A lot of hype has been generated around the advent of Massive Open Online Courses, or 'MOOCs', but what impact will these distance-learning degrees (run by the likes of Harvard, Stanford, MIT and Imperial) have on student appetite for traditional Higher Education learning in the UK?
Philanthropy means business
Massive Open Online Courses have in the past been seen as a way of delivering free higher-education courses in a wikipedia-esque philanthropic manner. However, entrepreneurial universities have now started treating these online courses as a way of extending their educational brand penetration far beyond the traditional reaches and limits of their campus bases. Last year, Georgia Institute of Technology announced they would offer an online Computer Science Masters Degree in partnership with Udacity, an online course provider, for 20% of the cost of the equivalent campus-based course. Students who complete Georgia Tech's web-based course will receive the same certification as those who graduate from the $40k campus-based course. Clearly, from a commercial standpoint, this model makes for a very enticing business venture; there is no need for universities to pursue capital intensive campus expansions to accommodate swelling numbers of students as they can run courses 'attended' by tens of thousands of online participants at a fraction of the cost.
Campus-based learning a relic of the pre-digital era?
But despite it seeming relatively obvious that the MOOCs model will be a game-changer, this model is not new to the UK. The Open University, founded in 1971 by Royal Charter with the support of Harold Wilson - the then incumbent PM - was arguably the pioneer in this space. Since inception, the OU has educated just short of 1.8 million people worldwide and current stats state that over 31,000 studying at the OU are under 25. However, with no academic pre-requisites, the Open University lacks the sense of exclusivity and academic prestige that attracts many young applicants. Consequently, this institution is not wholly seen as a substitute for bricks-and-mortar institutions within mainstream higher-education. But this is not to say that MOOCs operated by more academically-exclusive higher-education franchises wouldn't be seen as an alternative, at least from the perspective of academic excellence.
Beyond the rule of parents
So is it likely that MOOCs will upset the status quo within the UK? The one point yet to be touched upon is distance learning's limited scope in its ability to grant a young adult that life-changing step beyond the realm of their parent. University is as much about becoming your own person as it is about achieving a higher qualification. Remote learning will always have its place in philanthropic circles, but for a culture where independence of spirit and mind is so engrained, life away from parents is a necessity that cannot be catered for digitally. For me at least, it is this single point that will ensure campus based learning is cemented as the default modus operandi within the UK.
Image Source: Flickr