MOOC variations: the future? (or at least part of it)

As you know, I am a bit cynical about MOOCS (main purpose – eventually to make money), but this German initiative centred on “iversity” made me sit up and take notice:

“The major focus for iversity in the near future will be increasing the number of credit-earning MOOCs. This is a major opportunity in Europe that is not quite as feasible in the U.S., because most universities in Europe are funded publicly. Hannes explains: “In the U.S. the university that accepts credit from other institutions loses out on revenue because you pay on a per credit basis, whereas the European institution does not receive any tuition fees, so it doesn’t have as much of a problem with accepting credits from another institute.” What is iversity’s plan? Hannes sketched out a potential concept: iversity convinces, say, 25 European universities to form a sort of consortium, where they agree to produce 4 courses each (at an estimated cost of 25,000€ each). The universities agree to inspect the quality of the courses in order to exchange ECTS credits. They each also provide exam space. Thus, for an investment of 100,000€ and a commitment to produce 4 courses, each university has access to 100 credit-granting MOOCs for its students. These MOOCs can be offered to the public without credit, and would be assured of their high quality, or perhaps for some specialized courses, universities could even monetize some courses by charging for executive education enrollments.”

However, the link to the article about Germany is embedded in Dhawal Shah’s article in Class Central (how I found it), with its sunny outlook for future revenue streams, with or without partnerships with universities. Surely the end game is the money promise. The issue hinges on credit recognition:

“Last year we predicted that credit-granting MOOCs would be a key trend in 2014–we were wrong. There have been a few small experiments by universities to offer credit, such as a   criminal justice MOOC at Penn State, and an  intro computer science MOOC at the University of Oklahoma, though European universities seem to be closer in making this jump, with the provider iversity planning to work with European universities to offer credit. There are also MOOCs being offered in partnership with professional and continuing education programs (which confer professional education credits, certificates, or degrees): NovoEd is helping Stanford’s Graduate School of Business to bring their executive program online, and edX partnering with professional education programs to bring some courses online. However, besides these experiments, the major development in 2014 has been the Big 3 MOOC providers, Coursera, Udacity, and edX, introducing their own credentials for paid courses.”

It must be tempting to US universities under the budget kosh to cut deals in the future with private MOOC providers (universities supply the intellectual content; private companies provide the delivery vehicle). How long before a small consortium of Australian universities do this? The G8? Our concern will be about the quality of learning in such courses if they become an irrepressible trend adopted willy nilly. In addition, if universities don’t get on board or into partnership, in the near future we may eventually see certain professions accepting MOOC credits as valid skill development for their needs and bypass universities all together. If MOOCers and universities ever mount a convincing argument about equality of distance learning experience via automated systems (with little or no teacher-student contact) versus face-to-face encounters, universities might be radically transformed into clearing houses or mere grocery stores for different brands of MOOCs. A few elite research institutions might survive the cultural change if they can guarantee regular funding for all the bright, highly-paid research professors. I am not trying to be apocalyptic here – just speculating on what might happen in a worse-case scenario for those of us who believe in the current shape and purpose of a modern university. The concept of the universitas magistrorum et scholarium is medieval in provenance, but one that has survived through the years as it evolved into its modern guise. A lot of assumptions are implicit in the contemporary existence of universities: that come what may, they will always be here in some recognisable form as they are considered a net, vital, public good (even when many are private in some parts of the world); that universities provide a unique, creative habitat,a kind of sanctuary for free intellectual development not reproducible otherwise and not subordinated to a singular ideological project or market imperatives (a delicate dance, as we know, for private universities, which don’t always pull it off); lastly, it is assumed that if you put different Faculties of learning together, they will collectively levitate – Science, Architecture, Medicine, Human Sciences, Health, Engineering, etc., all belong together under the same institutional and administrative roof – they are more than the sum of their parts. Once we can no longer defend  and justify these assumptions, universities may morph, change, disappear, become unrecognisable. Who knows? (none of the crystal balls at Paddy’s market work).

If we must have MOOCs, let’s make sure there is a democratic global distribution of their benefits and profits. That can only be guaranteed by local production, I would suggest, but only if they can prove their all-round worth. I can’t see it yet.

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