Shaping the future of higher education

MoocsConjure up an image to match the word ‘university’ and you might picture a romantic vision of sandstone buildings mellowed by age, or the dreaming spires of Oxford. In the 21st century, however, it may be more realistic to visualise a laptop or tablet, smartphone, YouTube or social media. By Fiona Crawford 

The participants at an Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia thought leadership forum in Adelaide in February were presented with a vision of technology enabling education. Held jointly with the Centre for Accounting, Governance and Sustainability at the University of South Australia, the thought leadership forum is one of a range of Institute activities that debates the needs of the profession and forges links with the academic community. 

Coupled with the publication of the annual Academic Leadership series, it is an important platform for dialogue about the future of accounting. No debate is timelier than that highlighted in the 2013 volume of the series, The Virtual University: Impact on Australian Accounting and Business Education. Just as technology has irrevocably changed markets in music, newspapers, retail and book publishing, so this transformation is taking place in higher education. 

And it’s happening quickly. The acronym MOOC first entered the lexicon in 2008; last November, The New York Times declared 2012 to be “the Year of the MOOC”. These ‘massive open online courses’ have polarised educators, students and employers. Do they present an opportunity or threat? Or like most technological innovation, a hybrid of both? These are some of the questions discussed by the contributors to The Virtual University. 

The launch of Stanford University’s MOOC ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ in 2011 heralded a new era in higher education. Offered online for free, it attracted more than 160,000 students from more than 190 countries within a few weeks. Almost 20,000 students completed the course. In this MOOC model, instead of attending classes, students watched short videos, followed by interactive activities to consolidate learning. At the end of the course students can earn a certificate of completion. 

Exciting possibilities? 

At first glance this new model of education has exciting possibilities. A utopian vision of MOOCs sees enthusiastic students in remote parts of the world able to access education. Even better, the courses are free. The benefits in terms of equity and opportunity are unprecedented. MOOCs have the potential to make future generations better educated than any previous generation. If education is the key to social mobility, then MOOCs can make a very big difference. 

This is certainly the stance promoted by the big players in the MOOCs space. To date these are Coursera, a consortium of 70 universities from around the world; edX, the partners of which include Harvard and MIT; and Udacity, founded by academics from Stanford University among others, with entrepreneurs and business people. On its website, Udacity speaks of the transformational power of education and its commitment to “bring accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world”. But is making the world a better place the sole motivation of these prestigious institutions? 

Mark Freeman CA, director of accreditation at the University of Sydney Business School, sees the motivation of these Ivy League colleges somewhat differently. “One reason – and it’s not the only reason – universities are providing MOOCs is because of marketing,” 

Freeman says. “If you’re a university with a Nobel Prize winner, who is a good presenter, you can provide a taster online of what your university can offer. Students will say ‘that looks so good, I want more of that’.” But as he points out, this only works for the ‘big name’ universities and those with ‘rock star’ performers. In time, these universities probably think they will be able to make money from their MOOCs in the same way that The New York Times profits from online content previously available for free. Freeman argues that MOOCs can provide universities with the opportunity and incentive to experiment with course delivery to optimise the course experience. Particular routine tasks can then be removed from traditional learning sessions. 

For example, accounting degree lectures on more process-based concepts, such as how to calculate financial ratios and other rules-based knowledge, could fall into this category, freeing up teaching time to apply what has been learned and resolve any difficulties students have experienced. Certainly the edX website places considerable emphasis on its mission to improve teaching on campus by experimenting with different models of delivery. 

But do MOOCs actually work? Six million US students who have undertaken, or are currently undertaking, an online course clearly think so. But like any new technology, there are challenges. How many of those six million students complete their course? The attrition rates for MOOCs are extremely high, much higher than those for undergraduate in on-campus education with face-toface teaching. For example, 155,000 students registered for the edX MOOC ‘Circuits and Electronics’ in February 2012 – yet only 23,000 earned any points on the first problem set, 9300 passed the mid-term, 8200 sat the final, and 7000 earned a final passing grade. 

One of the major problems, yet to be resolved for MOOC providers, is assessment. Setting aside the widespread potential for plagiarism inherent in any online learning system, how are MOOCs students assessed? Approaches to MOOCs assessment are still developing. It is not yet possible to gain a degree by MOOCs study, although some overseas providers offer course credits. In most cases, students successfully completing a MOOC can pay to receive a certificate of completion. Assessment may also be outsourced to third-party assessment providers, who will provide supervised test centres for online courses and authenticate learners’ identities. Students would have to pay for the service. 

An alternative to outsourced assessment providers is peer review. It draws on one of the advantages heralded by MOOCs providers – that of peer to peer learning. Ross Dawson is an Australian futurist, who consults on digital futures to a range of large organisations. According to Dawson, peer review is at the centre of the viability of MOOCs. “If 100,000 students are undertaking a course of study there is no way that any team of teachers can provide meaningful individual assessments. Peer review is the only practicable way to be able to address the scale of this problem. It is likely that peer review systems, if appropriately designed, can give similar results to those provided by an expert reviewer”. 

A threat factor? 

Are universities threatened by MOOCs? It would be fair to say that Australian universities are watching MOOCs developments with interest. Some, like the University of Melbourne, have jumped on board, joining with universities around the world to offer courses online via the Coursera platform. Others see the potential for MOOCs to enhance their own university’s offerings. Freeman says that what undergraduate students are looking for is the “campus experience”. The human touch is still crucial. He says when a student studies on campus, “they get a lot more than just content; they develop a network with student peers who are going to be influential in the future. That’s irreplaceable. Students are taught by leading academics that can help them unpack the nuance of what is being learned as they facilitate a conversation”. 

