AFG Venture Group Dispatches

Corporate advisory and consultancy in Australia, South East Asia and India.

Technological Change and The University Experience – Michael Fay, Director and Head of Education Services, AFG Venture Group

The Higher Education sector is buzzing with speculation on the impact of the latest technology “tsunami” to hit university education “Massive Open Online Courses” (MOOCS). In 2010 USA universities with the international name and reputation of Harvard, the University of California, Berkeley, and MIT began to provide free and open access to their most popular courses. MIT and Harvard have recently taken the radical step of offering certificates of completion for those satisfactorily completing these online courses. Students like the idea and are signing up in increasing numbers, with reports of over 100,000 enrolments in the most popular MOOCS.

Could it lead to students enrolling in one university to get their degree and going to the internet to do their learning? It’s actually already happening through sites like I TunesU, TED talks and the MOOCS plus cheaper courses provided by the mushrooming online education companies such as Coursera, Udemy and Udacity who are providing MOOC platforms for Pennsylvania, Duke, Stanford and Michigan. Students are seeking out the acknowledged star academic performers from the best known global brand universities at a time and place that suits them. Once a lecture is downloaded, students can listen whenever, wherever and as often as they like. It could be while running through a forest, cycling down a country road, or sitting at a coffee shop.

Education commentators and analysts have been quick to offer opinions on what it will mean for the future of international education. Is it a blip or is it a game changer? Is it a threat at undergraduate level only or will it also impact on research intensive universities?

There is a lot to like about a development that offers people anywhere in the world, who have internet connectivity, open access to the best courses in the world, delivered by the leading academics in the field. Will a student continue to turn up to a lecture at a university where the lecturer is not particularly inspiring, dynamic, or a well-credentialed world authority on the subject? The majority of university lecturers have not done a teaching degree and many have little idea or interest in making their presentations dynamic and stimulating. Indeed, some may think that presenting to undergraduate students is a chore that is keeping them away from their research interests.

The MOOCS development also means that students can freely access quality information and cutting edge ideas from the world’s best universities and use it to prepare for tutorials, lectures and assignments at their own university. In doing so, their knowledge and understanding of the subject area is enhanced, as is their likelihood of getting good marks.

An interesting student cohort in Australia that could benefit from MOOCS is the scholarship students from AusAID recipient countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and PNG. Bringing scholarship students to Australia is diplomatically important but hugely expensive; keeping them connected with Australia on their return to their home country is also challenging. On one level MOOCS breaks the tyranny of distance, providing ongoing learning opportunities during study and after graduation. In countries such as Indonesia, with students spread across 17,000 islands, being able to access courses from anywhere is attractive, though most course offerings currently assume an advanced knowledge of English. Power shortages and outages, low bandwidth and poor connectivity make the MOOCS revolution a first world opportunity at present, but this will change with time.

The University of Illinois is a world leader in Teacher Training and Australian academic Professor Bill Cope runs a post graduate Master’s degree in education with students enrolled online from all over the world. They use the highly acclaimed “Scholar” platform for all aspects of their interaction with the university, their lecturer and their fellow students. These are the self-motivated, socially networked Facebook generation of students who are comfortable with an online community of scholars and a moderated blogging space to communicate with each other and with their lecturer. Peer to peer visibility and feedback is high. Busy post graduate students with full time jobs, who reside in a truly global village, have access to a world authority in the subject area, a high achieving community of motivated fellow scholars and a globally recognised high value education brand to credential their Master’s degree.

The online higher education environment, however, still has some issues to resolve. We don’t hear a lot from the online universities and courses in relation to attrition rates. Enrolling in Open University courses in Australia means that students can get Government support through HECS and, depending on their economic circumstances, further government living support. There is speculation that the dropout rates are massive, with some suggesting it to be as high as 60%. Once the official figures are published there may be a lot more explaining to do, especially to governments and tax payers.

Another elephant in the room is proof of student identity. Who is the person actually doing the assessments and essays that are part of the online university program? There are still many opportunities for identity fraud despite the best efforts and intentions of the legitimate online course providers. It’s also difficult to check English language levels of course participants, an issue which all universities teaching in English need to address.

Employees, with good reason, may be sceptical of job seekers fronting up with online degree qualifications and on line course completion certificates until these issues are addressed to everyone’s satisfaction.

Should Australian universities be worried about MOOCS? The buzz around the sector indicates that they are increasingly concerned about this potential threat, coming at the same time as the budgetary impact of a slowing market for international students affects their bottom line. The challenge of open on-line competition is likely to focus Australian universities on providing better service to their customers, including strengthening their own online presence or co-opting the big MOOC names into their programs.

The race is also on to make the total student experience more stimulating and worthwhile. Students are looking for a satisfying human experience as well as technological relevance. The learning that takes place outside the lecture or tutorial and that is “offline” is equally important. Universities are full of people as well as iPhones, iBooks, tablets, and laptops. Students also learn from their peers, from the atmosphere created on campus, and the informal interactions with lecturers and tutors. It is the human interaction and offline networks that they will cherish after graduation.

In Australia’s case there is hope that the student experience might also increasingly occur in Asia and the Pacific, providing a new dimension of experiential learning in and with our region. The challenge for Australian universities is to maximise the opportunity for a full and human learning experience. The best outcome is that MOOCS and the online experience will enhance the “total University experience”, not replace it.

About the Author

Michael Fay is an international education specialist and regional education adviser who has lived and worked in Australia and South East Asia on education, media, arts and cultural projects for over 30 years. He is based in Sydney and travels widely in South and South East Asia on behalf of his clients, including international education institutions, peak education sector groups, and media groups. He has a regional specialisation on India and Indonesia where AFG VG has education sector representation. For many years Michael was a member of the NSW Committee of the Australia Indonesia Business Council (AIBC) where he remains actively involved, including in the development of the Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA).

Michael was made an Honorary Fellow of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in 2000 for his services to UTS in the establishment and development of INSEARCH, the pathway provider for study at the university and for initiating its leading role in IELTS Testing and publishing. He remains an accredited IELTS examiner. Michael has contributed to a number of books on Australian International Education and is currently Editorial Director for the Focus Books Publication Australia/Indonesia-Regional Neighbors: Strategic Partners to be published in September 2012.

Michael Fay, August 2012