By Tim Dodd
University of Queensland vice chancellor Peter Hoj has joined the rush to provide free online courses because he believes there is a fundamental change under way in higher education.
After announcing last week that UQ would join edX, the massive open online course (MOOC) provider founded by Harvard and MIT, Professor Hoj said he believed universities could be facing a situation similar to companies such as Kodak which were wiped out by new technology.
He said a number of factors had convinced him that MOOCs would have a major impact on education.
One was the growing speed of the internet and the low cost of access. Another was the fact that young people were “incredibly tech savvy”.
And the engagement in free online education by many of the world’s top universities meant “no one can say any longer that it’s second-rate organisations engaged in them”.
He urged that universities should not be afraid to move to new business models even if they risked hurting existing ones.
Kodak, he said, “did not have the courage or the foresight to cannibalise its own business” while Apple “continued to cannibalise its product”.
While Kodak was forced into bankruptcy, Apple is one of the world’s leading companies.
Professor Hoj said his thinking about online education had also been influenced by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who has argued that MOOCs are a positive and transformative force in higher education.
He said it had led him to the conclusion that: “If it can be done it will be done, and it’s better to do it than to have it done to you.
“I’m quite certain that this is the start of something big, but none of us know where it is ending up.”
Showcasing UQ’s areas of expertise
UQ will offer four free courses in May 2014, whose topics have been selected to showcase areas of the university’s expertise.
Two of them – The Science of Everyday Thinking by Jason Tangen, and Tropical Coastal Ecosystems by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg – are in areas, psychology and environmental science, in which the University of Queensland was rated by QS rankings to be in the world’s top 10. Two other MOOCs – Hypersonics: from Shock Waves to Scramjets by David Mee, and Biomedical Imaging by Graham Galloway – were also in areas where UQ had a strong reputation.
“You have to put up your best,” Professor Hoj said. He said that membership of edX, which has “27 world-class institutions” would enhance UQ’s global standing.
It is one of 15 top global educational institutions which joined the edX consortium last week. Aside from UQ, the new membership included Chinese universities Peking University and Tsinghua University as well as Cornell University, the University of Washington and Seoul National University.
Aside from Harvard and MIT, institutions which are already members of edX include Berkeley, Rice and the Australian National University.
The ANU will launch its first two MOOCs next year: Astrophysics by Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt and Paul Francis, and Engaging India by McComas Taylor and Peter Friedlander. The University of Melbourne has just completed its first MOOC, Principles of Macroeconomics, with rival provider Coursera.
Professor Hoj also believes that developing MOOCs will help build UQ’s ability to gather data on how students learn and use analytics to track learning patterns and improve teaching.