is an opportunity here to attract prospective students not only to some of the programmes that Massey is increasingly offering online to international students, but also to attract those who want to come onshore to study here," he says.

A poignant focus for Massey, host to 34,000 distance students who provide a substantial source of fee income but who also bring down its course completion rates - affecting government funding.

So could there be an ulterior motive for Massey to analyse its distance market, which has a one-in- five student drop-out rate, according to the Tertiary Education Commission?

Brown points out that the free courses offer "low stakes" learning for prospective students trying to gauge their options.

They are not paying and there are no academic credits at stake.

"MOOCs give prospective students an opportunity to have a taster of a particular discipline they may be wanting to study. Our experience is that what they think that area is and what they find it is really about - like food technology at Massey, which is one of our specialist areas - is often very different from their conception. So giving them that taster of what that discipline is really like can be really effective in helping students making the right choice in what programme of study they want to pursue, and ultimately what career they end up in."

Online Education 2.0

Auckland academic Professor Dennis Viehland doesn't know anyone else in New Zealand who has completed a MOOC.

Curious, he went online to trial the concept, taking advantage of its interactive forums to canvas a few of his 10,000 "classmates" on the technology's appeal.

Viehland enrolled in a MOOC entitled Surviving Disruptive Technologies, taught by Professor Hank Lucas, of the University of Maryland.

It took just a few clicks to sign up, then just two to four hours a week of his time, for seven weeks, to complete the course, which explored the conundrum modern technology advances hold for some industries. He learned how digital cameras sank Kodak and why Netflix and Kindles spell doom for DVDs and bookshops.

The MOOC he took is advertised as a crash course to help individuals and organisations facing disruptive technologies develop a strategy for survival.

The final assessment allowed Viehland to choose his own topic. Fittingly, he devoted his time to writing about how the university education industry is being disrupted by "online education 2.0" which, he notes, with some irony, was then marked by his fellow learners online.

Meeting criticism from the tertiary sector that MOOCs could threaten the value of a degree, Viehland argues strongly that the course he took was not aimed at students.

His class seemed for the most part to be composed of working professionals and members of the public with an interest.

"They were looking at getting something from the course that they couldn't necessarily get from their workplace for professional development or for interest."

For that reason, he doesn't think it will displace the traditional university experience.

"I'm not sure that's actually what most people are using it for. I don't think it has the potential to shrink university student populations, but rather my feeling is it will change it."

Academics looking to build an international reputation might find value in offering a MOOC to get their names out there, Viehland says.

"Some professors on there I think are doing it for altruistic reasons. Some of them might want to put more time and effort in. Maybe they are a textbook authority or they may want to take what they know to the world and build a reputation on it."

Sure enough, the curator of his course had authored a book on the topic - but Viehland concluded doing the interactive course was just "more fun" than reading a textbook. His only complaint? It didn't work on his iPad.


* The Chronicle of Higher Education's 2013 survey of 103 professors worldwide found 79 per cent thought teaching a MOOC was worth the hype.

* The surveyed professors' classes had a median 30,000 learners.

* The biggest attracted an online class of more than 100,000.

* Professors spent more than 100 hours preparing their courses.

* The median number of passing students was just 2600.

* A total of 27,000 people signed up for Harvard University's first MOOC, The Ancient Greek Hero.

* It paid $60 million (NZ$75m) for EdX and HarvardX to provide a MOOC platform.

* Coursera received £22m (NZ$42m) in initial funding from the University of Pennsylvania and California Institute of Technology to create MOOCs.

* Cost to Massey? Not yet known.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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