Ever heard of MOOCs? Here’s how they’re disrupting traditional education models

Over the past few weeks I’ve looked at the state of the publishing and music industries in the wake of the digital revolution. And while the way we spend our leisure time is (undeniably) important, it’s perhaps even more critical that we are aware of how the internet is changing the way we – and the next generation – are being educated.

It wasn’t so long ago that you could walk into a high school or university and find students filling notebooks with information. I don’t mean the latest quad-core, Intel-powered notebook – I’m talking archaic pen-and-paper school books. But times, they have most definitely a-changed.

In fact, a friend’s son, recently studying for the HSC, informed me that he had to relearn the art of writing by hand, so used to typing was he. (I was also staggered that teachers nowadays use PowerPoint and not acetate and overhead projectors, but that’s another story!)

This digitisation process is nothing new. We’ve seen it in music, books, news and even dating. And the realm of education – the place where starry-eyed students are encouraged to dream up the world of tomorrow – seems the perfect place to push the boundaries when it comes to emerging technologies, and specifically online tools, the latest of which is the MOOC – or ‘Massive Open Online Course‘.

Music had the MP3; that world-changing, space-saving solution to minimise the size of movie soundtracks. The publishing industry had the e-book and the website. No one could have predicted the effect these humble innovations would have on their worlds.

But we’re wise to digital game changers these days, and as the MP3 was to the music industry, so is the MOOC to higher education. Just as MP3s allowed songs to exist outside of the confines of an album on CD, so too do MOOCs allow streams of education to exist outside a traditional course.

Clay Shirky is an associate professor at New York University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Yeah, he’s smart. And he works with a lot of smart people, but according to his post on The Guardian‘s website, this won’t change the inevitable future the digitalisation of his industry holds. And maybe it shouldn’t.

He sees the online availability of ‘the very best sort’ of education as the natural progression in education:

Every university provides access to a huge collection of potential readings, and to a tiny collection of potential lectures. We ask students to read the best works we can find, whoever produced them and where, but we only ask them to listen to the best lecture a local employee can produce that morning. Sometimes you’re at a place where the best lecture your professor can give is the best in the world. But mostly not. And the only thing that kept this system from seeming strange was that we’ve never had a good way of publishing lectures.

And now that we do, shouldn’t we embrace it? While the occasional guilty pleasure might mean we’re happy to consume a lower class of content (Gossip Girl, I’m looking at you), when it comes to the important things in life, we all want the very best, don’t we? Well, yes and no. Arguments rage over whether MOOCs pose a threat or an opportunity to universities, with some institutions defensive and worried whilst others embrace the new paradigm.

And, of course, Apple is once again positioning itself to be a key player in whatever lies in store for the education industry. Just like iBooks, and iTunes before that, the Cupertino powerhouse has jumped at the opportunity to gain another foothold in the digital wilderness. The result: iTunes U, a (free!) banquet for the knowledge hungry and invaluable teaching tool for educators all over the world.

And if you’d rather an education outside Apple’s influence you won’t go wanting. The plethora of options on offer presents a new and exciting world to explore for both uni students and laymen. And it’s not just elite universities and tech giants playing the game; start-ups are making a big splash, upsetting paradigms that have existed for centuries. (Check out this article on The Khan Academy, already 10 million students strong!)

And this is where MOOCs differentiate themselves from their counterparts in the music and publishing worlds. MOOCs aren’t trying to replace anything. As Shirky says: “The institutions best at working like a college are already colleges.”

And it’s not going to be a difficult decision for an 18-year-old who can afford to set aside $250k and four years to choose between MOOCs and the real university experience: University wins hands down. Rather, MOOCs offer an expanded, unbundled education system to an audience of people “ill-served or completely shut out from the current system.”

This includes people in developing countries. Already companies like Freelancer offer Western markets access to freelance professionals in the developing world. Imagine a world where those freelancers, willing to work for half of the cost of their Western equivalents, were equipped with Harvard educations!

If the potential for huge increases in skilled (and cheap) labour is realised it will mean massive changes to the way services are procured by the West – something to chew on.

One thing that is certain though, the changes wrought by the digitalisation of the music, publishing and education industries have one thing in common. They’re all helping to distribute content more quickly and efficiently than ever before; expanding audiences and creating greater equality of access to content.

I love content. It’s what I do. And I can’t help but have a soft spot for anything that helps make it easier for everyone to distribute and devour good quality stuff. I can see myself embracing MOOCs, just as soon as they perfect that other critical element of university life; I call it the MOOB (massive open online bar). Never say never.

Richard Parker is the head of digital at strategic content agency Edge, where he has experience working with leading brands including Woolworths, St George and Foxtel. He previously spent 12 years in the UK, first at Story Worldwide then as the co-owner and strategic director of marketing agency Better Things.

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