03/07/2013 11:37 BST | Updated 01/09/2013 06:12 BST

MOOCs in the Higher Education Mainstream

This week MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) hit the UK media mainstream with a feature on The BBC's Newsnight. Jeremy Paxman addressed the topic with his eyebrows in the 'raised and skeptical' position while David Grossman's piece was a mixture of satire and serious journalism. Interviewees included eminent contributors to the MOOC world, including Andrew Ng of US based Coursera and Simon Nelson of FutureLearn, the UK's first home grown MOOC provider. In his interview with Paxman, David Willetts, Higher Education Minister, seemed to put his support fully behind the MOOC concept, drawing an interesting comparison between Spotify, MOOCs, the Glastonbury Festival and campus based degrees. But behind the hype, the politics and the satire, real questions were posed for Higher Education in the UK and globally.

Dr Sally Mapstone of Oxford University suggested that MOOCs were an extension of a lecture based style of higher education, in contrast the the small group teaching they provide at Oxford. There's an implication here about a trade-off between quality higher education and the sort of massive higher education opportunities that MOOCs might offer. Dr Mapstone is right about the important of person to person interaction in the learning process, but doesn't acknowledge in her interview that good learning can also be facilitated amongst groups of students, both with and without an experienced professor in the room. We live in a data and information rich world in 2013, where information is all around us. It is easily accessible via mobile devices in any place at any time. This changes fundamentally educational possibilities because it means that students can gather a lot information themselves. The real challenge for learners in the 21st century is to aggregate this information and turn it into worthwhile knowledge. Content is so varied in its quality that curating information has become a important task for those learning and teaching in higher education. Making sense of this by ordering, reviewing, assimilating, analysing, evaluating and applying has become the task of higher education students. CrucialIy is still unclear to what extent this new 21st Century form of Higher Education can be done in a 'massive' way while maintaining a high quality learning experience, and the key is in the ability of the MOOC format to harness the social aspect of 'massive'. The demographic data we have on MOOC students so far reveals that most participants are already educated to bachelors degree level, with many who have further degrees. These are not novices in study at higher education level. Many have also made the leap into work where they also gather a critical perspective to bring to their learning. Effective use of student to student peer learning will be the key to whether mass higher education can still be good quality higher education.

In a world where many people meet, converse, buy and sell, publish and consume media online it seems sensible that engaging in learning is also possible. There have been many attempts before at doing this, not least iTunes U, which, while impressive in its scope, has yet to threaten Higher Education in the way that some people say MOOCs will. The difference is the social dimension. Effective higher education is more that 'the best professors at the finest universities' as Ng calls them. Good quality higher education is about human interaction, whether facilitated face to face or via electronic media. And MOOCs, of the sort that Simon Nelson of FutureLearn describes, could be the right environment for this to happen.

So does this also mean that the rise of the MOOC will mean that the cost of Higher Education will fall? According to the Newsnight piece, some think this is both desirable and possible. We know that MOOCs have broadened the international reach of Universities, but to what extent this broadening really impacts the business model of established universities in the the UK and US is yet to be seen. David Willetts was clear in his interview that he viewed MOOCs as an opportunity for not a threat to Higher Education in the UK. FutureLearn and its partners will be hoping he is right, and within the next 2 years, we are all likely to find out.