Universities are traditionally seen as exclusive institutions for the few, not the many. But that is changing, as a new wave of online courses throws open the doors of academia to all.
Led by world-renowned American institutions like MIT and Harvard, this push to democratise learning is being taken up in Australia, too.
A new way of learning
In contrast to traditional higher education, which closes learning off from the world, open learning is transparent and accessible to anyone with internet access.
Such openness could do a lot to improve standards at universities whose business models are driven by bums on seats, rather than mastery (PDF) of a given subject.
It might also lift the morale of academia. Academics who are in control of what they teach, and who teach students who seek them out, may regain their professional freedom.
Around 7000 online students recently earned the first certificates awarded by MIT and Harvard through their Edx partnership. That's more than twice the number of degrees that MIT awarded at this year's commencement.
Another 147,596 observers signed up to marvel at what an MIT course is really like. Substantially greater numbers are expected for the spring course offerings.
The first MIT course, Circuits and Electronics, was tough. University level maths and physics were prerequisites, and the exam would give many nosebleeds.
But the high standards mean graduates are justly proud of the MIT and Harvard brands on their certificates (PDF).
New kinds of learning
The revolutions of our generation — in business, education, social structure and even politics — are not being catalysed by generals or politicians, but by highly empowered individuals like yourselves. [They] can see with clarity how the assumptions of previous generations no longer apply.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are in experimentation phase. The spectrum ranges from the talking head through to student-centred learning to the largest ones using best-practice, research-based instruction. Apart from being open and massive, MOOCs differ from traditional open university courses in the branding, and in the low-cost, high-flexibility delivery models.
Key innovations of the new wave of American MOOCs include the Khan Style Video, and the simulation lab. The Khan Style Video creates a remarkable intimacy between teacher and student.
The simulation lab is an environment in which exploration is encouraged, risks can be taken, and mistakes are forgiven. If you think this sounds too much like fun, remember that the pilots on your next flight may have qualified in a simulator.
The next step
MOOCs will take off, according to Udacity and Edx, once their student-behaviour databases enable learning feedback cycles. The promise of datamining learning is one of the reasons why it is researchers, and research universities, that are leading the new wave.
Harvard and MIT will use these new technologies and the research they will make possible to lead the direction of online learning in a way that benefits our students, our peers and people across the nation and the globe.
Edx builds on the MIT OpenCourseWare project. It adds purpose-designed best-practice learning strategies, student community, labs, assessment and certification.
But a pivotal unknown is how employers will use this certification. Will they favour traditional degrees? How will they use the information in the MOOC databases about an individual's capabilities and mastery?
A technological wave
Stanford University president John Hennessy told his colleagues that when it comes to higher education, "There is a tsunami coming."
Let's hope not. Nevertheless, panic over MOOCs seems to have been a factor in a recent bizarre series of events at the University of Virginia, in which the board fired and then rehired the university president.
Universities are trying to understand whether MOOCs are just healthy competition, or are a disruptive innovation. Higher education would not be the first sector to be hit by a bigger and faster technological wave than it expected. If the tsunami hits, the aftermath might follow the established pattern of disruptive innovation; the organisations that do well will either serve small, high-value markets, or develop new low-cost models with broad reach.
Or perhaps achieve both, like the Minerva Project is attempting to with its $25 million in venture capital. Indeed, disruptive innovation case studies suggest that the advantage lies with independent spin-offs that are free of regulation and legacy assumptions.
According to The Australian, Deakin University plans to embed MOOCs in its curriculum. Announcing its "cloud learning" strategy, the vice chancellor said:
The universities which continue to succeed will be those which embed the opportunities of the internet in their culture and in the way they enhance the student experience.
Is Deakin's strategic plan to become a consumer of content produced by others? If so, how will this affect the roles of the teaching academics? Perhaps course creators will position themselves as independent professional consultants, analogous to how many young researchers on fellowships already find themselves.
In the absence of a crystal ball, it's unclear where the treasure and effort being expended will leave higher education once the dust settles. In places where higher education is publicly funded, new government policies will be required to promote innovation. Since quantity has low marginal cost, perhaps the new wave will reorient policies towards quality.
Edx has $60 million in the bank, and the funding taps are wide open: the Gates Foundation has awarded them $1 million to develop flipped classroom courses for colleges serving low-income students. The foundation is also helping the online, tuition-free University of the People to gain accreditation.
The future of higher education
Is the future of higher education one dominated by international teaching stars providing cutting-edge courses to whoever wants them?
For learning requiring quality personal interactions, perhaps not. But at the low-value end of the spectrum, for example where large lecture classes are the norm, it's perhaps just a matter of time.
Why learn from the best in your country, when you can learn from the best in the world for a fraction of the cost? It's no contest.
One thing is clear — this will not go away. The key players include great universities committed to innovation on the planetary scale. They dream of reaching a billion students. The new wave is already breaking over universities with lesser agendas, and will continue to for decades.
Craig Savage does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.