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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellow's Seminar - To MOOC or not to MOOC that is the question? The rise of Massive Open Online Courses and the future of science education in the university sector

4th November 2013, 13:00 to 14:00, IAS Seminar Room, Cosin's Hall, Palace Green, Professor Glenn Brock (Macquarie University)

In July, 2013, somewhat out of the blue, I was invited by my Macquarie University colleague Professor David Christian to provide 2 lectures on early animal evolution and the Cambrian Radiation as part of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) called “Big History”. This unit was developed in 1989 as a trans-disciplinary open access unit aimed at engaging the entire student body in the history of everything from the Big Bang to the present day. The “Big History” model has been very successful and is perhaps the most popular MOOC on the Australian landscape and has recently received substantial funding from the Bill Gates Foundation as a MOOC called the ‘Big History Project’ aimed specifically for High School students across Australia and the United States See for details of this project.

A MOOC is a university sanctioned course that is provided on the internet free-of-charge to anyone who cares to enrol in it. The MOOC providers have strong links with professors from elite universities who provide the global education market with access to frontier knowledge and information that used to be the most basic currency of universities. The immediacy, speed and availability of the internet in the modern day makes it possible for anyone to gain, accrue and use academic and applied knowledge such that information is now a free product. The “M”assive part of a MOOC has caught the public imagination such that when Stanford University Professor, Sebastian Thrun, offered his first MOOC on artificial intelligence in 2010, 160,000 students enrolled on the internet. Whilst there was a large attrition rate (85 %), this still meant that 24,000 students successfully completed the course. Many going on to complete (and pay for) university degrees. Thrun estimated that results like these would have taken him 20 years to achieve if he had offered his course in the conventional lecture/lab/tutorial fashion.

As MOOCs continue to grow (indeed flourish) and universities work through ethical, legal and financial implications – it seem likely that universities will never be the same again. Some have argued that the physical campus may become superfluous as the virtual classrooms take over amongst the internet savvy Generation Now. As an advocate for university outreach and long-time contributor to Distance Education, I want to explore some of the paradigm shifts in tertiary education in the internet age. In this seminar, certainly outside my normal comfort zone, I want to outline a little bit of the history of MOOCs, the major players and review commentary on the potential implications of the growth of MOOC, especially in the sciences. It has been argued that many applied scientific endeavours, especially medicine, engineering, life and geosciences, cannot be taught “virtually” and will always require some degree of hands on training – yet MOOC courses are emerging in all of these field. My aim is for this seminar to be a free-flowing discussion about the benefits, pitfalls and future of MOOCs in the next 50 years.

Fellows' seminars take place on Monday lunchtimes in the seminar room at Cosin's Hall.

Places are limited and so any academic colleagues interested in attending a seminar should contact the Institute in advance to reserve a place.

The aim of these seminars is to develop new thinking on the big issues that are of current concern/interest for the Fellows . Each Fellow is asked to present a core idea that informs their current work, or a problem that they are tackling, that could benefit from cross-disciplinary thinking. These seminars are informal and designed to encourage discussion.

Contact for more information about this event.