November 2013 issue

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Massive online changes

Moocs (massive open online courses) arrived on the scene at the start of 2012 and are already promising to make far-reaching changes to the world of HE. Jane Vernon Smith investigates the implications for study abroad.

Moocs are available across academic disciplines at various levels, and anyone can sign up for them free of charge. These short courses were created with the intent of attracting large numbers of students into HE, and, equally significantly, they represent the fruit of a new cooperation between top academics and education technology experts.

To this end, a number of companies have been created. Coursera was founded at the beginning of 2012 by two computer science specialists at Stanford University; Harvard and MIT subsequently joined forces to form edX in May the same year; and Udacity is another major provider originating in the USA. With FutureLearn in the UK, Iversity in Germany, Open2Study in Australia and Veduca in Brazil, to name but a few others, the phenomenon is now global.

To quote Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn, “This is about reinventing learning in a way that brings it to life and widens access to courses from top global universities for people for whom they would otherwise be out of reach...

“FutureLearn,” he explains, “is not designed to replace traditional HE institutions, but to broaden access to these aspects of traditional courses and establish new ways of learning online that take advantage of social tools to allow people to fit learning around their lives.”

Mooc courses are characterised by their delivery model. As Paul Wappett, CEO of Open Universities Australia – the backer behind Open2Study – says, “This is a new kind of education. It’s not just a set of powerpoint slides or pdfs placed online... You can engage with videos, animations, simulations and interactive quizzes.” Furthermore, as Nelson highlights, FutureLearn technology is designed to work equally well on mobiles, tablets and desktops.

The basic Mooc concept is of an informal course that is not intended to lead to a qualification. However, edX has recently undertaken a pilot project with Pearson VUE to offer a proctored exam for its Circuits & Electronics course, reports Director of Communications Nancy Moss. Meanwhile, Iversity has announced that it will issue both authenticated and unauthenticated certificates. While an unauthenticated certificate will be available on successful completion of an online test, an authenticated certificate will require students to take an offline, proctored exam, either at the university hosting the Mooc or at a partner institution, explains company Co-Founder Hannes Klöpper.

While most providers have shown an intention for courses to remain free, there is a need – even at non-profit edX – for them to be self-sustaining, at least. Charging for certification is a way to achieve this. Other methods currently being considered by edX are exam proctoring, licensing courses to other institutions, executive education, course-hosting and offering support services to other organisations using its platform. Iversity is also looking at other possible revenue streams, with Klöpper explaining, “Where HE blends into specialised professional development, we may at some point work with tuition fees.”

Financial matters aside, educators are set to gain substantially. “Through a Mooc, [educators] can achieve global reach, prestige and a lasting legacy contributing to their academic reputation, such as a research paper or a text book,” Klöpper explains. “Furthermore, [they] can get valuable insights into student learning... they can ‘learn about learning’ and adapt their teaching methods accordingly.”

“The virtue of free, short courses…allows for experimentation with content, learning design and assessment,” Wappett says. “Ultimately, it will help us finesse and develop the best possible online learning environment for Open2Study students and our paid-for programmes through Open Universities Australia. It’s a win-win for all our students.” And according to Nelson, not only is it an opportunity to reach far more students than could take part in traditional university education, but also, he says, “Many will be inspired to go on and take other HE courses.” Meanwhile, he adds, “Educators will be able to establish their brands and teaching in Mooc subjects around the world.”

For some, the vision extends even further. “We believe that Moocs will fundamentally transform higher education,” Klöpper declares. “Not because of what they are today, but because of the re-thinking of the role of technology in higher education that was ushered in by the media attention that is currently devoted to the topic.”

Klöpper foresees the emergence of a common market for university credits within Europe, alongside a restructuring of the whole university system in which universities, as we know them today, will play their part alongside “loose alliances of functionally highly differentiated service providers that each fulfil different aspects of higher education”.

With procedures in place for authenticating student achievement, the transformational potential of Moocs is substantially increased. At the start of 2013, Academic Partnerships, a company that helps universities convert their traditional degree programmes into online format, launched a new initiative, MOOC2Degree. This, it believes, is a game-changer.

