By Janice Mulholland

19 September 2013 - 13:36

MOOC platforms allow learners to use their mobile phones to take courses from reputable higher education institutions. Photo (c) Mat Wright.
MOOC platforms allow learners to use their mobile phones to take courses from reputable higher education institutions. Photo ©

Mat Wright.

Janice Mulholland, education manager at the British Council USA, explores how the phenomenon of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which offer free, large-scale access to courses via the web, may affect higher education.

The debate about brick and mortar institutions and digital campuses is by no means new. For years, institutions have been moving more and more courses and programmes online to reach new populations of students. However, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are proving to be disruptive in ways that previous technological advancements in higher education have not.

This is in part, I think, because MOOCs are a global social movement – not just an educational movement. They have captured the attention of millions of people around the world with an appetite for learning. In this way, MOOCs could be seen as the greatest social innovation of higher education in the last century. Universities are also somewhat vulnerable at the moment, thanks in part to changes in funding mechanisms, more challenging workforce needs, and changing consumer demands.

Many institutions around the world are embracing this disruptive innovation. Some institutions see MOOCs as an opportunity for experimenting in teaching and learning. Others see them as a mechanism for expanding the reach of the university, and yet others as an opportunity to gain global recognition. And I’m sure the list doesn’t stop there.

Futurelearn is the latest development in the digital universe of higher education, and one that has been very much welcomed by universities in the UK. The British Council is part of this new platform that will undoubtedly join the ranks of existing MOOC providers in shaping the future of higher education in the UK and many other parts of the world.

The biggest question about MOOCs is probably what that future will look like. If MOOCs succeed as a force of change in revolutionising higher education, as most believe they will, what changes will they bring about?

Many believe MOOCs are the solution for global access to higher education. While some anecdotal stories suggest that MOOCs are expanding access to those who would not otherwise have the chance at a university education, there is little hard evidence to back this up at the moment.

This issue of access is one that is very important to us as an organisation dedicated to creating educational opportunities around the world. MOOCs, as an online social movement that provides access to free educational resources for anyone in the world with an internet connection, should hold a key to increasing access to a university education.

It’s just a matter of what doors that key will open. Will universities use MOOCs to find undiscovered talent, as a tool for student recruitment? Will students be able to patch together courses to create their own degrees? Will employers recognise the completion of MOOC courses as respected job credentials?

While we don’t yet have the answers to these questions, what we can say with certainty is that students will have many more options in the future for obtaining higher education qualifications than are available today. Higher education will also continue to evolve as a blend of ‘brick and click’ opportunities for learning. This will undoubtedly be one of the strongest contributions MOOCs make to the college and university sectors.

From where I sit in the United States, MOOCs are seen as a means to an end – a platform for change. They have created a movement that will undoubtedly change the delivery of, and access to, higher education.

Where do you think MOOCs will take higher education?

Choose from a range of free high-quality courses delivered by universities in the UK and elsewhere via the FutureLearn platform.

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