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MOOCs and the ‘personalised’ university of the future

Tomorrow’s academic institutions will need to offer a range of learning options – online teaching offering podcasts and live-streamed lectures through special networks – as well as the traditional approach through seminars and face-to face-tutorials – writes Professor Stephen Caddick

Last year was a defining moment for massive open online courses or MOOCs – as a period when they burst into the mainstream of public consciousness. It was also a time when a consortium of British universities launched FutureLearn, a centralised learning platform to offer online courses – for free – to enthusiastic learners from across the United Kingdom and beyond. And, as a result, the future of the bricks-and-mortar university was questioned. While most agree that technology will transform higher education, quite how MOOCS fit in is another question entirely.

On the one hand are MOOCs evangelists, who proclaim that the online revolution will profoundly disrupt higher education – enabling anyone in the world to engage with the top minds of their generation; and all at a fraction of the price of a traditional degree or even for free. On the other hand we have those who see MOOCs as a flash in the pan, an amazing way for someone to indulge their passion for computer programming as a hobby. But as many in the media know, there are challenges in developing viable business models based on giving away content – especially given the high costs of development.

While both arguments have merits in the round, to my mind the biggest potential of MOOCs is the opportunity they present for universities to offer learning tailored to the individual. But the pressures of student debt mean that increasingly students are demanding learning, which fits their circumstances rather than the current one-size-fits-all approach.

We will see even more people undertaking higher education. Indeed, now there are more than 178 million students in tertiary education with predictions of even larger numbers in the future. But many students of the future will eschew the traditional model. Instead, students will increasingly demand learning that suits their needs for flexibility – giving them the opportunity to combine working or caring for children with studying for a degree, for example, and meeting the desire to keep costs as low as possible.

This means in practice that the university of the future will need to offer a range of learning options – online learning offering podcasts and live-streamed lectures; through special networks and the traditional way, through lectures, seminars and face-to face-tutorials. And of course there are many universities already making great strides in embracing technology.

Of course, there will always be subjects where hands-on experience is necessary. Medicine, for instance, or many of the sciences that require practical experimentation in the laboratory. That is why so many of our top institutions are investing in significant physical expansion – not least in London, with new developments announced by Imperial, Kings and University College London in the last year alone. There will still be relevance in the future for the conventional campus where communities of scholars and students can come together to learn, research and innovate.

That relevance will depend, though, on a new type of physical campus that offers more than just traditional learning opportunities. One which blends blue skies research with innovation, academics with business collaborators on-site and provides opportunities for students to learn business skills, start their own businesses and gain work experience in a much more integrated way than is currently possible.

In this context, the MOOCs paradigm will stimulate a profound change in the way that students and academics experience and work in universities. The university of the future will be flexible, porous and cater to the needs of people outside its walls more effectively than ever before. Online learning will enable students to integrate higher education into their lives in a similar way – flexibly, in tandem with other interests and to fit in with their lives. Exciting times are ahead.

Professor Stephen Caddick is Vice-Provost for Enterprise at University College London. He is also a member of the Mayor of London’s London Enterprise Panel and the British government’s Tech-City advisory board

Comments
  1. Personalisation is becoming more important in education given the fast-pased evolution in the job market across many fields. By the time a student finishes a four-year degree, most of the content is already out of date. Also, students can’t learn in silos anymore. There is more emphasis on T-model education to help solve the world’s toughest problems.

    With a passion for what’s is possible given new rising trends in online education, we created http://www.skillacademy.com to help people advance their careers with skillcamps. Each skillcamp has a bundle of MOOCs focused on a specific skillset needed in the job market. Now there are enough MOOCs to do the equivalent of an MBA in chunks or even learn how to launch an app business idea to the real world

    Comment by Bassem Fayek on January 10, 2014 at 4:55 pm
  2. From the babyboomers’ viewpoint, access to online learning is the perfect antidote for educated people starting to retire. Classes online will allow us to remain engaged with other lively minds as we exercise brain plasticity. It will make for a happier older population because no one will be left behind as society continues on the path of rapid innovation. Babyboomers will thrill to a bespoke education which can be tailored to their specific intellectual interests.
    ,
    Unencumbered by anyone else’s expectations, they will be able to choose courses for personal enrichment and complete them at a comfortable pace. Conveying learning this way is consistent with the trend toward personalised delivery in other aspects of life. I expect access to free or low cost quality learning will enhance our overall enjoyment of retirement. Exploring new things, unraveling concepts,tapping into feelings of excitement all stimulate personal growth and reduce anxiety about unfamiliar things. It makes retired people actual participants in life rather than outsiders.

    Comment by BabyBoomerWriter on January 11, 2014 at 5:50 pm
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