By Matthew Cowan, LSU
Followers of innovation in higher education will have by now found it almost impossible to ignore the flurry of discussion Massive Open Online Courses, commonly referred to as MOOCs, has generated recently. MOOCs have been around for a while now, but we’ve begun to pay more attention to them since MIT and Harvard poured $30 million each into a project this year and named it edX. In an endorsement to the perceived humanitarian potential these currently free online courses have, the Gates Foundation has also donated significantly, raising even more eyebrows.
A couple of weeks ago, David blogged about the high profile Coursera, one of the biggest providers of free online courses. His post sheds light on how MOOCs may potentially transform what university looks like and what it will actually mean to ‘go’ to university. Such has our interest been piqued with MOOCs developments, our Saigon office has only just begun to settle down. Nevertheless, not a day goes by it seems that not even a morsel about MOOCs goes unconsumed. Because innovation in higher education demands attention, we can’t help but take notice of what’s emerging in our field on the blogs, forums and publications that we read. And, indications are that higher education could be on the cusp of something big.
Certainly recent developments in technology have shown enormous potential to impact on higher education in a way that it’s never done before, and quicker than ever before; much like in the way the development of social media has impacted on the way we consume our news. Opinions are polarised. Some suggest that it’ll be a panacea, while others give it only until such time another new fad comes along.
Ultimately, however, no one can confidently predict the trajectory online courses will take. Therefore, the value of the data being gathered by the likes of edX and Coursera from enrolees in their courses will be gold. A large pot of money awaits those who can hit on the right blend of instruction that meets the needs of everyone and retains enough of that face-to-face element that higher ed students prefer.
Such is the level of curiosity at the moment (Coursera just announced its 1 millionth enrolment) it may only be a matter of time before industry comes to value the qualifications awarded from this mode of delivery providing the flashpoint needed to trigger the change we all sense is coming. Still, there are so many ponderables remaining, like how cheating might be tackled, for one. Until the big players get further down the track with their research, everyone else appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach for now.
So for the moment, the edX project, and others like it, are being billed as part of the humanitarian commitments those universities involved have to education. The idea is that it will reach those who, for one reason or another, have never had access to an appropriate quality of education, much less a university education. Nations like Brazil, India, China and, of course, Vietnam come to mind which have enormous disadvantaged populations. Evidence of Coursera’s uptake in India and China, for example, indicate that they are sitting up and taking notice. Australians stand to benefit from it as well, particularly our Indigenous communities which are often located in remote areas. Currently the profile of those enrolling in these courses and their motivation for doing so is not yet widely known, but will certainly provide for interesting reading if and when it is.
For those of us working in higher education, it’s at the very least giving us an exciting sneak peek into the possibilities of how university programs may be delivered in the not too distant future. It’s also beginning to illuminate potential upheavals in a sector that is, ironically, often burdened with the reputation of being slow to act. One of those upheavals is the way online courses are threatening to challenge tradition. Not necessarily because the traditional way of doing things hasn’t worked that well, but rather that universities are recognising the need to change their approach to customer service.
As we’ve seen with international student recruitment in Australia, for example, universities have recognised as a matter of survival that they have to reach out to students and go out after them. Universities going out and hunting down their own quarry instead of expecting it to walk in the door was unconventional until relatively recently. Traditionally, universities have been able to make all the demands. Making the paying client come onsite, often at great expense, to attend lectures at ungodly times is an example of this. Now the worm is turning. Meeting the demands of a savvier client base with greater options to choose from – at least in places like Australia – is trickier. In Vietnam, however, it remains a different story. There are much fewer quality higher education options to choose from, fiercer competition for uni places among a huge young population with a median age of around 28 years old, and tradition that is a tougher nut to crack. And so it would seem the status quo will remain for quite some time yet. That means our new 1,000 space motorbike parking area stands to be well utilised by our students who mostly come to uni by motorbike when it opens this October.
Having said that though, in time, our university undergrads here in Vietnam will become increasingly aware of the options becoming available to them. I can see a future for flipped classrooms here, especially in remote and rural areas like in the Mekong Delta. Flipped classrooms mean students can watch lectures repeatedly wherever they have internet access, which in Vietnam is surprisingly fast and cheap (unlimited 3G access is about $USD2 per month). This would make for fewer perilous treks to campus each week. And in Vietnam, that is an important consideration given the road toll here.
But flipped classrooms, like MOOCs, are more than just a bunch of videos that can be uploaded and forgotten about; they require support materials to keep students engaged and learning outcomes met. And then there’s the sensitivities surrounding the dissemination of information online in environments like ours here, which has implications for the type of courses made available to our students; access to some websites in Vietnam are intermittently (and mysteriously) blocked. Imagine the frustration that causes. Despite this, however, Vietnam still appears to be better positioned than Australia is for the uptake of MOOCs as debate over who is going to pay for Australia’s National Broadband Network drags on and the growing realisation that not all Australians will have equal access to it at the same time once it’s rolled out. Vietnam doesn’t appear to have this issue.
While the likelihood of MOOCs and flipped classrooms taking hold in Vietnam is a long way off – that’s if they take off – open textbook initiatives such as Open Stax College are set to challenge the way textbooks are provided to our students. Research in the US has already found that students have embraced electronic textbooks. That study was undertaken when iPads were less common; now iPads on our Saigon campus are everywhere. Smartphones in Vietnam are prevalent too despite their cost, which would make the delivery and use of textbooks online even more uncomplicated. The great potential with them is that when textbooks are digital, they can be updated regularly and that has to be good for our students. And, you can keep all of them in your pocket. Look out for this development in Vietnam soon.
Right now the whole ‘ed techie’ thing remains up in the air, but the teasers we’re beginning to see are enough to get us wondering. And the exciting thing for us in Vietnam and the Southeast Asia region is that we actually have a realistic opportunity of being a part of things as they unfold rather than playing catch up as so often is the case in other aspects of life here.