Few industries are set to be as disrupted by digital technologies as tertiary education.
“It’s the perfect storm,” says Jonathan Churchill, director of Information and Technology Resources at James Cook University.
The combination of the availability of high speed broadband networks, Web 2.0 technologies for rich collaboration and cheap tablet devices for ease of access, means the online education revolution that was “over-priced” and “never delivered on” ten years ago is now frighteningly real.
A 2012 report by Ernst and Young called the University of the Future [pdf] concluded that “the dominant university model in Australia — a broad-based teaching and research institution, supported by a large asset base and a large, predominantly in-house back office — will prove unviable in all but a few cases over the next 10-15 years”.
“And then along comes the MOOC,” says Churchill.
A Massive Open Online Course presents to small universities the sort of challenge peer-to-peer file sharing networks presented to record companies in the noughties - a very real threat to long-established channels of revenue.
MOOCs are short, online courses - complete with all the video lectures, tutorials, materials and tasks one might expect from a module of a university degree - offered online to the entire web population free of charge.
The best MOOCs have caught on in a big way. One course on Artificial Intelligence offered by Stanford University attracted a whopping 160,000 enrolments.
The quality of MOOC being made available by well-financed service providers (Coursera, Udacity) on behalf of respected institutions (starting with Stanford and MIT), and the speed at which the model has been embraced internationally (the University of New South Wales offers a computing course as a MOOC) has alarmed vice chancellors concerned at how these free online alternatives might impact their business model.
“For higher education, this is traumatic,” Churchill said. “We’ve had protected, safe markets for so long. Our institutions are 1000 years old, established by government legislation. But these changes question the way universities are governed and organised. Now is the time this incredibly enduring model is going to be disrupted.
“How we make money is fundamentally under threat.”
For all the many and varied courses available at any one institution, the business model of Australia’s universities is fragile.
Even those activities covered by government grants or industry sponsorship tend only to pay for themselves. The worrying point is that a small number of courses - degrees such as Commerce, Business, Accounting or Law - subsidise losses made elsewhere. If MOOCs were to prove a substitute for only small number of the total student population - specifically foreign full-paying students studying these degrees - the whole pack of cards could fall down.
How to respond?
For many Australian universities - which cannot compete with the scale of the Stanford’s and MIT’s - there is uncertainty as to how to respond.
Most would argue that while a mass online course might provide its audience the same knowledge as a University student might gain, it won’t provide the official degree a student requires to gain employment.
“I don’t see MOOCs as the game changer,” said Deakin University Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander in a recent speech on digital futures in Australian higher education. “I see it as a signal that people want to learn in very different ways.”
But Churchill isn’t so complacent.
James Cook University, based in Australia’s north-east and Flinders University, based in Adelaide, are two universities that have recently hired new leaders to devise strategies for how to thrive in this rapidly evolving world.
Flinders hired former Swinburne University CIO Professor Richard Constantine and appointed him both CIO and Pro-Vice Chancellor, while Churchill came to James Cook after a role as associate director of IT at the University of Adelaide.
Both are under no misapprehensions as to the challenge ahead.
“I think a MOOC will evolve into something that competes directly with a degree,” Churchill said. “It will get to the stage that a candidate for a job will be able to demonstrate enough competency after completing a MOOC that an employer might say, that’s fine, come and join my company.”
How is Flinders and JCU looking to embrace the challenge? Read on to find out...