Yes, MOOC is the global higher education game changer

Free Massive Open Online Courseware – MOOC – is less than a year old but it is already clear this will be the game changer in higher education worldwide. Right now it is reverberating through the world’s universities like a tectonic shock.

The new paradigm, first developed in the northern autumn of 2011 by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig (pictured) at Stanford University alongside Silicon Valley in California, will be as disruptive to conventional delivery in higher education as the internet is proving in terms of disrupting book publishers, newspapers, and stores such as Myer and David Jones.

Thrun’s first programme in artificial intelligence quickly enrolled 160,000 students. His crucial innovation was not free courseware, which was a concept that was 10 years old, but online grading in multiple choice format, with certification at the end of the programme.

Stanford blocked formal certificates and credits into its conventional degrees but Thrun negotiate a compromise. Students completing the free programme would receive a ‘Statement of Accomplishment’ that carried the Stanford brand.

It was not a substitute for Stanford degrees but a new kind of prestige credential adapted to the internet. It generated student-to-student tutorial discussions, work groups and support systems.

In the case of MOOC, format queries can be routed through FAQs and students can assess one another. It’s free, dirt cheap to run, rigorous in standard and brings you the world experts. Physics from Higgs or Hawking beats the local science teacher – especially if you don’t have one.

Thrun’s company Udacity now has more than 20 staff pumping out courseware.

Two Stanford colleagues have created the parallel company Coursera, which is building global enrolments in more than 50 programmes, using name professors from Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Harvard and MIT have formed a partnership under the name ‘edX’. Its open access programmes are branded with the two most prestigious names in the university world.

Why MOOC is disruptive

The MOOC paradigm disrupts normal higher education for two reasons that are inherent in the economics of internet-provided goods.

Firstly, open access knowledge from institutions that charge up to US$50,000 per student per year: this reflects the fact that knowledge is a ‘public good’. It is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. As the late Elinor Ostrom said in her 2009 Nobel prize lecture:

“Public goods are both non-excludable (impossible to keep those who have not paid for a good from consuming it) and non-rivalrous (whatever individual A consumes does not limit the consumption by others).”

It’s a good description of the web as a whole.

But prestige higher education provided free of charge has another feature that looks more like a market. When competing for free hits from the public, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from household-name Ivy League universities have a decided edge over Worthy Local College.

It’s not just an advantage, it’s complete domination. When it comes to lesson content MOOCs and their celebrity professors blow ordinary local universities and their professors out of the water.

Open courseware has the same logic as the winner-take-all markets in celebrity actors or top movies or music discussed by Cornell sociologist Robert Frank. A tiny handful of producers and products dominate the global market, overwhelmingly. There is only one Elvis, and only one Harvard.

What about making money?

Can universities make money out of MOOCs?

As with Google, the free service creates a global public, which can become the platform for advertising, and for commercial services such as advanced assessment and grading, employment placement, individualised counselling and publishing.

edX and others might also place a low cost pay-wall in front of their advanced programmes. It would be risky, but still far cheaper than conventional higher education delivery.

And if employers agree that the contents of MOOCs look attractive, the alternate credential represented by MOOCs will generate employability benefits as well. ‘Graduates’ could entice employers with half a dozen prestige MOOCs on their CVs, in place of a three-year degree in business or computing. Then the revolution will have really been unleashed.

Substitute or supplement

The MOOC model has the potential to disrupt conventional university education in two ways – as a substitute, and as a supplement.

MOOCs’ full power as a substitute is yet to be tested.

The orthodox degrees provided by leading global universities (which means the American Ivy League, Oxford, Cambridge, maybe Peking University, Tsinghua, Tokyo and a few others worldwide) will retain their social and cultural capital and career-forming benefits.

Worldwide promotion of the brand via MOOCs will enhance the value of those conventional degrees. The internet is effective in building status.

The question is what happens to other universities; especially given that employer take-up of MOOCs is unknown. It is likely that the existing market in fee-paying international education will be affected.

