Will free online university courses benefit education?

A new breed of online courses offers in-depth learning for free, from anywhere in the world. Nicola Slawson tries one out and considers the effects Massive Open Online Courses will have on traditional education

I was sat at my desk, furiously scribbling away, preparing for a test. It had been a long time since I’d done anything like this, and things had changed. I hadn’t gotten drunk at a fresher’s week party or learned to boil an egg, as I was not really, in the traditional sense, a student again. Nor did I have to pay a single penny in tuition fees, and I was able to replay lectures over and over as I wished.

I had discovered Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – online courses, open to all and therefore “massive” because of the large-scale participation. They’re usually free, and while they don’t carry any credit, you get a certificate of completion.

Typically, lectures are delivered by video and uploaded once a week. There are quizzes given after the videos to test understanding and certificates are only issued to those who pass all of these quizzes. Sometimes there’s also an option to do an assignment that can be reviewed by your peers.

In January I joined 91,000 others in the resolution to educate myself more in 2013. There’s a massive variety of subjects to choose from on the MOOC provider, Coursera, but thanks to a recent yoga retreat I chose Introduction to Philosophy, which happened to be the first British MOOC, offered by the University of Edinburgh.

“Nobody really knows exactly what the future of online education is, but certainly it’s a popular opinion that it’s going to be a really, really big part of the future of higher education”

Given that gaining a qualification is not currently possible from completing a MOOC, I was interested to find out why the other students on my course had signed up. There were students from India, Nigeria, Australia, Poland, Haiti, Brazil, the US and Britain, and even one from Antarctica! Motivations ranged from “purely out of curiosity” and “because I never want to stop learning,” to “fill holes in my knowledge” and “to help me with my university studies,” as well as “to boost my CV.”

Despite the fact that only 10% of the thousands that sign up actually complete the courses, momentum is growing and many are hailing this as the future of education.

The trend has now fully reached British shores, with 11 top UK universities teaming up with The Open University to form Futurelearn, which will soon be offering free online courses worldwide. This news comes after an explosion of available courses last year, where the New York Times dubbed 2012 “the year of the MOOC.” Along with Coursera, there are several other US-based companies boasting thousands of students and the phenomenon is now taking Australia by storm too.

Initial courses focused on computer science topics, but now there’s a massive variety, including Climate Literacy from the University of British Columbia or the tantalizingly named Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets from Brown University.

My course tutor, Dr Dave Ward, says that nobody really knows exactly what the future of online education is, “but certainly it’s a popular opinion that it’s going to be a really, really big part of the future of higher education. So we just thought it was a good idea to get involved early, to try and find out how hard it was to do and what sort of tools were available to us.”

He adds: “Overall I’m really happy with how it’s gone and I think a lot of people have got a lot out of the course.”

Like many others who signed up, I found myself slipping behind. Luckily, the course remained live online for an extra month after it ended, giving me the chance to catch up, even though I barely scratched the surface of the forums, which, with over 8,000 active users, initially seemed overwhelming. However, I found a group for complete beginners and lurked there when I couldn’t find time to watch lectures, and connections soon spilled over onto social networks.

It’s the social communities and crowdsourcing that are the key to a MOOC’s success. As Dr Ward says: “I wasn’t really sure how successful the discussion forums would be, but I was really impressed with the level and tone on there – I think they ended up being our best resource.

“We always knew it could potentially be a really good thing, but I think how the users and contributors performed, it was the most positive thing about the whole course.”

MOOCS have made high quality courses available to anyone with an internet connection, regardless of their location or financial status. So the big question is, what does this mean for traditional universities? Some have compared the rise of the MOOC to the impact of digitisation on the music industry.

Martin Bean, vice chancellor of The Open University sees it differently: “I don’t like trying to predict the future as there are too many variables, too many ‘unknown unknowns’. What I do know is that the internet has started to disrupt higher education and that disruption isn’t going to go away. Change has come, and we as a university and as a sector have to embrace it.”