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How open courses are changing the modern university

Traditional universities will have to respond to new challenges.


In June 2012, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan was unceremoniously fired. According to university board members, Sullivan’s inadequate response to initiatives underway in MIT, Stanford and Harvard to online education prompted the drastic action. While her reinstatement was instigated by protesting students, administrators and faculty, and “(S)oon after her reinstatement, the university announced a partnership with Coursera, a for-profit online initiative.”

University presidents fired for not being sufficiently dynamic in initiating online education! What is happening? Does such an event portend a vast shift from bricks-and-mortar to the online realm? Ira Basen, in a recent CBC special, pointed out that the current postsecondary structure is too expensive, too restrictive, and too inaccessible for the needs of the contemporary world and its potential students.

Recent decisions of high-profile universities to offer online classes through Coursera or Harvard and MIT’s OpenCourse project, customarily with recognition for completion but not accreditation, are replies to that critique. The response has been overwhelming. In a little more than a year, massive open online courses (also known as MOOCs) have been accessed by over 100 million people.

The potential is enormous. Highly regarded professors backed by triple-A brand universities, can now reach tens of thousands of students rather than hundreds. Salman Khan, a pioneer of online education, envisions a future where the world’s poorest have access to the world’s most renowned experts. The wide array of teachers professing in a university classroom could be replaced by an elite, smaller group of famous academics complemented by innovations in video-conferencing, local tutoring and networked learning.

Financing higher education fuels pressure for change. A charge of a dollar or ten dollars a course (with 40,000-student enrolment) compares with $8,000 in the Ivy League system and more than $1,000 at government-funded institutions. Even when costs for evaluation and certification – disaggregated from teaching in the new model – are added back in, the costs for a degree would drop precipitously.

There are significant challenges to overcome, including evaluation and certification as well as delivery of feedback and use of online tools for writing-based disciplines. As solutions are developed, the postsecondary educational model developed over the last few centuries may be radically altered, propelled in part by pressures to fund universities in new ways. The university may move even closer to a user-pay model, or even a corporate-financed model funded through sponsorships or businesses paying for access to potential employee recruits or some mixture of the above. Princeton University’s online world history course, for example, with an enrolment of 40,000 appears to be sponsored by a Spanish bank.

Enrolment will evolve

This prospective revolution has enormous short- and long-term implications, particularly on traditional forms of enrolment, even when the evaluation and certification issues have not yet been worked out.

With MOOCs offered by the most renowned professors in their respective fields, students have less incentive to relocate for postsecondary education. International students could take accredited classes without the hassle of visa applications and the hefty cost of international tuition fees. Local enrolment at second- and third-tier universities could fall drastically as students opted for the top brands with the obstacles to admission standards removed and credit dependent only on performance. Certainly, the vast number of students working 20 to 30 hours a week to help finance their education will not miss what they have never experienced – the bucolic life of an Ivy League education.

The attraction and availability of online classes has been partially propelled by, and will certainly reinforce, the increased reliance on part-time and sessional tutors and the precipitous decline in the percentage of courses taught by full-time tenured faculty. Departments may face significant downsizing or elimination. In the long-term, there will be less demand for the physical infrastructure of a typical university campus.

The shift under way to research campuses with the physical and financial resources shared by the private sector, accompanied by increased specialization in the research capabilities of the prime universities, adds fuel to these changes.

So do others changes. Li-Shih Huang has noted that the academy has already begun to struggle with the impact of the Internet age on its accreditation formula, which demands high-profile publications in first-tier print journals as the prime determinants in tenure, research funding, availability of research assistants and course-release. The slow, meticulous and elite-centric delivery of knowledge through traditional means is becoming anachronistic. Internet-based search engines able to synthesize large amounts of data in a short time for research inputs are complemented by radical changes in forms of output, including online publications made public in days, rather than months or years. Middle East Studies Online Journal, for example, has overcome the initial resistance to online publication and emerged over the last decade as one of the foremost academic journals in its field. But instead of a circulation in the hundreds or several thousands it has a circulation of over 30,000.

As well as standards of measurement for legitimate research output, many other issues are affected by and influencing the rate of change. These include academic codes of conduct and standards of academic freedom and integrity. Our postsecondary system must anticipate impending changes that will have dramatic impacts on all aspects of postsecondary education.

Anita Singh is a postdoctoral fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Howard Adelman is professor emeritus at York University.


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  1. M. G. Wiber / January 17, 2013 at 8:27 am

    If universities were only about the one way transfer of information; if university students were not part of the co-construction of knowledge; if university campuses did not deliver many social services aside from education (think of teaching hospitals, nursing clinicians, psychological counselling, sites for social debate); if academic freedom was irrelevant and if curriculum could be constructed from the top down, this transformation might occur. It may occur anyway, but with consequences not factored into this analysis. Singh and Adelman want to ride the wave without giving the direction much thought.

  2. Brian Bailey / January 23, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    If the true purpose of education is to help learners gain knowledge and skills then MOOC’s are a welcome development. They are another option for learning that allows anyone around the world with computer and internet access to learn at minimal cost. Those opposed to MOOC’s are educational establishment types who are worried about losing their jobs, worried about traditional expensive universities disappearing, worried about losing power and control over information, worried that they don’t know enough about technology, don’t want anything to change or at least not as rapidly as education is being forced to. Real educators should support anything that expands learner choice and work hard to figure out how to leverage technology to accomplish this. Burying one’s head in the sand (and I still se lots of this) is not an option and is really pitiful (in the truest sense of the word). If you are not curious about new things and not willing to change and experiment then you really shouldn’t be in education.

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