Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Education at a New Level

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra where Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington said the ANU aims to have more MOOC students by the end of the year, than the total number of graduates the university has ever had. ANU is currently accepting enrolments for its first two edX on-line courses: Engaging India and Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe. Professor Hughes-Warrington then showed the amusing video promotion for the astronomy MOOC and the more sober, but none the less exciting, promotion for the India course. Then Professor Anant Agarwal, President of edX, explained how Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can complement traditional university education. He then discussed the flipped classroom and blended learning.

On-line learning is not a new concept, but as Professor Anant Agarwal explained, this has not had a good reputation. Today's event and edX in general, is essentially an exercise in promoting e-learning as a respectable form of education, for respected universities. This is as much an exercise in marketing to the academic staff, as to potential students.

Professor Brian Schmitt, Nobel Prize winner, said that some low quality Australian universities will not survive the age of the MOOCs.  The cost of creating a MOOC was quoted at $100,000, plus presenter time. Professor Agarwal commented the first time a MOOC was prepared it takes much work, but is easier to revise (this is the same I find with conventional on-line courses and UK Open University has produced methodologies for costing).

Professor Schmitt commented that MOOCs from ANU provided something for students in developing nations. But this is something I disagree with. Many developing nations have their own online open universities. These institutions do not have the prestige of ANU, but they provide courses relevant to the needs of those countries and their students. There may well be undiscovered astronomy geniuses in developing nations, but those countries have other priorities for economic development.

One question from the audience was how edX authenticate who is doing the course. Professor Anant Agarwal explained edX take an image of the student and their ID, and provides this with certificates. In some ways this is more secure than ANU's certificates which are electronic, but have no biometric identification.

Professor Schmitt commented that the optimal length for an educational video is six minutes. This is about two thirds the length of the average adult video viewing, suggesting the perhaps education could be made more stimulating. ;-)

Professor Schmitt  suggested that MOOCs would not fundamentally change the nature of elite universities. However, I suggest there is a very great risk for Australian universities. If low cost on-line courses really do deliver a quality education, there will be no need for most of the international students to come to Australia or pay the current fees. Instead the students would pay a few hundred dollars for an on-line course in their own country. If Australian universities do not offer these courses, then the students would go elsewhere. In my view, MOOCs are no threat to the Australian education industry (they are more of a threat to universities which over-invest in them), but other more mature and sustainable forms of e-learning offer better opportunities.

Some months ago, I attended and presented seminars at UWA on e-learning. There had been a white paper on MOOCs and debate at UWA, over the role of e-learning and MOOCs. When I visited it was clear that these issues were still under active discussion. This debate has yet to start at ANU and perhaps this event will be of use to spark discussion. However, I don't think MOOCs are the main issue, or are fundamental to the future of education.

Tonight’s event is being recorded.

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