MOOCs: Testing Higher Education's IQ

As the cost of technology falls and cross-platform development becomes simpler, social learning opportunities are opening up and are presenting more convenient, dynamic and interactive ways of studying and engaging students.

I don't think Napster receives the credit it deserves for the story it told. The company single-handedly re-invented the music industry wheel, changed consumer purchasing behaviour and is solely responsible for the inevitable demise of music retail outlets such as HMV. Why? Because when the recording industry made us buy a 14-track album just so we could listen to the three songs we really cared about, Shaun Parker, Napster's co-founder said: "Guys, you're in control. Choose the song(s) you want and forget about having to purchase the mediocre majority." Consequently Napster quickly became the fastest-growing piece of software in history, but such was the political klout of the music industry at that time that Napster was sued for copyright infringement and collapsed even more suddenly than bottled water for pets did.

So why is the recording industry today a shadow of its former self? Because it simply couldn't imagine a world where the old, traditional ways of working failed. We are all guilty of this at some point in our lives. When something is working well, we tend to believe so blindly in the idea that it's hard to notice what is happening around us. Even when our senses eventually catch up, we consider the impact to be minor, a fad that will eventually subside. But by the time we realise the world has changed, we've drifted so far down a particular strategic river that it's impossible to change course and adapt to the new ways of doing things. This is what HMV experienced last month and what the music industry will inevitably face, because after the story Napster told a myriad of alternatives from to Spotify jumped on the MP3 bandwagon as a format for distributing songs.

This is happening everywhere now, not just in music. Google and Amazon are digitising the world's supply of books and newspapers are moving their publications online, but as a recent university graduate it's fascinating to see it unfold in what was once my own backyard. The phenomenon I am talking about is MOOCs (massive open online courses) - a combination of video lectures with associated written material and self-scoring tests. Our Napster in higher education is Coursera, the startup launched by academics at Stanford University who are now offering online courses from 62 universities and already have 2.8 million students registered. That's more students than there are in the entire United Kingdom.

Like the recording industry, many academics aren't taking much notice of Coursera because they assume that there is an issue of quality. But that is irrelevant for two reasons: Firstly, education is becoming more expensive, and it's almost impossible to imagine 18 year-old student wannabes setting aside £30,000 over four years to pay for it without racking up a truck load of debt that they'll be paying off well into their 30s. Thankfully, the internet is leading the way in aggregating supply and demand, and the notion of a "sharing economy" has been championed by many as a means for stimulating economic growth. Peer-to-peer schemes like Coursera provide desperate students handy disposable income that they can allocate elsewhere. And what about the issue of quality? Collaborative consumption, in my experience, is increasingly the stimulant for excellence, and having sat in lecture theatres for hours on end, day after day, I can tell you now that only a handful inspired any intellectual or collaborative joy. The fact is, university quality in the UK is on the decline. While the 'elite few' continue to receive higher education's increasingly scarce resources, a gap is opening up between the very best British universities and the rest. When only nine UK institutions made the Times Higher Education World Ranking this year, why wouldn't today's "peer economy" consider Coursera over an ordinary UK university? As smartphones, tablets and apps that support them become increasingly popular, I think MOOCs and distance-learning will offer peers greater collaboration, sharing and content creation opportunities that many traditional lectures simply fail to provide, all at a much lower cost.

Secondly, such is the appetite for higher education today that the classic 'university campus' business model will struggle to respond. Recently, Universities Minister, David Willetts, talked about "the hunger of higher education" and the "historic opportunity" that UK universities must grasp as the demand for courses in Asian countries start to create markets for UK institutions. Willetts explained that the scale of demand would require online courses to support campus universities, not replace them, and this is exactly what MOOCs are all about. We will not see students abandoning university anytime soon, but we will see education open up to those who are completely shut out by the established system; those that believe the increasing costs do not justify the means and therefore choose to take a leaf out of Napster's book and unbuckle their pursuit of a degree.

As the cost of technology falls and cross-platform development becomes simpler, social learning opportunities are opening up and are presenting more convenient, dynamic and interactive ways of studying and engaging students. Moreover, the plethora of evidence that suggests we learn better in short, frequent bursts than in a five hour-straight lecture adds weight to the idea of virtual learning through short videos and podcasts.

I think the story that Coursera et al are telling is even more pertinent as we become more technologically savvy and our lives become busier. We are, whether we like it or not, more reliant on virtual communication - especially the younger generation - to do what we need to do. For example, dozens of online services have sprung up over the past five years connecting owners of assets such as cars and accommodation with customers fond of ad-hoc renting rather than buying outright. This, of course, is not just about cost; it's also about flexibility and ease. Social media is being used to establish trust and the internet can handle the billing process. Simple stuff. With MOOCs, it's now possible to educate a thousand people at a time, in a single class, for free, and for those who struggle to combine studying with full-time work, they provide an appetising alternative.

Technology, as we all know, is evolving daily. Infrastructure, quality and ease of use are improving all the time, and just like the PC did (in fact, just like all technology does), distance-learning and MOOCs will be no different. The fact that big players like the recording industry are taking action against the "sharing economy" is a measure of its value and growth potential. I guess if there is one point I want to make here, it's repeating what all academics have and will continue to preach: to not let history repeat itself.

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