Given all the hype and focus on MOOCs, perhaps it is worth recalling that this is a very recent phenomenon, although the development of distance education courses had been underway since the late 19th century.

In its most current format, the first widely accepted MOOC was released in the latter half of 2011 by Stanford University. The course was called “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.” Enrolment quickly reached 160,000 students. It resulted in the launch of two more programs from Stanford University. From that day, there was an unprecedented focus on what MOOCs could do to support education. It would be fair to say that today there are very few higher education institutions that are not considering how to participate in this phenomenon.

There are many factors impacting how a MOOC is perceived both within an institution, as well as in the wider community. But the competing factors can be roughly divided into two specific areas:

  • Is it the role of MOOC’s teaching and education tools to provide high-quality learning to anybody who is interested, effectively providing a democratised education system, or
  • Should it be considered a branding and marketing tool to help extend the influence of the institution to a wider audience, and using this to complement the institutions ongoing student retention and acquisition programs?

Both cases are compelling and drive passionate debates. However they are intrinsically opposed in their goals and objectives. Institutions also need to consider who will be responsible for maintaining the agreed direction. 

To say there is no clear consensus is an understatement. At almost every meeting where educators congregate, it doesn’t take long for the topic of MOOCs to be raised; but one thing is clear – what institutions need to deliver MOOCs as a platform is complicated and costly. It distracts the institution from its overall goals, whether it is for teaching and learning or as an extension of the marketing function.

This brings us to the core role of education – the interaction between students, lecturers and facilities (physical and online) in which they operate. A story that appeared on the BBC perhaps most articulately outlined the challenge. During an interview conducted by Peter Day with Lord Young of Dartington concerning one of his greatest creations, ‘The Open University’, which has since been replicated hundreds of times around the world, Peter Day noted that we could do away with bricks and mortar universities, but Lord Young corrected him.

For the late Lord Young, university education was as much about experiencing physical interaction as it was about learning from professors, lecturers and peers. This is clearly a challenge that all of us are grappling with when we try to establish the role MOOCs will play given the further distance that they create between participants.

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  • Shashidhar Venkatesh Murthy

    Excellent presentation on MOOCs. I believe future of education is in MOOCs, just like emails & facebook for communication. There will be & needs to be arguments regarding humanity, physical proximity, personal touch etc. In the end, any institute not exploring this option will be overrun by others.