Over the last year, MOOC (massive open online course) has become the new education buzzword. Or buzzwords. Or anagram. Whatever. The basic premise is in itself nothing new. Education has been delivered via correspondence for over a century and the MOOC concept is not too far removed.

So what is it? It is a course that is open (free, well sort of) and accessible via the internet. And they’re huge, in more ways than one. Some of the finest educational institutions in the world are offering MOOCs. Stanford, Harvard and closer to home, Melbourne University. The attention the concept is garnering is massive (sorry). Last year Stanford University had 30,000 participants register for their Mathematics offering. Only 10-15% end up fulfilling the course requirements and paying a nominal fee to have their efforts certified. Which when you think about it, is very similar to what we get. Only with gowns.

With participating institutions practically giving away their product (the cost of certification is often a fraction of the cost of traditional tuition) and such low rates of completion, it’s natural to question why so many institutions are climbing on board. There are a couple of key points that may go some way to explaining the exponential growth in MOOCs.

I’m no economics student(1). But the fact that the cost of providing an online course is significantly cheaper than traditional tuition, would certainly be a factor. The huge audience that has expressed interest in participating and ultimately paying would be another. This provides the incentive for the institutions to refine their delivery and provide an exceptional online learning experience.

(1)  I failed ECON 101 at another institution. Suffice to say, much of my reasoning might be, like, totally flawed.


Their capacity to do so is enhanced by the online learning environment. It allows for the collection of data around the way that students interact with the platform, and engage with the learning materials. This data is used to refine the delivery of the course. Although the quality of the teaching is only one factor that influences a student’s success, it has potential to dramatically improve the number of students who go on to successfully complete the course. And if you’ve completed the course, you’re going to pay for that certificate, aren’t you?

UNE has an enviable position in entering the market. It has pioneered the delivery of distance education programs. As such it has experience in the delivery of similar courses, which is likely to result in a more refined approach. It is also offering a unique value proposition. The course features add-on tutoring and the potential to have credit recognition should the student go on to a more traditional, structured program of study.

Effectively, UNE is offering an immersive marketing experience that segues into a alternate pathway to tertiary study. Students are able to select courses of interest and assess whether they it’s a step in the right direction for them. It showcases UNE’s expertise in the delivery of distance education, and the support and camaraderie the online environment has the potential to provide.

It could be seen as cynical to suggest, as it has been, that these fine bastions of higher learning are providing open coursework in pursuit of revenue. But it is revenue that provides for investment in excellent facilities. It provides additional learning resources and it provides for innovation in research. It has the potential to attract world-class talent to a university. All of these factors contribute in the creation of a fertile ground in which scholastic achievement flourishes.

I’ll still be annoyed if with all these extra students it means I don’t get my assessment back until the week before exams though. And don’t get me started about the possibility of MOOCs undermining my own degree. At least we won’t have to worry about getting a park.

- Mark Jongebloed


Editors' Note

The University of New England launched the first units of its MOOC equivalent, “UNE Open”, in late February 2013. The first units become available in Trimester 2, with enrolment free and tutorial support and examinations carrying a fee.

The MOOC debate is one that will no doubt continue strongly, and here responses are, as always, encouraged.

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Letters to the Editors - Mar 2013