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Bernie Callaghan: MOOCs spark a revolution in education world

Dean of the faculty of business and law at the University of Sunderland Bernie Callaghan on the impact of massive online open courses

Bernie Callaghan

Massive online open courses - MOOCs - are stirring things up in higher education worldwide. This month the first MOOC platform was launched in the UK.

MOOCs revolutionise the way in which students study. They can do whichever subject they like because there aren’t the same limits on course numbers or examination grades for enrolment.

They are recorded university lectures posted online, usually with free access, additional materials and online student forums.

The instant popularity of some courses is astonishing. Stanford University’s artificial intelligence MOOC attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries in its first three months. The UK MOOC platform reports similar huge interest with “tens of thousands of people from 165 countries” pre-registering interest in its 20 courses.

MOOCs’ flexibility is of interest to businesses too. Thousands of students participating in a course could help to solve strategic business problems through collaboration.

Some US universities’ MOOCs have included projects engaging with over 100 businesses to strategically analyse their operations.

My faculty has carried out similar real-world experiences with courses in which MBA students work alongside global businesses to build a road map of how each organisation needs to transform to reach targets.

Such close partnerships with major enterprises gave students a real corporate insight and provided thought-provoking recommendations for the businesses involved. With higher numbers of students and businesses taking part in MOOCs, similar problem-solving courses could be a powerful business tool.

However, the Sunderland students also benefited from face to face discussions with businesses and lecturers – and that’s far more difficult to achieve with a MOOC.

Although MOOCs provide a low-cost, inclusive form of study with a worldwide perspective from participating students, they can’t replicate the connections between students and lecturers that often lead to innovative ideas.

The introduction of disruptive technology, and increasing competition from public and private entities around the globe, are certainly a challenge for UK universities. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that the passion and enthusiasm of lecturing staff has been inspiring lightbulb moments for students for years. It’s also at the core of the best student experiences, and has a long-term impact on students’ involvement with their programmes, which in turn helps to shape career choices.

I believe MOOCs will work most effectively alongside mentoring by experienced people who can transform digital content into that spark that brings a subject to life. There’s no doubt that digital technology is carving out a new landscape for university study.

We have to ensure that the best aspects of higher education – including good quality student experience – are blended and integrated as it moves forward.

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