Consider this scenario.
There are 36 universities employing 36 academics who each offer a first year mathematics course. The 36 universities collaborate and develop a single first year mathematics course which is available to all students online and for free.
Do the universities need the 36 academics?
Does the government need 36 universities?
The answer to both questions, of course, is no. Academics and universities have been quick to jump on the Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) bandwagon, but they may become less enthusiastic as we begin to see the dramatic, and perhaps unintended consequences in store for higher education.
Why academics should be wary of MOOCs
At the moment, academics already use technology in the creation and hosting of courses, usually through a Learning Management Systems (LMS). The LMS, unlike a MOOC, is only accessible by university staff and students. Job promotions and university income depend on this course development, particularly through book publications later on.
So if most academics already use an LMS, why should the use of MOOCs be any different?
The problem is that MOOCs change several dynamics associated with course delivery; changes academics may have not considered.
One of the first reasons academics should be worried is the potential for completed MOOCs to count towards “prior learning credits” which include working, training, volunteering and activities in the community that can count towards a formally recognised qualification.
So far only a small number of universities world wide have offered credits for MOOC courses, and if they do, students are required to undergo additional university examinations.
But prior learning credits could be awarded to students who have completed a MOOC without additional university assessment.
Chari Kelley, vice president for LearningCounts.org, which is a subsidiary of the USCouncil for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), recently said regarding prior learning credits based on MOOCs “we are set up to do that. The infrastructure is there.”
This gives MOOCs the potential to be recognised in university programs – allowing for greater competition between them and traditional universities.
Slippery slope to outsourced education
Another issue is the way open online education could affect the privatisation of higher education and the role of academics.
Already technology has facilitated a move away from chalk and talk lectures towards moreproject based learning, workshops (sometimes online) and online forums and meetings. Many academics have also embraced multiple choice or online examinations through their LMS.
This shift in course delivery has also seen the academic’s role change, becoming more akin to course coordinators. Universities are hiring casual staff to manage student projects, workshops and online activities. Academics are now primarily responsible for setting and marking examinations.
The next logical step along the MOOC pathway is for universities to collaborate and develop examinations that are based on the MOOC courseware. The examinations can then be centralised and outsourced.
Students would attend examination centres, be verified and carry out multiple choice or quiz type questions that are machine mark-able. With this achieved, the academic no longer has a role in course delivery and is too expensive to keep on as a course coordinator.
It’s already happening in the world of multinational companies. They offer industry qualifications and training by private education providers. The final qualification examination is carried out through local accredited testing centres. Non-technical people verify the identity of the person completing the examination, oversee the person carry out an online multiple choice examination, and issue a certificate if the person is successful.
Several Australian universities already identify academics as “research-only” or “teaching-only”. Earlier this year it was reported that Monash University has identified 196 teaching-only jobs, 1,058 research-only jobs and 1,444 jobs in teaching and research.
Other universities reported to have teaching-only roles include Melbourne (107), Swinburne (164) and Newcastle (156).
The number of academics identifying with teaching-only roles has increased over the past decade to between 10 and 15 per cent.
With the potential for undergraduate education to be outsourced does this mean teaching-only academics will become redundant?
With courses run through MOOCs and centralised outsourced examinations, many universities will have already answered the question: do we need all the academics we have?
But then comes the next question: do we need all the universities?
Australian universities with low research profiles and high undergraduate and vocational teaching focus will be identified and asked to justify their future.
Private industry will argue for university closures and low cost examination testing centres to be opened in their place.
Raising the alarm
Speaking at a high-speed broadband and higher education forum last month, Australian National University Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Young warned MOOCs could be Australian universities' “own worst enemy”. “Once you have given away something,” he said, “it is very difficult then to make people pay for it”.
At the same conference the Minister for Broadband and Communications, Senator Conroy said:
It’s only taken us 112 years to get a national curriculum, I don’t think we’ve got 112 years to work out what we want to provide in the globalised digital education world…. What is a lecture worth if the best lecturer in the world at MIT is online for free for all to access?
Senator Conroy’s call for more rapid change highlights an urgent need for academics to get involved in the online learning discussion now.
For academics the advent of MOOCs may be the beginning of a perfect storm where technology will provide a means to centralise courseware and provide for automated assessment for undergraduate courses.
Of course, we can’t know for certain but time may well prove that academics joining MOOCs now could be the first lemmings off the cliff.