Massive and Open - MOOCs and the transformation of HE

Ian Clark explores how MOOCs could transform higher education and how the role of librarians might change.

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Challenges facing HE

In the UK, concerns about the uncertain future of higher education seem to have been dominating the narrative around the sector for some time. From the abolition of student grants, to the introduction of tuition fees, to the Browne review and the shockwaves sent across the sector that we are still attempting to grapple with.  Whilst the ramifications of the Browne review are still not totally clear, a new challenge has already reared its head, posing questions about where the sector will be five, ten or twenty years from now.

The growth of massive online open courses (or MOOCs) has certainly given the sector much to ponder.  MOOCs first emerged in 2008, offering students a unique opportunity to study courses with prestigious universities across the globe.  Hosted online, these courses enable thousands of students to take part in any course and encourage them to engage with a broad range of online tools to support their studies and broaden their learning. Furthermore, they empower students to engage in independent study, whilst garnering support from the online learning community rather than academic staff. It’s not difficult to see why they present a challenge for the HE sector.

In 2011, Stanford University launched three new classes that were opened up to anyone with an internet connection.  One class, taught by Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, attracted a staggering 160,000 classmates alone from outside the US.  Underlining the reach of such courses, the students represented 190 countries and volunteers have even offered to translate the lectures into 44 languages. So successful has the experience been that Professor Thurn has moved to claim that in the future “there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education.” Whilst this sounds like hyperbole, there are certainly signs that things are about to get a whole lot tougher in HE.

It has recently emerged that five academic publishers are working with one MOOC provider (Coursera) to trial a pilot programme that enables Coursera students to access “versions of their e-books, delivered via a DRM-protected e-reader provided by student learning platform Chegg.” One of the partners, Sage, claimed it was working with its authors to provide free access to “select textbook content requested by instructors” for the duration of the eight-week long MOOC courses, with students also presented with the option to purchase print and digital copies of these texts.  However, whilst the offer sounds appealing (and threatening), MOOCs do not currently have formal university credits assigned to them – but there is no telling how long this will remain the case.

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