08/05/2013 08:35 BST | Updated 07/07/2013 06:12 BST

The MOOC Avalanche

James Vernon, a History lecturer at The University of California, Berkeley wrote in the Guardian last week that MOOCs are an 'avalanche' threatening higher education. He wrote that UK academics has failed to respond to the launch of FutureLearn as the first UK MOOC provider. He wrote that MOOCs might stop short of their promise to democratize knowledge. He's wrong and he's right.

It is true to say that UK Higher Education is responding to digital opportunities slower than our colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic. Online 'for profit' providers like Academic Partnerships are well established in the US, and the MOOC world is still dominated by the organisations that grew out of the big US universities like Coursera and EdX. But the conditions for the avalanche Vernon predicts are just coming right in the UK, with the introduction of £9K fees for many universities along with a prolonged economic downturn damaging graduate employment prospects, UK students are rightly questioning the value of a degree. The need to reexamine the business case and mission for UK higher education is pressing. In to this rather unstable situation comes the MOOC. The question is how will UK Higher Eduction institutions react? Will academics stop the avalanche and backlash against the MOOC and the the 'open everything' internet movement?

I don't think so.

I think many UK institutions are watching and waiting to see what happens with online. A few have begun to make steps online, Edinburgh with Coursera and Liverpool with Laureate. The list of FutureLearn partners has grown again last week with the announcement of more partners. But the UK approach is cautious. what we need to remember is that UK higher education and US higher education are different in very many ways, in scale, in funding and even in pedagogy and curriculum there are many differences. It's not right to assume that what happens in the US sector will happen in the UK.

Furthermore it's not right to assume that judgements that are made about success and failure in campus based teaching can or should be applied to online teaching. Take 'drop out rate' as an example.To rank highly in UK higher education league tables it is important to make sure that a high proportion, often more than 95% of your students stay on the course for the first year. Low attrition means success. On MOOCs, completion rates are often lower than 10%. They are much higher for paid online courses but the fact remains, the expectations are different. Motivations for MOOC participants vary, it might be that they are just trying out online learning, or are curious about the topic, or are looking for some specific piece of knowledge that comes in the first week. Maybe they 'drop out' after these goals are met, but before the teacher is finished teaching the course as they designed it. That shows up in low 'completion rates' but the fact might be that for the student they have achieved what they wanted to archive.

My prediction for MOOCs in the UK is that we will find a way to bring them in to what we do. As marketing or public engagement, as adjuncts to our teaching or as curiosities, they are unlikely to become an avalanche that needs to be stopped. I hope that in its wisdom that UK higher education will embrace the potential power of the MOOC movement, without thinking it will sweep away everything in its path.