There is only one problem with the world’s top universities; not everyone can go. They are too far away, the fees are too massive, or you have other things to do with your life.
Now all that is about to change, according to the supporters of MOOCs. This is an acronym you had better learn. It means Massive Open Online Course. Coursera, the biggest provider of MOOCs, has signed up 33 top universities to provide them, and perhaps more by the time you read this. You can learn finance from Michigan, cosmology from Caltech, or critical thinking from Edinburgh, all without paying money or leaving home.Most MOOCs are up to 10 weeks long and do not lead to academic credit, although a growing number are starting to.
The MOOC world is still at a formative stage.While Coursera has been launched with seed funding from big US universities, its business model is not yet established. And there are other players in the business such as Udacity, whose catalogue has a strong emphasis on advanced IT.
But a warning of the possible impact of MOOCs has come from an apparently unlikely source, the credit ratings agency Moody’s. Moody’s provides credit ratings for colleges,both profit-making and non-profit, which borrow in the markets. It is interested in anything that might make them less able to repay their loans.
Moody’s argues that MOOCs are powerful marketing tools for the participating universities. If people have a good experience of a MOOC, they may get more interested in attending the big-name university that offered it. This could be one of the Coursera participants, which now include London and other European institutions, or perhaps one of the three big names (MIT, Harvard and Berkeley) that make up EdX. EdX now offers invigilated exams to enhance the status of its courses. These moves threaten less prestigious colleges and of for-profit providers, Moody’s thinks.
It is also possible that over time, MOOCs will evolve into full-blown qualifications rather than the short courses with an end certificate which we see today.At that stage there could be fees, albeit at a more modest level thantop US universities charge today. This would be an even bigger challenge to the existing model of higher education.