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Education: Will free online courses cannibalise the university sector?

Grace Yew

Tue Jun 04 2013

Education: Will free online courses cannibalise the university sector?

THE University of Melbourne has seven subjects on international education start-up Coursera – and they’re all free. But what will online education do to universities? Grace Yew investigates.

Education: Will free online courses cannibalise the university sector?

Last September, the University of Melbourne became the first Australian institution to join Coursera, a popular international start-up that may just change the face of education.

Coursera is the brainchild of Stanford University professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. Despite being a young platform, it’s already a leader in the online education industry. The site has gained three million users and raised $22 million USD since it was founded in April 2012 – and it’s still going strong.

To date, Coursera offers hundreds of free courses in a variety of disciplines and languages. These courses are delivered directly to students from 70 top universities around the world, including academic heavyweights like Harvard and Yale.

The University of Melbourne currently hosts seven free subjects on Coursera, with more slated for a 2014 release. Its first subject, Principles of Macroeconomics, commenced its first eight-week session in March.

The course is taught by economics professor Nilss Olekalns, with teaching assistants from the Economics Students Society of Australia (ESSA).

Deb Jones, the university’s General Manager of Learning Environments, believes the program has fostered a real “sense of community”.

“We have had over 47,000 enrolments in this course and a very active, engaged cohort,” Ms Jones says.

“Over 1,760 are participating in the Macroeconomics Facebook site, and around 1,000 in the Twitter feed.”

All courses undergo what Ms Jones calls “an integrated quality assurance process”, where the US-based Coursera team assists in overseeing each course’s schedule and learning resources.

The rise of online education

Many Australian universities already offer their students options for distance learning. Education platform Open Universities Australia hosts paid online courses from local universities and TAFE institutions, while its sister site Open2Study offers fourteen free subjects.

Online education is clearly catching on in Australia, with its scope and flexibility being two factors that appeal to overworked students.

“The big advantage of online education is its reach – it makes learning opportunities accessible to a much wider audience,” says Jeff Borland, a professor at the University of Melbourne who teaches the Coursera unit  Generating the Wealth of Nations.

Mr Borland’s assorted teaching resources include video lectures and peer discussions. In his opinion, good online courses require effort from both students and educators.

“I think it’s like most things – if you put in the resources and effort, you can get a high quality product,” he says.

Chris Nash, Foundation Professor of Journalism at Monash University, says a student’s relationship with online education is often one of convenience.

“Studentsare time-poor, and some have to structure study around work,” he says.

“They have difficulty getting to campus, so they prefer to read the transcripts and PowerPoints online.”

The importance of interaction

In a recent survey, Meld found international students harbour mixed attitudes toward online education. Some students valued the affordability and flexibility of online courses, while others simply appreciated the experience of studying in a different country.

However, Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng believes bricks-and-mortar campuses retain a certain authenticity the Internet is unable to replicate.

During a panel at SXSWedu in early March, Mr Ng told audiences it was unlikely that Coursera would offer entire degrees.

“Coursera isn’t a university. We don’t offer degrees of academic credit. We’re a humble hosting platform,” he told audiences.

He is of the view that there’s “something very important, almost sacred, about the student-professor relationship”.

Teacher-student interaction is also paramount to Mr Nash. To him, any form of online education that lacks this vital characteristic is only a “second-rate system”.

“There is no substitute for personal communication. (It should be) face-to-face, or on the phone, or even over Google Hangout or Skype,” he says.

I think (online education) works quite well if you combine online methods with personal interaction.”

Why pay more?

A major concern about free education is its potential to undermine universities’ revenue models. Why would any student pay thousands of dollars for a degree when free classes are so easily accessible?

While it’s normal to assume that new technology renders old ways obsolete, Mr Borland doesn’t think this will be the case for tertiary education.

“(The Coursera subjects) are just a tiny fraction of the University of Melbourne’s teaching this year,” he says.

Mr Nash doesn’t mind the idea of free education either, and regards it as a means of improving a university’s international reputation.

“Free education for universities is an advertisement for on-campus study. What these big international universities like MIT or Harvard are really doing is advertising their wares and the quality of their courses. Students who genuinely like the courses will come and enrol.

“No university is going to substitute free courses for a viable source of income.”