Part solution to the high cost of SA’s higher education?

2017-01-10 06:01

I’VE recently read about MOOCs and I believe that these have the potential to solve a major part of the #feesmustfall problem.

What are MOOCs, you are likely asking? MOOC stands for “massive open online course”, and are courses that an unlimited number of students can enrol and study for. All students’ need is Internet access.

There’s already evidence of MOOCs revolutionising the way in which tertiary education is being provided around the world.

I’ve read that by the end of 2015, there were some 35 million students worldwide who had each signed up for at least one MOOC.

MOOCs initially sound pretty much like the correspondence-type courses that institutions, such as Unisa, have been providing for many years — and that these are.

However, with the advent of the Internet one can now provide better material-facilities for correspondence-style courses, such as online video lectures, online multiple-choice testing, online discussion forums on which lecturers and fellow students can assist students, who have questions or queries or problems regarding the relevant course content, and because it’s all being conducted online, the responses should be prompt.

I’ve done some basic research on MOOCs and it appears that the first MOOC was provided by a Canadian university in 2008. The course was provided to 25 fee-paying students and to 2 200 online students (the online students were able to access the course for nothing).

Like all new developments there was an initial manic surge of enthusiasm for the concept, but this tapered off a lot and has now recovered to more realistic levels.

That enthusiasm for MOOCs still exists because while MOOCs aren’t perfect, they go a long way towards providing low-cost, affordable tertiary education to potentially many millions of poor and disadvantaged people, worldwide.

Unsurprisingly, many non-profit organisations were the initial providers of MOOCs, but prominent universities, like Stanford University, Harvard University, Peking University, Oxford University and Paris’s Sorbonne University have taken their cue from these organisations and are now participating in MOOCs through online providers.

Some of these MOOCs are being provided free and some require registration and fees to be paid.

MOOCs, by their very nature, require the use of new technology — IT specialists, videographers, etc. need to be employed — but because of the economies of scale, when courses are popular or widely disseminated, these additional costs would be relatively small.

I’ve also read that the completion rate of MOOCs is low (apparently, something like 10%), as, I would imagine, is the case with existing correspondence (Unisa-type) courses.

Some students will drop out of a MOOC because their enthusiasm for the course wanes and some will take the course merely to educate themselves with no intention of ever writing the exams at the course’s conclusion.

Being a new development, MOOCs are obviously controversial and have both supporters and detractors.

I would say criticism that MOOCs can’t be as good as conventional courses or lectures is valid, and the completion rate of MOOCs is certainly likely to be lower than conventional courses or lectures — much like it is likely to be low with current correspondence (Unisa-style) courses.

However, there is one major benefit, especially for developing countries, and that is the cost associated with providing MOOCs to large numbers of students.

While being a low-cost option, MOOCs should be provided at a cost to the student - a low cost, but a cost nevertheless.

I’m sure that students have a lot less guilt when they drop out of a course that they’re taking free, than to drop out of a course that they or their parents have paid for or borrowed money to study.

I believe that our Department of Higher Education should investigate MOOCs urgently, as they certainly have the potential to defuse the current crisis that exists between the state, universities and the #feesmustfall campaigners.

My final word on the subject - if students are sufficiently motivated to complete the course and graduate, they can surely overcome the limited disadvantages of online learning done through MOOCs. — Voices24.

Robin Mun-Gavin is a financial manager at a Durban-based law firm.

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