16 Jul 2013
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Introducing virtual universities...

By Rebecca Wood

Universities across the world are opening their virtual doors to increasing numbers of students by offering massive online open courses (MOOCs).

The New York Times dubbed 2012 The Year of the MOOC and, according to Professor Mark Brown, director of the National Centre for Teaching and Learning at Massey University, MOOCs have shaken up the education landscape.

“There is a lot of hype and hope associated with MOOCs, particularly around what they are going to do and how they are going to change the educational landscape," he says.

“But many universities suffer from FOMO or the fear of missing out and have jumped on the bandwagon without too much thought.”

But what are MOOCs and what are the implications for New Zealand universities?

A MOOC is basically a free online course to which anyone with an internet connection can enroll.

There are two types of MOOCs.  The first, and most popular, provides a short-term introduction to a popular course and is seen as a way to attract more students to the actual university.

The second, offers a collaborative approach to course delivery between universities and, says Brown, is driven by experts in the field, not by publicity.

MOOCs are not an entirely new phenomenon and may have had their earliest beginnings with MIT starting to publish its course content online in 2002 (now MIT Open Course Ware). The term itself was coined in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2011 when Stanford University launched Coursera and Udacity that MOOC became the buzzword of the university world.

However, the popularity of MOOCs amongst learners is relative, says Brown.

“Ask how many people have heard of MOOCs and a lot of hands will go up. Ask how many have enrolled in the MOOC and there will be a few hands that go up. But ask how many people have actually completed a MOOC and there will probably be only one or two hands,” he says.

This means there is a huge cost to universities in providing a course if 90% of the students do not complete it.

The technology used to deliver MOOCs and engage learners varies. Some MOOCs simply involve watching online lectures and completing a multi choice test, while others offer short, snappy lectures and use online collaboration tools, like Moodle and Adobe Connect, to encourage interaction amongst learners.

“Pumping large volumes of video over the net is hardly contemporary,” says Brown. “Too often we are using 21st Century technology to deliver 1960s-style education. To attract learners to MOOCs, significant changes will need to occur in the way universities deliver lectures online.”

Universities also need to look at the value of the content they provide.

“Whether the content is available on the internet or through a MOOC, generally learners can get the information imparted from other sources,” he says. Universities are not content gatekeepers so if the content is freely available from other sources, they need to consider what it means for the institute and what it offers learners?”

Massey University is itself working on something in the online open course space.

“Extending access to education is something that is deep within Massey University’s DNA. It has offered distance learning for more than 50 years and, with part of its mission to take New Zealand to the world, it now has the technology to achieve that,” says Brown.

“Massey University will be making an announcement in the next few weeks about how it intends to take advantage of the MOOC movement to more widely share its world class expertise.”

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