edX: What is the future of universities?

By Marcus Wilson 22/06/2012

Technology is changing how education is done. Anyone my age (shall we say larger, but not much larger, than 40) who has gone into a school recently will see that it’s vastly different from what they themselves experienced at school. Technology abounds, and the children are using it. Also, university is vastly different from what I experienced just 20 years or so ago. While we had computers, they weren’t common-place things – in fact we had a couple of special ‘computer projects’ as part of our degree which taught us how to use them and program them. If we wanted to use a computer, it was a case of going out in the cold to one of the computer labs and, if you were lucky, you found a free terminal (going out late at night, especially if it was snowing, gave you a better chance of finding one available). The internet was just beginning. Email was a quirky little toy – not something we ever did anything serious with.

But, deep down, at university level, how much has really changed? Sure, every student has their own laptop and i-wotsit, and many of our classes are recorded and posted online for later viewing – with nice printed lecture notes available to download, etc. But, fundamentally, students still come to lectures, sit on long rows of seats in a lecture theatre with their backs to other students, do practical classes, write assignments and go through the stressful process of exams (in our case twice a year). And still, the majority of their lecturers, who are recruited and promoted on their research credentials, actually have no more than a  ‘gut feeling’ of whether they are giving their students a good education or not, because there isn’t any incentive for them to go and find out.

However, things may be about to change in a BIG way.  Harvard and MIT (I don’t mean the optimistically-named South Auckland Institution here) have just stirred-up the tertiary education system with the launch of edX. They are offering FREE on-line courses, to whoever has the internet available, no matter what country they are from, or what income they have. And these aren’t just a few notes chucked on Wikipedia for people to read. It’s a properly thought-out system of quality education – one of the basic ideas is that it has the same quality and rigour as anything Harvard or MIT would offer for their ‘normal’ students. It’s interactive, taught by the top people, and rigorously assessed. You get a Harvard / MIT education, but at minimal cost. True, the institutions emphasize that completing the course doesn’t mean you can claim to have a degree from Harvard or MIT – or get to have one-on-one discussions with your teachers in their offices (try that with half a million students in a class) – but the idea is that it provides the education for all, and an educated world is a good thing.

Universities need to take note of what is happening here. Their role might be about to change significantly. Why should a student enrol at Waikato (and I pick on Waikato simply because it’s my university) and take on a lot of debt for a tertiary education which may require them to relocate, come to classes everyday, and generally re-organize their life (though often in a good way), when they can get what is internationally recognized as a quality product for no cost?  What is a university for? What does a student get from it?  If EdX is successful, I believe we will see these questions come suddenly  to the foreground, and our tertiary organizations would do well to prepare for it.

Incidently, the video on the edX launch page is well worth listening to. What’s really great is hearing people very high up in the organizational system of these universities talking about ensuring quality learning.






0 Responses to “edX: What is the future of universities?”

  • Nice article Marcus but could you please clarify what you mean by these online courses being “rigorously assessed”? I tout that what differentiated someone who was using these resources and an actual student at the institution was that only the institutions students could be assessed and therefore receive a mark/ degree.

    While online resources can teach theory well, they can’t easily teach practical skills, nor do they offer pastoral care/ assistance to students who are struggling.

  • What I took from Marcus’s post is that it’s high time the universities here look at just how they deliver their materials, & that where we offer ‘on-line’ learning that we actually do it properly & with due care & resourcing. The issue of assessment is also a pressing one (which needs to be carefully considered for in-house offerings just as much as it does for ‘virtual’ courses). If something like EdX takes off, then the rest of us really will need to re-examine what we’re doing, v-e-r-y carefully.

  • All assessment will be done on-line. It has to be, when you’ve got that many students. But the material put out by Harvard and MIT suggest that that assessment will be well thought out and put together, as it should be for any conventionally taught paper. I don’t know the form it would take, but I’m sure it will be much more than ten token multiple-choice questions. The quality of the paper is strongly dependent on the quality of the assessment and it is clear that Harvard/MIT don’t want to offer anything of low quality here. So I would infer from that that they would have their top educators working this one out. The easiest way to know would be to enrol on one of their papers and see!