Rather than replace face-to-face teaching with MOOCs, universities are generally looking to incorporate technology into teaching, typically as part of a blended learning approach using online and face-to-face. Freeman says that universities attempting to incorporate online delivery into their courses must tread carefully. The content delivered by computer must be well designed, not generic; it must be captivating, not just a “talking head”. 

One such innovation, now being adopted in some Australian universities, is the flipped classroom, in which the one-way lecture is flipped to make room for active learning opportunities, including problem solving and collaborative exercises that develop critical thinking, presentations skills and teamwork. Instead of doing problems for homework, students watch a video or listen to a podcast in their own time, then apply the knowledge in class with the teacher as facilitator. 

MOOC providers argue that this ability to study in one’s own time and at any location is one of the great advantages of MOOCs. They provide self-paced learning in which students can rewind and replay the material as many times as they need. Small chunks of information are tested with interactive learning technologies, such as quizzes. Students can move ahead when they’re ready. But Freeman argues that, while there are undoubted benefits here for the selfmotivated student, what is missed is the “teachable moment”, where a teacher can intervene at a critical point in a student’s learning path, to provide feedback and offer support. 

Ultimately, MOOCs do not offer what is to most students the most valuable aspect of their university education – a degree. In their current form, MOOCs are not a substitute for university degrees that qualify students to enter the workforce in their chosen profession. 

Dawson, however, believes this may change in the future. He doesn’t think that MOOCs will begin to offer degrees, rather that a shift in thinking is required about what a degree will actually mean. He says: “A degree or certificate is just one dimension of learning. It provides an assessment of whether a student is good at passing exams, writing essays and so on, but does it reveal a person’s ability to function in the workplace?” In the future, he says, “an increasing proportion of learning will be done in the process doing work, known as ‘just in time’ learning. At the point where you need to know something, you access a learning module, or a person who has the relevant in-context experience and can share it with you”. While a foundational knowledge is needed for this just in time learning to be relevant, it doesn’t have to be a traditional on-campus university experience. According to Dawson: “What we’re seeing is this unbundling of what a university is – a place of teaching, research and credentialing”. He believes we are “likely to see the rise of non- academic credentialing”. After all, Dawson argues, “employer recognition is key to the reputation of a credential”. 

James Guthrie FCA, head of academic relations at the Institute, says that accounting employers demand “higher-level skills, such as critical thinking, creativity and judgment”. Can MOOCs provide these skills? Guthrie believes these are skills which are “difficult to teach online” and that “soft skills and social intelligence, increasingly sought by employers, are also best learned face to face”. On the one hand, MOOCs learners need to be selfdirected and self-motivated. Exactly the skills an employer would value. But what about teamwork, collaboration, oral presentation skills? Can these be learned via MOOCs? 

In a globalised learning environment, where do Australian employers fit? The content delivered by MOOCs is designed for an international audience and potentially can provide a global perspective that will be of considerable value to Australian accounting graduates. The reality, however, may be that these students from around the world will be studying homogenised content, very much focused on a North American perspective. 

Imagining the future and formulating ways to meet its challenges is an ambitious task. Guthrie says “we are witnessing a major change in higher education and training. Which pathway to take is difficult to envisage, that is why we need knowledge building in the accounting profession”. MOOCs are a very recent development in an industry that is centuries old and has changed little over those centuries. 

The impact of MOOCs on the university is unknowable. But most of the participants at the Forum and contributors to the Academic Leadership Series agreed that MOOCs in one form or another are here to stay. Likely developments will be that universities will face increased pressure to offer greater value to students, with a distinction possibly emerging between universities offering on-campus experiences to elite students who can afford to pay, while students who can’t afford an elite education relegated to a MOOCs education. Universities will adapt MOOCs technologies to their course offerings, to supplement their on campus provision. For undergraduate students, little will probably change. The real revolution is likely to be in postgraduate courses, where students are already established learners, motivated to study for professional development. 

Dawson thinks that the virtual university will highlight the distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘information’, in which knowledge is the “capacity to act effectively, based on experience and practice; information is anything that can be captured digitally”. He compares business to “surfing, with knowledge – we can see the wave come in, catch the wave, based on experience we have the capacity to act effectively”. We can’t learn to surf simply by watching a video or reading a book. According to Dawson, “accountants need to be able to surf the wave of business”. The question is will the virtual university prepare them for surfing the waves? 

Tell me, show me, involve me 

While MOOCS have been a part of the evolution of education, universities and other tertiary providers have looked to the online environment to enhance the learning of complex material for their students. 

The Chartered Accountants Program has embraced the learning concept, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” The first element of this ancient proverb, the ‘Tell’ part of the learning journey, lays the foundation for student knowledge from core content, based around learning outcomes. Where the online environment can be leveraged, is in the ‘show’ and the ‘do’. 

The ‘show’ element utilises interactive worked examples, where students are walked through case studies, at their own pace, demonstrating how theory is practically applied. Finally the ‘do’ part of the model leverages quizzes, and scenario and task based activities, to apply, practice and embed learning, in real time. 

Where traditional teaching can often fall into the rote-learning paradigm, the virtual environment has the opportunity to deepen student learning by explaining complex accounting core knowledge and theory with online, interactive elements. Building flexibility in learning delivery by offering virtual classrooms, lectures and audio recordings, not only accommodates different learning preferences, but also, like MOOCs, makes education more accessible across time and distance.

Article last updated 6 September 2013