Why does a student go to university? Is it to pursue deep learning in the company of other committed students and brilliant faculty? Or is it to get the passport to a job, in the form of the degree parchment? As in a number of countries students are having to put their hands in their pockets to pay for their tuition, the question as to what exactly they want to buy is becoming more directly relevant. If the customer is paying and the customer is king, we had better give them what they want. Whatever that is.
One way in which this question is being thrown into relief is through the growth of online university courses that can be accessed fully for free. The latest initiative of this kind is Futurelearn, which is providing free online access to courses from 12 UK universities, including the Open University. Another similar initiative, Coursera, was launched earlier in the year, and according to its website it has over 2 million students taking courses from one or more of the 33 partner universities. Furthermore technology giant Apple has been pushing its iTunes U concept for a while, with some success – and it is now available through a special iPad app. Individual universities – such as MIT – have also got into the game.
So, if you can take the very best courses from the very best universities for free, why bother ‘going’ to university in the traditional sense? There are a several reasons, in fact, including the absence of a campus experience and real interaction with fellow participants in the educational journey. But another critical reason – the critical reason I would think – is that these programmes do not give you a degree.
As in so many other sectors of modern life, the internet is changing the assumptions of higher education, but it is not yet clear what is emerging at the other end. Clearly there are also business questions: if you are offering free access to courses, how is that being funded? And the answer generally is through advertising. But the biggest question is whether free online courses, without certification, can find a market, and more particularly whether they will destroy the existing ‘market’ for university degrees. Probably not, because the formal qualification is still the key objective for most. But if this gets more and more expensive, and the return on such an investment gets less obvious, some may begin to think again. But then, perhaps there is another model altogether, that combines technology-smart methods with employment-aware content, affordable cost and secure quality assurance, with a degree at the end. That may be the golden ticket.
It’s an interesting world in the digital age.