21/10/2013 10:13 BST | Updated 21/10/2013 10:13 BST

Why MOOCS Are Transforming the Face of Higher Education

Co-authored by Edward Crawley, President of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Russia

A game-changing development is happening in the midst of higher education. And we both feel it will be genuinely transformative.

Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) are a new technology with the potential to revolutionise university education as we know it. Top tier institutions have already made bold moves, and these have yielded some impressive results. At Harvard, for instance, more people have signed up for MOOCs in a single year than have attended the university in its entire 377-year history.

This is a truly staggering fact. And although the MOOC movement began in North America, interest is growing rapidly across the world. In Europe, for instance, six organisations that host MOOCs have sprung up (UnX, Miríada X, OpenupEd, OpenCourseWorld, Iversity and FutureLearn) that counterpart Coursera, Udacity and EdX in the United States.

There are a number of drivers of this educational transformation. Proliferation of technology may top the list. Many of our young people are now 'digital natives', capable of new ways of learning, and expecting us to accommodate them.

There is also the growing cost of traditional higher education, both in public and private institutions. And there is also increasing demand, globally, for access to higher education.

As a result of the latter, traditional means of sharing and disseminating information are under unprecedented strain. UNESCO estimates that by 2025, there will be at least 80 million more people seeking higher education than are currently.

Meeting this new demand through conventional means would require the construction of three universities a week accommodating 40,000 students for the next 12 years. That is an impossible task, especially given reduced government budgets in much of the world.

As well as educating a wider cohort of students, MOOCS also have tremendous potential to be utilised in industry education too. At Delft University of Technology, for instance, which is a member of the EdX platform MOOC, private sector firms are already tapping into on-line courses.

Seen from these vantage points, MOOCs can be seen as nothing less than a tectonic release of energy that has been accumulating at the fault lines between universities and their stakeholders.

In this rapidly changing environment, most higher education bodies are now experimenting in some way with on-line learning. A fundamental question here is whether this activity is being driven by coherent strategy on the part of these institutions, or by fear that the downside risk of not participating is too great?

This is a crucial issue that will help determine success (or failure) for many education bodies as they struggle to get to grips with the opportunities (and challenges) on the horizon.

There are a number of 'fragments' of strategy that can be integrated to form a coherent strategy for any university. Many institutions have a desire to provide a better internal core education for their students, allowing them to learn when they want and at their own pace.

In geographically distributed campuses, there may be especially strong benefits to this approach. That is, the possibility that MOOCs can improve the quality of pedagogy.

Whether feasible or not, it should be remembered that the pedagogic approaches incorporated into most MOOCs are adopted from previous effective educational practice. A significantly smaller investment of effort would introduce the same pedagogic reform into existing classrooms, without anyone being online.

MOOCs allow universities to share their unique disciplinary and/or geographical strength. Consortia, where different courses are intentionally shared, can develop. However, exporting unique strengths does not account for the number of introductory courses currently offered.

These courses might be aimed, in part, at secondary education audiences. MOOCs can help to build faculty capacity at a broad set of universities, as was the aim of open courseware. MOOCs will also allow industry to un-bundle courses to be re-bundled again and taught as internal programmes.

Some universities are local re-distributors of online courses, adding tutorials in the local language, and providing a local credit certification. But many students listen to MOOCs in order to learn technical English. Other universities use online courses and degrees as important revenue streams, historically a role of professional education, which can also be done online.

Most importantly, while online education is an important change, it is a means not an end. A university should have an online strategy that fits their institution.

All education institutions should also work on a credible and coherent online business model so that they don't drain their treasuries. Or, perhaps worse, repeatedly ask one of their most precious resources, their most capable instructors, to perform the herculean efforts sometimes need to make online education a success.

It is clear that MOOCs and on line education have huge potential, and the full implications of all they will bring will remain uncertain for some time. However, it is already clear that they can probably only be positive for human development and advancement across the globe at a time when both are badly needed to help ensure social cohesion and sustainable growth.

Our advice to regulators is therefore to let MOOCs be. They remain an immature educational resource, and any effort to over-regulate them before they mature may only inhibit their full growth and potential which would be a tragedy.