Students who successfully complete a MOOC2Degree course offered by one of its partner institutions earn academic credits based on criteria specified by the university. In this way, comments Director of Corporate Communications, Jacquelyn Scharnick, the Mooc is converted from recreational learning “into a pragmatic tool that leads to a credential”. She adds, “The free start is just the encouragement many working adults need to enrol in a degree programme that will have a significant impact on their future success.”

Another recent development reinforces the revolutionary impact of the Mooc. A course billed as the first professional online Master of Science degree in computer science that can be earned completely through the Mooc format was announced by Georgia Institute of Technology in May. Offered in collaboration with Udacity/AT&T, this course will, it claims, cost students a fraction of the cost of traditional on-campus programmes. Courses related to the programme will be available free of charge on the Udacity website, although only students granted admission to Georgia Tech will receive credit. The university has said it will develop a separate credential for students who successfully complete courses but do not qualify for full graduate standing.
As for the effect on the international education sector, these changes are certain to have an impact, but it is still early to assess whether this will, on balance, prove positive or negative.

As has already been seen with language courses, online education need not in itself pose a real threat to classroom-based teaching and learning, since study abroad has a cultural value all of its own, which cannot be replicated. Moocs may indeed prove beneficial in terms of fostering greater awareness of overseas institutions, as highlighted previously. This was the hope expressed by Dr Masako Egawa at the University of Tokyo, Japan, when it partnered with Coursera earlier this year.
“We already receive students from more than 100 countries,” he said, “but Coursera’s online platform will enable us to reach out to the many students who cannot make it to Japan. We also hope this will attract more international students, further promoting internationalisation of the university and creating a truly global campus.”

Following the launch of the first Mooc through Colorado State University OnlinePlus, Jordan Fritts at the institution similarly states, “We believe that a quality online educational experience, be that in a Mooc or credit-bearing course, may influence potential students to (re-)engage in education at many levels including study abroad opportunities.”

Study abroad agent Cristiane Pessuti from Melbourne International in São Paulo, Brazil, is also receptive towards the idea of Moocs. “I see it as a positive evolution in the [sense] of showing students and prospecting the institution’s DNA,” she affirms.

However, there are always two sides to every story, and the UK’s Minister for the Universities and Science, David Willetts, recently raised a question mark over Moocs’ impact on education agents, when he controversially asserted that they could “help to cut out agency middle men”.

Agents, naturally, are for the most part confident in the added value they provide for students in guiding their choice of overseas study destination. However, it will be up to those agents to ensure the advice they give remains of high enough quality to beat any threat from this quarter, just as they will need to be proactive in seeking to capitalise on increased interest in university courses. The educators have made their move; next it is the turn of the agents. jvs@hothousemedia.com

Mooc facts and figures

Many of the world’s leading universities have been quick to sign up to offer Moocs. At the time of writing, Coursera partnered 33 universities from across four continents, with a total of 145 courses currently on offer, while FutureLearn has established partnerships with 23 universities to date, in Ireland and Australia as well as the UK.

Already, they have enrolled an impressive number of students. Udacity announced in October 2012 that it had already enrolled over 753,000 students since the start of the year. At the time of writing, Coursera’s website quotes a figure of 2.7 million students, while, on 1 March 2013, edX says that it reached one million course enrolments.

These are coming from around the globe. 192 countries are represented on edX courses, according to data published by the company, and its top-five source countries are USA (27.7 per cent of enrolments), India (13 per cent), UK (4.2 per cent), Brazil (3.8 per cent) and Spain (2.7 per cent).

edX reports that continuing learners represent 55 per cent of its enrolments to date, with university-age learners accounting for another 40 per cent, and high-school age students making up the remaining five per cent. Meanwhile statistical analysis undertaken by Open2Study on its first cohort of students reveals that almost 10 per cent were in the 55-plus age group. Just over 40 per cent were aged 25-to-34 years, and 22.4 per cent were aged 35-to-44 years.

Courses are across a wide range of academic disciplines, from introductory to advanced level. Of the 60 courses so far available from edX, the most popular are Circuits and Electronics with 155,000 enrolments, Introduction to Computer Science (145,000) and Introduction to Statistics (50,000-plus).

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Ability English  
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Queen Ethelburga's College  
St Giles International  
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Goethe Institut Berlin  

English For Asia  

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Celtic School of English  
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Italian in Tuscany  

Kai Japanese Language School  

Feltom (Via Malta Tourism Authority)  

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CIAL - Centro de Linguas  

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