MOOCs and money and the future of higher education

It was Sir Arthur C Clarke who wrote, back in 1980, that any teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be. In Australia, universities may soon be allowed to charge what they like for courses. The argument is that there are many more students, the state can’t further prop up a system which by its own reports is in crisis, and deregulation will fix it. I studied in the brief period in which university education was free in Australia, in the post-Whitlam eighties. But the current Government, and all those since Whitlam, have gradually closed the door to free university education. That door may be reopened some time soon, but if it is, it will have more to do with Clarke’s dictum than with anything the government does.

When I started university, lectures were held in enormous tiered theatres that smelled of wood polish and air conditioning. There were hundreds of us watching a single lecturer half hidden behind a podium at the very bottom of the theatre reading in a coddled monotone from paper notes. By the time a question was communicated from the back to the front of the theatre and the answer given, the questioner had forgotten why they’d asked it. Medicine was one of the first courses to look at its archaic teaching methods and replace mass lectures with small group problem-based learning. Other courses have picked up their acts too.

But now one branch of teaching is going backwards on the information superhighway, taking all the tropes of the internet with it. It’s big, it’s free, and it could transform universities worldwide. So far, the internet and digital technologies have had less influence than we might have expected on higher education, but innovation sometimes creates seismic shifts that aren’t discernible on the surface. Standing in the Great Court at the University of Queensland, you may hear the call of the currawong, but you may miss the call of the MOOC which just might presage your learning future.  

MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, use digital technology and the internet to deliver jazzed up lectures to thousands of people at a time. A bit like TED talks, which started in California and are now so common it’s impossible to know what to watch, MOOCs might be a fad. They might even be distance education under another name, albeit an improvement on stapled reading booklets and cassette tapes, but they can also be much more interactive than either a big lecture or the traditional distance education course. The university consortiums to develop the first MOOCs, Coursera and the non-profit edX, say learning is happening in new ways. Set up by MIT and Harvard to improve access and on-campus teaching, edX MOOCs provide online interaction not only between lecturer and class, but among classmates who bring their own knowledge.

It’s worth checking out edX, which now has 47 university partners, to see what’s on. I went looking for the English Grammar and Style MOOC which started in September this year. You might think a grammar course would be about as interesting as root canal therapy but this one has 44,000 registrations. Coordinated by the University of Queensland’s Associate Professor Roslyn Petelin, the English Grammar and Style MOOC looks very good, and would certainly lead a learner to question why I'd bother using a useless word like 'very' in front of 'good' here. Ros Petelin has been helping students learn to write for decades. I used to tutor for her. I learned a lot. Ros can break the task of writing into rules anyone can learn. Her graduates love her wry sense of humour, her pernicketiness about the serial comma, and her high expectations which they want to meet. And if you watch the trailer for her MOOC, you’ll see an academic sartorial prizewinner in the form of Professor Fred D’Agostino, whose seersucker jacket and tie combo is unlikely to be matched this century.

No one knows where MOOCs will go from here but one possibility is that universities will gather them into degrees, awarded free. It was also Arthur C Clarke who wrote, this time in The Exploration of Space, that if we’ve learned anything from the history of invention and discovery, it’s that “in the long run — and often in the short one — the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative.” Whatever way they bring free education to more people, if they do it effectively, I say, go MOOCs!

Based on a column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 13 September 2014. Mary-Rose writes about writing, education and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter.