MOOCs: the death of the academic or the birth of modern academia?


There is a cold draught creeping under the office doors of academics across the world. It is the wind of change, sweeping through the wooden halls of the world’s oldest universities, unsettling dust and leaving some professors fearing for their futures.

Of course, this wind takes the form of the Massive Open Online Course, commonly known as the MOOC. As the name suggests, MOOCs are free online seminars available to an unlimited number of participants, regardless of educational background. They allow students and enthusiasts alike enrol on courses led by the world’s experts in their respective fields – all from the comfort of home.  In principle, anyone with an internet connection is now able to transport themselves into the lecture halls of Harvard without even possessing a school leaving certificate, let alone the ability to pay for tuition fees!

It is of no surprise then that in this era of ever-rising tuition fees and 6-figure student debts, MOOCs are proving popular. In 2011, one of the pioneers of the MOOC, Sebastian Thrun, who was then a professor at Stanford University, sent out an open invitation to his online seminar on the topic of “artificial intelligence”.  160,000 people from 190 different countries signed up. Soon after, Thrun stepped down as a professor at Stanford to work with several private companies including Google.

However, it is unclear as to what extent MOOCs are paving the way for a new form of higher education. Will the virtual classroom one day go on to replace the face-to-face teaching that has been carried out at universities for hundreds of years? If so, the future looks less than bright for the world’s universities and academics.

Should academics fear for their jobs?

It is fair to say that the topic of online learning is a sore point in some academic circles, with many university employees worried for the future of their institutions and, let’s face it, their jobs. At a summit of the Association of German Universities in March 2014, heads of the country’s top institutions discussed the topic of “virtual learning at university”. Following much discussion, the message was clear – change is good, but not too much or too quickly.

According to the head of the Association, Bernhard Kempen, the majority of academics present were sceptical about the idea of online education. One German literature professor from the University of Mannheim went as far as suggesting that “universities have to be old-fashioned. That’s what makes them so attractive. What we’ve been doing for the past thousand years hasn’t been that bad”.

This standpoint may seem extreme, but it is an opinion which continues to be shared by many. Sceptics fear that if the virtual classroom continues to boom, universities may be unable to compete with the free online courses widely available. Why pay to sit in a stuffy lecture hall at a mid-range institution listening to a professor speak when you could learn from experts at Cambridge without having to pay a penny?

Change: help or hindrance?

Of course there are those within academia who see the benefits of online tuition. From a humanitarian point of view, the idea of universal access to information that is not only free but also of a high standard appeals enormously. As the internet wends it way even to remote areas of the poorest countries in the world, MOOCs have the power to provide a far higher percentage of the population with access to comprehensive education, thus improving millions of lives.

There is also the argument that online seminars increase the quality of tuition on offer. Students can now listen to the best professors in the whole world and carry out experiments in virtual laboratories- not to mention the potential financial benefit of mass online tuition. As tuition becomes increasingly expensive, MOOCs provide universities with the opportunity to cut their costs, lower their fees and improve their competitive ‘games’.

Education and the internet: a relationship built to last

In his closing speech to those gathered in Frankfurt, Bernhard Kempen made one thing clear: in the higher education sphere (and, indeed, across the world) the internet is here to stay. While this message may have fallen on deaf ears, given his audience of professors and academics, it cannot be denied that the world of higher education is changing- and changing for the better. MOOCs succeed in revolutionising the way in which learners access information, breaking down the barriers constructed by elitist educational traditions.

It remains to be seen whether virtual learning is capable of completely replacing face-to-face tuition in the foreseeable future. Kempen believes that the key for universities is to find a way to incorporate modern technology and teaching methods into current practice without erasing the essence of a traditional university education.

For now, academics’ jobs are safe. Yet MOOCs have highlighted the possibilities and opportunities facilitated by innovation and divergence from standard face-to-face teaching methods. It is no longer acceptable for a professor to spend an hour reading from his or her own book. The time has come to focus on interaction, student participation and, importantly, flexibility. So, what’s next for universities? School’s out? By next year- perhaps.