24/01/2013 10:09 GMT | Updated 26/03/2013 05:12 GMT

MOOCs - The Perfect Storm

The New York Times announced this week that forty public US universities are teaming up with the company Academic Partnerships to offer free online courses which lead to the award of credit towards degree programmes. This move, proposed as a 'free sample' to entice more prospective students onto courses is aimed mostly at professionals such as educators or those working in health services. The new offering, called MOOC2Degree, is the latest incarnation of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and comes weeks after 12 top UK Universities announced that they were going into partnership with the Open University to create FutureLearn, a new initiative to create UK based MOOCs.

But none of this is new. Since 1971, the Open University has been engaging students in distance learning using the best available technologies (then TV programmes with bearded presenters writing on dusty blackboards) and since then although the mode of delivery has been enhanced by the internet since the 1990s, the model remains the same. As learning technologies have developed in the 21st Century more traditional face to face Universities have begun to offer online courses for credit to fee paying students. This has been against a background of spiralling fees, which some sources in the US put at a 500% increase since the mid 1980's. While this increase is not quite mirrored in the UK, the hike to a top rate of £27,000 for a degree from the best UK institutions has made many prospective students and their parents question whether a degree is worth the money. Put that together with stalled labour market with a scarcity of graduate jobs and Higher Education faces an uncertain financial future in the new Higher Education 'marketplace' created by the coalition government.

Another element of the MOOC 'perfect storm' is the technologies. There are three essential elements in this. The first is the hyperlink, the ability to make a piece of text or image on a computer screen link out to something else, and for this to happen infinite times, means that reading using a digital medium is not just about print on screen , it allows each reader, or student, to take a unique route through the media. The second is social media and Web 2.0 - which allows everyone to both read and write with the idea that everyone else, potentially at least, can read it. We've all become publishers. Finally when mobile technologies are added into this mix, and I mean small, light touch screen devices with fruity names which can be used on the train, at 3am when feeding the baby or in the park during a lunch hour mean that connectivity to interactive learning and publishing is finally an anytime anywhere thing.

So put together these technological affordances with the higher education market place and drop it all into a global context and whoosh .... There is your perfect MOOC storm.

Even though the idea of a MOOC is new to some, the genre is already evolving. While MIT offers its MITx suite of courses which hold true to the original MOOC formula which is closer to the idea of a knowledge network constructed by its users, Coursea offer more free courses which are closer to the 'credit for free' model which Academic Partnerships have proposed. Given all of this, might it be worth prospective students waiting a year or two to see if, instead of spending £27,000 on a degree they can study for one free? I doubt it. A reduction in the cost of mass higher education does not seem to be in the interests of many institutions, or even the students if they still want their higher education to be taught by the leading researchers in their field. However the MOOC is quite definitely here to stay so we'd better prepare to ride out that storm.