OPINION: Future of education in this country lies online

Over the last decade or more the language of management has permeated more and more into higher education. For some this is the trump of doom, as they see the accompanying managerialism as being the death knell of the university. Others, myself included, take this with a grain of salt.

Without getting too managerial we can then think of higher education as an industry. It consists of lots of units; some big, some small, all of whom compete and co-operate with each other as the task at hand requires.

Part of the change I and others see in public attitudes is perhaps associated with the emergence of what are called MOOCs (massive online open courses). These, in essence, are online courses into which pretty much anybody can enrol. The distinguishing feature of the Coursera and EdX programs are that they are populated by high-profile, highly respected, research-led faculty from leading universities.

In Ireland we see the success of Hibernia, which operates a blended approach with mostly online lectures and some on the ground practical instruction in required areas

So far so meh, some may say — this represents no threat, as universities control the certification process, via rigorous checks on the identity and integrity of students and their work. The emergence recently of two initiatives should cause significant concern for Irish higher education.

First, we see the emergence at the lower middle end of universities of a refined blended model. A number of US universities are experimenting with allowing students to enrol on MOOCs, to take the courses and pass examinations (under exam conditions), and to carry that credit as part of courses in the same way as a regular student.

Crucially, they see the MOOC not as a substitute or an apocalyptic threat but as a marketing tool. They find that students who take a MOOC tend to be enthused to take other non-online courses.

Second, at the top end we see certification emerging. A student can in theory take a self-designed structured set of courses from a set of world-leading universities and present evidence to employers that they have, for example, reached the MIT level in computer programming or cybernetics or the Harvard level in biology.

Where then stands the Irish third level? Employing 23,000 staff and reaching 193,000 students, it’s a large industry.

As of 2011 for all HEA-funded institutions, university and IT, only 4,000 students, 2%, were engaged in what it terms flexible learning, which includes distance and in-service education.

Compare this with the US where 30% of all students take at least one course online. Credit-based courses where students can take degrees in their own time, at their own pace are a rarity; not a single Irish university has or seems to have plans to have a MOOC (although TCD is contemplating one and is hosting an international symposium on online education in February); UCC is developing a major online presence in postgrad education across a number of areas; and the HEA is believed to support moves to create a greater online presence while preserving the on-campus experience.

Thus some movement might reasonably be expected in the near future.

Despite the doom that is poured out that we have no university in the top 100, every single Irish university is in the top 5% of the THES rankings. Every one is world class. We have a world-class industry here. Within disciplines we have world-class researchers and teachers, in pretty much ever-single discipline.

A MOOC or 10 would demonstrate that to the public and to the wider world. Every international student is an export — lets place ourselves in the world shop window.

Brian Lucey is professor of finance at Trinity College Dublin


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