Date published: 14 August 2012
Imagine a university degree that is like a passport: a subject from Swinburne stamped alongside another from Sydney University, with courses from overseas colleges such as Stanford or Harvard thrown in. You could earn your degree without travelling further than your laptop, and far more cheaply than on campus.
Far-fetched? The proliferation of websites offering courses from top universities - MIT and Stanford among them - and the globalisation of learning generally means this scenario may one day be possible. Higher education is in the middle of a digital revolution, and who has access to it, and how it is done, will shift dramatically in the next few years.
''The world of tertiary education is changing fundamentally, and the pace of change is greater than ever before,'' says Monash University vice-chancellor Ed Byrne, likening it to the 15th-century invention of the printing press. "People are being educated in a totally global context for the first time."
Online tertiary study is not new, but what is starting to happen is the opening up of information and resources from some of the world's leading universities, often for free, which can be used anywhere, by anyone. This year the $16 million US-based outfit Coursera came online. Featuring partnerships with some of the leading universities, it joins groups such as Udacity and the edX project between MIT and Harvard. Coursera already has 1 million enrolments, including 7000 from Australia.
These changes mean that potentially millions of people who otherwise may have had no opportunity to access higher education can do so for free, via institutions that charge about $50,000 a year if you enrol on campus.
The major difference is that students cannot receive degrees from those universities, which, for the moment at least, is a way for prestigious colleges to protect the cachet associated with their names.
But the opportunity to learn from some of the world's leading academics is an attractive one for students like Kevin Chai, a researcher at the University of New South Wales who has completed a Stanford University course in machine learning through Coursera. The course, which used short lecture videos with integrated quiz questions, went for 10 weeks and required five to seven hours of work each week.
"I found these courses to be very appealing when compared to local courses because you can receive a first-class education for free and be taught by renowned professors who are leaders in their field," he says.
When he finished the course, Dr Chai received a certificate of completion for no charge.
Melbourne student Vishnu Chari, who is doing a master's in business law at Monash University, is also studying cryptography through Coursera, and plans to do more subjects. ''Just things that are interesting but I haven't had the time in my university course to undertake,'' he says.
Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng, a Stanford professor, told The Sunday Age that although the venture has committed to not becoming a university, already some colleges are offering course credits for Coursera certificates. There are 116 courses on offer, such as Calculus from the University of Pennsylvania or Critical Thinking in Global Challenges at the University of Edinburgh. ''What we have seen also is there are a few universities that are incorporating some of our material into their own classrooms,'' he says.
In Australia, universities have been slower to embrace the digital revolution, but it is now gaining pace. Some are experimenting with the consortiums of free online university studies, known as MOOCs (the Massive Online Open Course) - or putting some of their own resources online for free. For example, La Trobe has begun offering subjects through Apple's iTunes U, joining universities such as Oxford and Yale. In second semester, students will be able to download lectures and readings from first-year subject ''The Roman World'' while it is being taught.
In Australia, the biggest online tertiary outfit is Open Universities, which is owned by seven universities - Curtin, Griffith, Monash, RMIT, Swinburne, Macquarie and the University of South Australia. It has been growing at 20 per cent each year in the past five years, offering most of its 1400 online courses to anyone, regardless of educational background. It now has about 55,000, predominantly Australian, students.
Chief executive Paul Wappett says global e-learning initiatives like Coursera, and edX are legitimising online education. "There's a lot of money being poured into disruptive models in education from Silicon Valley, India and China. Everyone in the sector here can't afford to be complacent about that. Any university that doesn't have an online offering in five years' time will have missed the boat."
In addition to its online degrees in business, social science, communication and technology, Swinburne has a program in which it makes some of its learning resources freely available, but if students want accreditation for that learning, they need to pay for it.
Pro-vice chancellor Professor Gilly Salmon says universities might agree to allow free access to their resources because of altruism - to allow people who may not be able to afford higher education access to it - or the chance to showcase their academic work to the world.
The University of Southern Queensland is a member of a global consortium that operates similarly to Coursera, involving UNESCO and universities in New Zealand and Canada. The Open Education Resource University, which is in development, will offer learning resources for free, but accreditation will need to be paid for.
Deakin University is embracing "cloud" learning, which enables students to undertake work anywhere, at any time. Vice-chancellor Jane den Hollander says the university is keeping a "watching brief" on Coursera.
She can foresee a time when a student who completes a Coursera or similar certificate online may then be able to use that to gain course credit towards a Deakin degree, with one caveat: the ability to authenticate that students are who they say they are, and have completed the work themselves.
Richard James, a professor of higher education at Melbourne University, believes the extent to which institutions embrace the digital world will depend on how they position themselves in the marketplace: some more research-heavy universities may stick with a more traditional model.
Director of e-learning Professor Gregor Kennedy says while technology is enabling dynamic teaching, the on-campus experience continues to be prized - the university has only three undergraduate subjects and 100 graduate subjects delivered solely online.
"Melbourne University has a long history as a campus-based institution that has placed a premium on students engaging in the scholarly community on campus, and we've got a strong commitment to using technology to enhance that experience."
Most academics who spoke to The Sunday Age do not believe online courses, or even degrees, will wholly replace the on-campus experience, or that they should: most accept there will always be courses that need classroom time, and the value of small-group instruction and the intellectual community that higher education provides.
Whatever way universities choose to embrace the new digital world, Professor James says, they will need to rethink their business models.
"What you're going to see in the future is a more differentiated set of universities, because universities are going to have to work out new business models that adjust to what is probably a revolution.''
But he is also wary of the globalised access to information, fearing it could lead to content homogenisation.
Deakin's Professor den Hollander also cautions that not all content is equal, and just because it comes from a prestigious university, doesn't make it necessarily the best material available.
Since the deregulation of Australian universities this year - effectively exposing them to market forces and making competition for students more intense - Grattan Institute higher education program director Andrew Norton says there is legitimate concern that online higher education could cannibalise universities' more mainstream offerings, especially as, unlike say, Harvard or Stanford, most Australian universities do not turn away 90 per cent of student applicants.
Professor den Hollander is alive to this possibility, too."Is it a threat? Absolutely," she says. "Are we in the market? Absolutely."
Date: Sunday 12 August 2012
Publication: The Age
Title: Free courses from world's top unis a swipe away in online revolution
Original article at The Age