Academic journal article Arena Journal

MOOCs: Disrupting the University or Business as Usual?

Academic journal article Arena Journal

MOOCs: Disrupting the University or Business as Usual?

Article excerpt

The creation of MOOCs (massive open online courses) has captured the imagination of higher education commentators around the globe. These online courses, initially coming out of elite institutions such as Stanford and MIT, have attracted large numbers of students and their 'success'1 has led to private companies such as Coursera and Udacity offering courses online. While online courses and open education have been around for several decades, the rise of MOOCs signals for many a fundamental shift in higher education. The New York Times declared 2012 'the year of the MOOC'2 and MOOCs have dominated recent discussion around the future of the university. Many academics and media pundits claimed that MOOCs would lead to a radical disruption of the university sector, ending the current model of higher education within a decade or two. In Australia the consulting firm Ernst and Young released a report claiming universities would not survive the next ten or fifteen years unless they radically changed their mode of operation - one of the key drivers of this somewhat apocalyptic scenario was the rise of the MOOC.3 A more measured discussion, but nevertheless one that came to a similar conclusion, took place on The Conversation,4 where academics and other specialists claimed (with a few notable exceptions)5 that MOOCs were the imminent future of higher education and it was only a matter of time before their impact would be felt. Even a normally cautious expert on higher education, Simon Marginson, could not help being infected, declaring that with MOOCs 'yes this is the game changer'.6 A similar scenario was being sketched out in the United States. Joseph Aoun declared that with MOOCs we 'were witnessing the end of higher education as we know it'.7 Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor and author of 'The Innovative University', predicted 'wholesale bankruptcies' over the next decade among standard universities as a result of MOOCs.8

In some ways the explosion of interest in MOOCs and the declaration that they spell the end for traditional education is surprising. The first few years of the twenty-first century saw a whole raft of speculation around the 'virtual university'. Indeed elite institutions such as Oxford, Yale and Columbia had previously suffered financial losses in attempting to capitalise on the possibilities of virtual education.9 Moreover it is not as if the technology used in MOOCs represents a radical innovation from previous incarnations; most MOOCs rely on traditional techniques of distance learning in order to reach mass audiences of students. While elements of online education exist within traditional universities - with links to open university courses, or courses offered via distance education - none of this explains the degree of speculation about the disruptive potential of the MOOC. While enrolments are large the outcomes at present remain modest; for the most part the successful completion of a MOOC from an elite university does not lead to a recognised form of accreditation, only a certificate of completion whose value remains vague. As such, one might see the claims for MOOCs as merely another form of digital hype. However, the extent to which so many are willing to claim that MOOCs represent a serious alternative to the traditional university says more about how higher education is now understood than anything about the properties of MOOCs.

In order to examine the significance of open educational platforms such as MOOCs it is necessary to explore the wider culture surrounding universities at present. Why is it that so many academics and education commentators are willing to accept that the current university might so easily be replaced by the set of fairly rudimentary (and pedagogically reductive) technologies that presently constitute MOOCs? To assume that open online educational platforms can (and even should) replace the current university system is to embrace a whole series of assumptions - about education, about knowledge, about the role and function of the university, even about 'openness' - assumptions that are at the very least contestable. …

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