The rise of Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs) has been the subject of considerable media discussion of late. The voices associated with this debate have generally be of two slightly conflicting types: (a) MOOCs are a threat to the current Australian university system, and (b) MOOCs are overstated as a threat to universities since they cannot replace a large portion of the valuable teaching and learning that occurs at a university. I will argue that rather than a threat; MOOCs represent a real opportunity for Australia and one that should be embraced wholeheartedly. This is particularly the case with high volume programs such as we see in Australian business faculties; which is where I will focus my discussion.
MOOCs are potentially a revolution in teaching and learning. Although distance learning has existed approximately a century and on-line learning for slightly more than a decade, the convergence of two phenomena imply that on-line courses will soon come to dominate university education.
First, technology has finally caught up with the ideal. Having been involved in early on-line programs there were two factors that kept the beast from rising. The first was the lack of a ubiquitous open technological platform. Early attempts were almost always proprietary and highly limiting in terms of functionality. Today’s technologies are modular and can be adapted to specific needs quickly and cheaply. Building a MOOC is like building a shed.
Second, individuals have learned how to learn without direct instruction. Indeed, the comfort level of generations that have grown up with technology and technology-based learning, simply find it natural to learn in a way that is different from what we normally associate with university learning. Indeed, the Graduate Management Admissions Council surveys now find that on-line MBA courses dominate all other modes of delivery in terms of satisfaction.
In addition to the above there are just some basic economic issues that arise and make MOOCs a potentially dominant model. First, they allow younger people to learn in a way they are comfortable learning. If you live you life staring at your phone rather than paying attention to where you are walking then you are potentially open to the MOOC model. Second, MOOCs reduce the major cost of learning – time. The largest cost to students is not tuition but time: time travelling to school, time away from being gainfully employed, time away from home and family. MOOCs reduce the total cost of education by being flexible in terms of a personally valuable, and non-replaceable, asset. The more valuable an individual’s time, the more valuable is a MOOC. Third, MOOCs free the student from the current mix of instructors. Why should I not have the opportunity to be instructed in game theory by a leading scholar from Stanford or MIT? Should I be constrained by the limitations of my local university? MOOCs allow people access to the best brains and the best instructors, globally.
The Australian Business School Context
Australian business schools are the financial engines of nearly every Australian university. Without their large volume of international students (more than 50% of all overseas students in Australia study business, while the comparable number in the US is slightly over 20%) and the full fees that that entails most Australian universities would find it difficult to operate many other key faculties. In addition, business schools are relatively cheap to operate, as the teaching of most business courses does not require a great deal of technical training (which is why upwards of 50% of the student contact hours at many institutions will be with adjuncts and casuals).
This is potentially open MOOC territory, which is no doubt why they are perceived to be such a threat. Business programs are replete with commoditised offerings with very large courses supplemented by armies of casual tutors. However, this ‘threat’ creates two real opportunities.
First, Australian institutions are well positioned for the “massive” side of MOOC operations simply because most of our business faculties are massive (the median Australian business school has around 7,000 students in mostly 3 year programs; the largest of the US state schools would have about 3,000 students in their mainly 4 year programs). I have always found it particularly interesting that despite this fact, few institutions have actively moved to virtualise what is effectively large-scale standardised instruction. We continue to hold onto the belief that instruction requires ‘live’ instructors students can reach out and touch, while students view this as increasingly irrelevant.
Second, even if these courses were not virtualised by Australian institutions, others will virtualize them and make them available locally. In the Australian case this is a real threat because there is no real need to ‘locally’ adapt the content given that 50%+ of Australian business school students are not locals to begin with. Purchasing ‘imported’ MOOC content or creating it locally would allow Australian business faculties to downsize their human capital significantly.
I can immediately see the reactions of many to this last statement; i.e., I am advocating ‘downsizing’. But it is necessary statement and one that is key to the value of MOOCs, particularly for Australian business schools. As revealed by almost any measure, the quality of the scholarship emanating from Australian business schools is poor. The average median Google Scholar citation per year of a business school academic is less than 2. Based on Thomas-Reuters data, Australia is between 20% and 30% below world norms in terms of the impact of what is published. While Australia boasts thousands of faculty in its business schools, the number possessing significant scholarly impact (i.e., citations) is less than 1% of the total. The reality is that the vast majority of the human capital at our business schools is employed only to teach very basic commoditised content and is, unjustifiably, being forced to meet scholarly standards that are inappropriate for the logic of their employment.
For lack of a better way of characterising this, Australia is suffering from very significant intellectual diseconomies of scale when it comes to business scholarship. A solution to this problem lies in the logic of the MOOCs: work to leverage the brightest minds and get them out to the largest number of people as quickly and as easily as possible. Hence, what we should think about is more intellectual bang for the buck. We have the scholars (that 1% I mentioned earlier) who can hold their own with leading scholars globally and would no doubt be in demand for their expertise. What we should be doing is investing in releasing the power of those minds to students both locally and globally. This would not only increase the efficiency of our universities but also increase the impact of our scholarship, as we would no longer be constrained by the volume driving hiring needs.
Ultimately, I believe this is the only reasonable course for a very simple reason: If Australian business schools do not embrace MOOCs it will simply be a matter of time before our competitors move into the space locally and at scale. The marginal cost of Stanford, MIT, Cal Tech or Duke moving into our virtual space is nil and they will be impossible to dislodge once entrenched. They bring to bear not just intellectual capital that we will be unable to match, but also the knowledge and scale against which second or third movers will simply not be able to compete. Either we move or we will be marginalized.