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Cheers and fears for UBC's massive online open courses

It's been nine months since the University of British Columbia joined a select group of postsecondary institutions to offer "massive online open courses," also known as MOOCs. While several parties are pleased with how the free web classes taught by UBC professors have helped to improve access to education, others have expressed anxieties about the long term financial implications to the higher ed system.

"MOOCs have changed the frontiers of education," said Daphne Koller, the founder of Coursera, a company which partners with universities to offer MOOCs and a professor of computer science at Stanford University. Koller attended a panel last Friday which discussed how UBC's pilot MOOCs have fared.

"Now, you can take the same learning outcome that you can get from a large lecture class and provide that same quality experience to hundreds of thousands around the world."

At the panel, UBC Provost and vice president academic, David Farrar, explained just how gigantic MOOCs have become. In his 25 years as a University of Toronto chemistry professor, Farrar said he taught about 15,000 students. In the last two years, the number of students who've accessed Coursera to take the free online classes is about 3.7 million worldwide.

But it's not yet clear how MOOCs will work financially in the long term, something Farrar is concerned about. MOOCs are completely free and seeing huge enrolment numbers, with more and more universities interested in offering them.

"Some people think this is a passing fad that's going to leave us untouched -- and there are the ones who say this is the end of universities," Farrar told the panel audience. "When you look at the numbers, (MOOCs have) the potential to fundamentally change the business model of universities."

According to a recent article in the New York Times, Coursera is striving to support itself by creating revenue streams through licensing, certification fees and recruitment data provided to employers. "But there is no guarantee that it will keep its position in the exploding education technology marketplace," the article finds.

Coursera started in September 2011 and has already teamed up with 70 elite institutions around the globe, including Yale University, the National Autonomous University of México, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Tokyo, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Geneva. The 374 courses offered are primarily taught in English, but some are offered in French, Spanish, Cantonese and Italian.

With some exceptions, MOOCs are non-credit university courses. But to Koller, the most important benefit is how the courses help democratize access to education. Around 40 per cent of the almost 3.7 million people who have accessed Coursera live in the global south.

"In the developing world, very few people have any kind of access to higher education… and there is no way to address that problem within a generation or two," said Koller. "In order for us to help these countries overcome that limitation, we need to give them a different mechanism to provide education to their citizens."

MOOCs turn something that is the privilege of very few into something that is fundamentally a human right, concluded Koller.

Faculty members and senior administrative officers on the panel overall seemed satisfied with how the university's early MOOCs have fared. However, it's not yet clear if UBC is planning to offer more courses soon.

A list of the MOOCs currently available at the university can be found on the Coursera website.

Sebastian Salamanca is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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