MOOCs finding their place in New Zealand tertiary education

June 2014


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Following the Innovations in Tertiary Education Delivery Summit, JUDE BARBACK reflects on how MOOCs fit in to the fabric of New Zealand tertiary education.

As they expand their reach year on year, MOOC (or massive open online course) providers like Coursera and Udacity are becoming increasingly familiar to students around the globe, including here in New Zealand. Indeed, our initial forays into MOOC-land are becoming more serious as a number of providers add MOOCs to their course offerings.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce recently hosted the Innovations in Tertiary Education Delivery Summit, in which MOOCs took centre stage. The Education Counts discussion document on MOOCs helped to give a picture of how they fit into the New Zealand tertiary education landscape.

Several New Zealand universities have jumped aboard the MOOC bandwagon. The University of Waikato is now offering an advanced five-week MOOC on data mining, following on from the entry-level MOOC, Data Mining with Weka, which the university is currently running for a second time. Massey University also now offers MOOCS, such as ‘Agriculture and the World We Live In’ and ‘Emergency Management’ both starting this month. The University of Auckland has partnered with FutureLearn, a UK-based consortium founded by the Open University to develop and deliver MOOCs from this year as well, starting with ‘Data to Insight: An Introduction to Data Analysis’ and ‘Academic Integrity: Values, Skills, Action’.

While Kiwi students are beginning to embrace the concept, the MOOC model does not look set to replace more traditional tertiary education delivery models.

Gerard Dunne, who has completed several MOOCs through different providers, says it is hard to see how MOOCs would replace undergraduate learning at a university at this stage.

“While there is the opportunity to have interaction via discussion forums and to ask questions of lecturers and teaching assistants, the forums often head off topic, and with classes so large, it’s rare to receive answers from faculty. However, other students often provide interesting answers and viewpoints, of which there is no shortage!”

Dennis Viehland of Massey University agrees that the limitations of MOOCs – no formal degree credit, lack of personal interaction, mixed variability in the quality and quantity of instruction – suggest that most tertiary institutions have nothing to fear from MOOCs.

University of Otago’s vice-chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne states in an editorial, “although there may be a handful of opportunities in this space, the concept of the MOOC will not displace the traditional university experience and the business case for the future of MOOCs actually hangs by a thread”.

Hayne points out that university education is more than just knowledge transfer, and that “residential learning opportunities cannot be replicated over the internet”. She observes that education is a two-way street and that under a MOOC, students cannot access or gain feedback from the world-class leaders who appear on their screens.

While some institutions are approaching MOOCs with more caution than others, Dennis Viehland believes most online educators perceive MOOCs as an opportunity. He points out that many MOOC teachers are integrating the material they developed for MOOCs into their in-class teaching and even moving to a “flipped classroom” model, whereby the MOOC videos are used for out-of-class lectures and key issues are discussed in the classroom.

Viehland also believes education stands to gain from the ‘education analytics’ undertaken by MOOC providers who examine how online students learn then feedback to MOOC instructors, course designers and instruction support personnel. “What works best in MOOCs can be passed on throughout the education system.”

However, MOOCs have attracted harsh criticism from a number of universities around the world. In May this year, the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education sent letters and accompanying videos to the leaders of Coursera, Udacity and edX stating that their claims about online higher education were “overblown, misleading, or simply false”.

In response, Anant Agarwal, chief executive officer of edX, told U.S. News that massive open online courses (MOOCs) are still an emerging field and he welcomes the debate surrounding the future of higher education.

“We are literally giving away our platform for free. At edX, we are focused on people not profit, and we welcome all points of view and dialogue about promoting the advancement of education, both online and on campus.”

It is a debate that will continue to play out across the world, including here in New Zealand. While the giants of the MOOC world are establishing themselves as global players, there are calls for a New Zealand provider that is institutionally neutral, although, as Viehland points out, MOOC infrastructure is expensive and with New Zealand universities already operating under constrained resources, a strong business case will have to be developed and accepted.