The rapid growth of the world’s middle-classes, especially in urbanising China and India, means that overall demand for foreign education will continue to grow, because of the benefits of immersion in the most powerful economic languages (especially but not only English), and of acquiring foreign cultural knowledge and life skills.

No doubt, though, some prospective international students will decide that staying home and building up free Harvard or Stanford MOOCs on their CVs is a more cost-effective proposition than spending US$40,000 to US$50,000 or more per year on education and living costs for three or four years in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, France or Japan.

This could destabilise the economic basis of higher education in the full fee-charging export countries – or force them to offer more to international students than they have been offering up to now, like better services, additional language support or even employment placement.

Perhaps there will be less disruption of first-degree domestic enrolments. Many students like the onsite experience where they can meet one another. But some will opt for MOOCs if the ‘statements of accomplishment’ work with employers.

The effects might be greater among lifelong learners, those seeking skill-upgrading, a change of direction or just interesting courses. Many will find attractive not just MOOC contents but the flexibility offered by online learning.

What about MOOCs as a supplement?

MOOCs can augment local programmes with prestige content while, of course, dramatically reducing teaching costs. They can make local university degrees more attractive, but this could be a Trojan horse if the perception grows that the local institution adds little of value on top.

If lectures, tutorials and assessment become more global – like textbooks did in the 20th century – many universities will have to reinvent themselves.

It is likely they will step up their role in brokering work experience during degrees and become more serious about vocational and career counselling at the point of departure, possibly moving into employment placement at scale.

We can expect a multiplication of ancillary services and facets of the extra-curricular student experience and, in some institutions, a more pronounced emphasis on graduate research programmes where intensive teaching will remain essential.

Some (perhaps most) universities will use MOOCs to reduce their personnel costs, though academic capacity is the weak spot in many institutions, and cutting academic capacity too far makes little sense in those universities that need research outputs to sustain their position in the global market.

Yet MOOCs puts unprecedented pressure on the teaching-research nexus. Perhaps teaching-focused academics will be pared back, with MOOCs partly substituting for them, and more research-only positions created. The main onsite work in higher education in future could be research not teaching.

The nagging question

But there will be a nagging question to deal with, one that was always implicit but was never faced: ‘What is the extra value added by the local degree and what does this mean in terms of course content?’

Universities outside the very top group of global providers may try to float their own MOOCs but they will be hard pressed to win at that game.

So in terms of the curriculum and teaching-learning – as distinct from ancillary services – the only ultimate rationales for the continuing role of local universities will be that they can provide (1) local insights into content, including vocational preparation, and (2) more intensive, sensitive and personalised teaching than MOOCs in any format can provide. And that is going to test institutional budgets.

No doubt most universities will develop a blend of local and global content. But they will find themselves continually pulled towards the global side of the equation, which for different reasons will attract both the university producers (cuts costs) and the student consumers (sexy brand and contents).

In this we see the mixed benefits that globalisation always brings, and the combined economic character of MOOCs as both public good and winner-take-all market. In that respect MOOCs are like the internet itself.

Like the internet, MOOCs constitute a tremendous worldwide democratisation of knowledge, bringing Matthew Arnold’s “the best which has been thought and said” taken to every corner of the planet.

There is another side to that coin, of course. As Arnold’s high Victorian educational mission always implied, MOOCs could enforce an unprecedented level of global sameness in higher education. MOOCs mean the homogenisation (and in this case the Americanisation) of knowledge, learning and culture.

We do live in interesting times in higher education!

* Simon Marginson is a professor in the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. He is a member of the editorial board of Times Higher Education and of the international advisory board of the Academic Ranking of World Universities in Shanghai.


Really expected a little more analysis from Simon M on the MOOCs. A new paradigm - really? On what basis? He didn't mention drop-out rates (noted by some). All kinds of references to movies etc. Seems more metaphorical analysis than anything more sensible or serious. Seems to be just consulting talk and pop institutional analysis. Grade: B-.

Craig Prichard posted on University World News Facebook Wall