Massive open online courses are shaking up higher education

Massive open online courses are seen as a game-changer in education. But they worry the establishment, even as more universities rush to introduce them, writes Katherine Forestier

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 1:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 1:06pm

The numbers, at least, are massive. One million users signed up to 16 University of Pennsylvania online courses; about 83,000 for the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's course "The science of gastronomy" and 23,000 for Chinese University's "The role of renminbi in the international monetary system".

No lecturer could ever imagine reaching out to so many students, unless they double as a television star like Manchester University's physicist Brian Cox. Massive open online courses, or Moocs, are being heralded as a game-changer in higher education by the likes of Simon Marginson, the Australian higher education guru now based at the Institute of Education in London, or as a tsunami sweeping through the sector, by Li Fei, vice-president at Wuhan University.

Will our ideology be affected? Will we be influenced by Westerners
Professor Zhang Jiahua

In the past year, Hong Kong and mainland institutions have joined the bandwagon. HKUST and Chinese University ran their first online courses and, in the mainland, Tsinghua, Peking and Shanghai Jiaotong universities were among those to team up with the US platforms Coursera or edX.

Tsinghua launched its own platform, to deliver made-in-China online courses and some from its edX partners MIT and Harvard.

Towards the end of the year, the Open University in Britain launched FutureLearn, in partnership with a consortium of British and international universities, as well as the British Museum, British Library and British Council. Dozens of courses are now running.

In Hong Kong, a HK$82 million tripartite scheme from the University Grants Committee, the Education Bureau and UGC-funded institutions has been launched to provide matching funding to help institutions adopt pedagogical changes and innovations for the information age.

"Institutions could make use of this opportunity to explore the possibility of initiatives related to Moocs, among others," says Dr Richard Armour, secretary general of the UGC. Proposals will be considered by the UGC and an assessment panel including external experts, with results due by March.

The aim, Dr Armour says, is to achieve a paradigm shift to enhance teaching and learning.

Mainland universities want to "join the club" of first class universities in the world, and to use the open online courses to help transform teaching methods in their own universities, according to Professor Huang Ronghuai, associate dean, faculty of education, Beijing Normal University.

The Chinese government is encouraging the import of quality courses to China - as long as they do not contain politically sensitive content - as well as the export of its best courses overseas, he says.

"It is recognised that international online learning will have a significant impact on higher education, and it may transform the function and structure of universities," he says.

"Strategies for credit transfer and recognition are being developed by policy consulting institutions. Once the policies for credit transfer and recognition established, online courses will go far beyond lip service," he adds.

Millions of learners in China may now be able to access the online courses from Chinese and overseas universities.

But this has been greeted with nervousness by university leaders gathered at the National Academy of Education Administration in Beijing for the conference "The impact of digital technology on higher education" co-organised by the British Council as part of its latest Global Education Dialogues East Asia series.

Participants expressed fears that universities could be forced to close and academics could be replaced by those delivering the best online courses. There was even concern that China's socialist ideology could be undermined if universities from the West dominated the provision.

Professor Zhang Jiahua, vice-president, China Agricultural University, says: "China is a socialist country. Will our ideology be affected? Will we be influenced by Westerners? We need to address such issues head-on." The online courses, he says, should be used as an "opportunity to promote Chinese values and ideology to the rest of the world".

Findings by a research team at University of Pennsylvania cast doubt on the power of these courses to reduce inequalities in education.

It analysed the profile of 35,000 open online course users across 200 countries and found that the vast majority of active users were well educated, came from wealthier backgrounds, and were employed. They pursued courses for their professional development or personal interest.

Edekiel Emanuel, one of the authors of the study, wrote in the journal Nature: "Moocs seem to be reinforcing the advantages of the 'haves' rather than educating the 'have nots'.

"Better access to technology and improved basic education are needed worldwide before Moocs can genuinely live up to their promise."

Meanwhile, other research by the same university found completion rates to be extremely low. Researchers followed one million Mooc users who had registered for 16 Pennsylvania courses on the Coursera platform. Only half actually looked at any of the content. A mere 4 per cent completed the courses.

The completion rate was slightly better - at about 7 per cent - for HKUST's "science of gastronomy", taught by Professor Chow King-lau, one of the first Hong Kong courses delivered on the Coursera platform. Only 16 per cent of the 83,000 who registered watched any of the videos, according to Chow.

For Chinese University's course on the renminbi, of the 23,000 who registered, 1,600 attempted the final quiz. "We are looking at around 10 per cent of the people registering following through and going through all the videos and homework. Usually, they give up," says Professor Hau Kit-tai, the university's pro-vice-chancellor and associate director of the Hong Kong Institute of Educational Research.

Despite the high drop-out rate, these participation numbers are still impressive when compared with the dozens who would take the course on the physical campus. "It is like 30 years of teaching. Moocs are still very impactful," says Hau. Chinese University has become involved to learn about their potential. "Moocs are changing the landscape, but a lot of things are unknown. Our experience is still very limited," he says.

The strategy that appears to be emerging is for institutions to integrate online content with their own teaching, so as to promote blended learning opportunities - the mix of face to face and online - for their students, as well as to reach out to users beyond the campus and Hong Kong with the digital versions.

Now the technology is available, Hau expects to see more shared localised online content, not only for undergraduates but students at lower levels of education, including school and sub-degree, as well as specialised content for doctoral study. The development of common local and international platforms are vital for this.

One of the challenges facing digital technology is whether academics are ready to embrace it. Professor Stephen Gomez, former academic lead, online learning at Britain's Higher Education Academy (HEA), now with Pearson Learning Solutions, says that for many academics, it exists only at the periphery of higher education. He has been working with the HEA to bring it to the centre.

Both he and Huang point to the gap between the technology available and academic practice. "The majority of academics don't engage with or use digital technologies in their teaching. Very little has penetrated to the centre of academic practice," Gomez says.

Making the most of digital technology requires a concerted effort at policy and institutional levels. Professor Neil Morris, director of digital learning, University of Leeds, told the Beijing conference how his institution recently set up the Blended Learning and Digital Technology Innovation Group of academic champions, from different academic disciplines.

This will scan for the latest technology that may enhance teaching and learning. Its digital strategy is also co-ordinated from the top by an education board chaired by a pro-vice-chancellor.

Moocs may already be having an impact through the plethora of courses. But their achievements to date should not be overstated.

Hard work is needed on the part of schools and universities for students, regardless of background, and teachers to fully reap the benefits of multiple ways of learning and teaching. For Hong Kong, the initiatives being prepared under the UGC funding scheme will be an important start.