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Vice-Chancellor's comment

VC Harlene Hayne

Vice-Chancellor’s comment

Professor Harlene Hayne discusses the "threat" of Massive Open Online Courses.

Late last year a worldwide movement forced universities around the world to stand up and take notice. This movement involved something called Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs for short. These online courses combine brief talks by world experts with interactive coursework, online assignments, quizzes and games. Discussion groups and blogs link students from around the world.

Although online learning is not especially new, what is new about MOOCs is the size and scale of their operation. The three largest MOOC providers (Udacity, Coursera and edX) boast enrolments that range from 350,000 to 1.4 million. What is also new is the reputation of the biggest players – Stanford, Harvard and MIT. The key question is, do these MOOCs herald the demise of the traditional campus-based university education?

The University of Otago has considered the issue of MOOCs very carefully. Over this past January, I personally studied everything that I could lay my hands on about the subject. I sought specialist advice on the issue from international experts in distance education and online learning. I discussed the matter extensively with my counterparts in New Zealand and overseas. The conclusion from all of these quarters is that, although there may be a handful of opportunities in this space, the concept of the MOOC will not displace the traditional university experience and the business case for the future of MOOCs actually hangs by a thread.

Although the current enrolment in MOOCs is extremely high, completion of any given course is very low. In most instances, more than 90 per cent of the students who sign up for a course, never complete it. Given this, we have to ask ourselves two questions. First, why do so many sign up? That one is easy – the courses are currently free. Once this aspect of the MOOC system changes (and it will have to change if anyone is going to make any money), then I suspect that enrolments will plummet. Second, why do so many students fail to complete? There are probably many reasons, but the most parsimonious one is that the courses quickly get boring. Even when you place the best speaker in the world on the internet, the experience pales in comparison to face-to-face interaction.

In addition to low completion rates, there are at least three other fundamental problems with MOOCs. First, a university education is about much more than knowledge transfer. Universities obviously educate doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, etc. but, more importantly, they nurture the next generation of citizens. Through their university education, students learn tolerance and compassion, they develop teamwork, oral communication and critical thinking skills, and they also learn the values of the world in which they live. All of this requires high-level human contact on a day-to-day basis. When we survey the businesses that employ our graduates, they tell us that what they value most is what students learn in the context of the larger university environment in which they live. These residential learning opportunities cannot be replicated over the internet.

Second, in a world that depends more and more on science and technology, it is vitally important that university students have more, not less, laboratory-based experience. Mastering chemistry is much more than memorising the periodic table or learning to balance chemical equations. It is more than hearing a world expert talk about the effect of carbon on climate change. Mastering chemistry (and any other scientific discipline) is about getting your hands dirty in a lab or in the real world (e.g., in the ocean, or on a drilling site); it is about making mistakes and learning from them. World-class universities are defined by the quality of their scientific facilities and by the opportunities that students have to spend time, hands-on, with passionate scientific experts.

Finally, a MOOC is only about inputs, not about outputs. At present, the work that students produce in MOOCs is marked by peers or computers, not by professors. Students receive no feedback whatsoever from the world-class leaders who appear in the videos. If you want to pick one thing that New Zealand does better than perhaps anywhere else in the world, it is to put its best, brightest and most productive researchers (in all disciplines) in front of undergraduate classes. Unlike many of our highly-ranked peer universities overseas, students in New Zealand universities are actually taught and marked by senior academic staff – and this is particularly true at Otago.

So what does all of this mean for the future of the University of Otago? Clearly, we should keep abreast of all advances in education techniques. We remain committed to online education and distance learning in situations where it makes sense for us to do so. We will continue to enhance the technology available to students at Otago and we will encourage them to learn from a wide variety of sources, including online materials. But we will also stick to our core values.

As the only truly residential university in New Zealand, we will continue to deploy our resources, including our human capital, to ensure that current and future generations of Otago students have the opportunity to learn directly from teachers and directly from peers. We will also continue to enhance the other opportunities that also shape the young people who study with us – sporting, social, cultural and musical activities are vitally important to their growth and development.

In conclusion, much of the popular interest in MOOCs was generated by an article in Time Magazine that was published late last year. The article began with the compelling story of an 11-year-old Pakistani girl, Khadijah Niazi, who was studying university-level physics through a MOOC. In an attempt to stop anti-Muslim sentiment in a movie trailer that was inciting local riot, the Pakistani government shut down access to YouTube. As luck would have it, the shutdown occurred while Khadijah was in the middle of her final exam. When she posted her plight on an internet bulletin board, the entire online world came to her rescue. Eventually, a professor in Portugal managed to download all of the relevant material and then upload it on an unblocked site. The next day, using this internet workaround, Khadijah managed to pass the final exam with the highest distinction.

On the heels of this experience, Khadijah quickly became the poster child for the opportunities that MOOCs afford, but her own views on the issue were also very clear. When asked if in the future she would pursue a MOOC option, she said: “I would still want to go to Oxford or Stanford. I would love to really meet my teachers in person and learn with the whole class and make friends – instead of just being there in spirit.”

At the University of Otago, we applaud the wise counsel of an 11-year-old girl from Pakistan. We understand the irreplaceable value of learning and living with your peers under the guidance of world-class experts in your area of study. Our only hope is that when Khadijah Niazi is old enough to attend university, she chooses to study in New Zealand rather than in the United States or Britain. We are pretty sure that we have many things to teach her, but we are equally sure that she has many things to teach us, too.

Professor Harlene Hayne, Vice-Chancellor, University of Otago