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Universities under threat from MOOC revolution

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It’s been called the biggest educational revolution in centuries, an increasingly popular movement that could shape the future of higher learning around the globe.

And it could also threaten the very raison d’etre of universities.

The revolution goes by the name of MOOC, or Massive Open Online Courses, and almost 10 million students have already signed up worldwide. Centered in the United States, it involves educational services that distribute university courses for free over the Internet.

Students can watch any number of top-notch lectures for free, and they are also given homework and tests. They can discuss matters and queries with other students, too.

Furthermore, once a certain level is attained, they will receive a “completion certificate.” Although it is not an officially recognized accreditation, students use the certificate as proof of study when looking for work.

The revolution began two years ago when a prestigious U.S. university began releasing some of its classes into the public domain. The main bodies behind the MOOC boom are two venture companies, Coursera and Udacity, and edX, a not-for-profit institution. Though all three are based in the United States, universities across Europe, Asia and South America are also jumping on board.

Budding students can now take their pick from around 1,200 courses offered by more than 200 university educators around the world, according to Dhawal Shah, a founder of Class Central, a website offering free online courses for MOOC. The only thing required is an Internet connection.

Traditionally, higher education was locked behind a “wall” of tough entrance examinations and high tuition fees, but these walls are being torn down.

That’s why some say the MOOCs revolution signals the biggest shake-up in education since the 15th century, when the Gutenberg printing press heralded the mass dissemination of knowledge.


The revolution is also changing the way students study. The transformation can be seen in Tokyo with the increasing number of commuting office workers studying on tablet computers.

Osamu Takahashi, 37, is a member of this new tribe in Japan’s capital. On weekday train journeys, he listens to business lectures from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. On weekends, he studies bookkeeping and accounting.

“It’s like I finally got the chance to study overseas,” he says.

Online courses can be a lonely business, so study groups are springing up across the United States. These give students a chance to meet up on weekends and help each other with homework. The location might be a café, for instance, but the conversations are the same as those among regular university students.

New York office worker Varun Nagpal, 29, is a big fan of this way of learning. “With MOOCs, we don’t have to pay high tuition and enroll in university to learn.”

He says his weekends have totally changed since he started the course. More than 5,000 such study groups have been set up around the world, including in Tokyo.

One hot topic of conversation in MOOC circles is a boy genius from Mongolia. When he was 15, he enrolled in a course offered by the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and astounded lecturers by attaining a perfect score. Friends, family and his high school principal urged him to take the MIT entrance exam. He has since received a scholarship and moved to the real campus last autumn.

So why are universities and companies offering fee-based education for free? The answer lies with big data. When these institutions attract students from around the world, they are also gathering information about the students’ educational backgrounds.

This data is used for two main purposes. The information provides a statistical insight into how students with top grades study, in other words, “how geniuses learn.” The information can be used to find effective education methods and improve teaching materials.

The second purpose is to make money. Information about student interests and results can be packaged and sold to partner companies with the consent of students. Udacity has devised a framework for introducing potential employees, a service that costs “a fraction” of the $20,000 per employee a headhunter would charge, according to Udacity’s founder, Sebastian Thrun.

MOOCs originally found favor “outside” the university system by, for example, catering to those who couldn’t attend university.

Now, though, their influence is starting to be felt “inside” the system, too.

Some U.S. universities are experimenting with the classroom use of MOOC videos from other elite universities. Students watch or listen to lectures at home and then participate in dialogue-based lessons at the university, where they study in groups and debate with fellow students. Previously, universities often used textbooks written by distinguished professors. Viewed in this context, MOOCs are simply “21st century textbooks.”

There is considerable opposition, though. When San Jose State University proposed using MOOC lectures by Harvard University professor Michael Sandel, teachers in the philosophy department were not happy. They responded with an open letter that said the move toward MOOCs was motivated by cost-cutting and was a “great peril to our university.”

Critics also say that “the diversity of education will be destroyed” by using a single professor’s course to teach tens of thousands of students.

As one article in the Chronicle of Higher Education put it, “MOOCs are now at the forefront of the McDonaldization of higher education.”

The revolution has only just begun, and it’s anyone’s guess how far it will develop. Nonetheless, in the United States, where soaring school fees are becoming a social problem, MOOC fever is catching on.

In Washington last December, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology made a proposal to President Barack Obama. To accelerate the development of MOOCs, the committee pressed for accrediting standards to be relaxed to allow more online courses to receive formal accreditation.

If the proposal is approved, students will find it easier to take online courses not affiliated to their university. Traditionally, students could only learn from their university professors. Eventually, though, most courses possibly face competition from outside the university.

Eric Rabkin, the 67-year-old associate provost for online education at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, compares the situation to the music industry.

In the past, he says, the music industry used to package songs together as albums, but new distribution platforms allow consumers to buy individual songs, so publishers have lost power. Likewise, new services allow professors to sell courses individually online.

“We all need to prepare for big changes,” he warns.

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