Online courses a 'game-changer' for uni

HARRY PEARL
Last updated 05:00 20/07/2013
Ian Witten
CHRIS HILLOCK/Fairfax NZ
TRAIL-BLAZING TECHNOLOGY: University of Waikato Professor Ian Witten has designed the university's first massive open online course.

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Waikato University is just months out from launching its first open online course, but education experts warn the "game-changing" technology could have dire consequences for university staff and students.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are the tertiary sector's latest online education tool.

Mostly free and aimed at mass audiences, the courses have rapidly gained attention for their potential to transform traditional, campus-based learning and globalise higher education.

Professor Ian Witten, of the computer science department at the University of Waikato, is one of two people involved in developing the university's first MOOC, Data Mining with Weka.

The programme familiarises students with Weka software used in data processing and visualisation.

"MOOCs are international, so you need to do something that capitalises on some special local knowledge," Prof Witten says. "We have this open-source software that has been downloaded millions of times around the world, a lot of people use it, so we've decided for our first MOOC to centre it around Weka."

The course is conducted entirely online, using YouTube videos, and will incorporate social media like Twitter so students can keep on top of course news.

But there is no face-to-face contact.

If students pass two tests, they will receive an official certificate from the University of Waikato. "We're more concerned about the learning, than the qualification you get," Prof Witten says.

However, Professor Michael Peters, an expert on open education at the university's faculty of education, points out MOOCs have been criticised for being "edu-tainment" advanced by people who have great skills in social media but not necessarily teaching.

He says MOOCs are a "game changer", and New Zealand "ought to look very carefully" at them.

"Here is the mechanism for the development of a truly global education, and the global education market is a very, very big market that is growing."

But they have implications for academic jobs: "You have one well-known professor who leads the MOOC in terms of lectures, then you have a whole bunch of technical adjuncts who run the administration of it."

Tertiary Education Union national president Lesley Francey agrees that MOOCs have the potential to exacerbate casualisation of tertiary staff.

She also fears many designers of MOOCs are "venture capitalists". Some of the largest providers, such as Coursera and Udacity, are for-profit firms courting huge cash investment.

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Prof Peters agrees "at some point the business model is going to kick in" but hopefully it won't be the "educational equivalent of an ATM machine".

Prof Witten hopes a few hundred to a few thousand people would enrol in Data Mining with Weka, but maintains making money is not a priority.

"A lot of people are talking about monetising MOOCs by selling diplomas and advertising; we're not thinking about any of those things at the moment.

"We want to get experience and some publicity and find out about what it is all about."

Prof Witten says some people think MOOCs are evil because they will lead to a "globalised, homogenised American academic world" while others think students need one-on-one interaction and labs. "I think the truth, as is usually the case, is somewhere in the middle."

- Waikato Times

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