Posted tagged ‘MIT’

Why not just study for free?

December 20, 2011

As tuition fees rise across the developed world, often at a pace that significantly outstrips inflation, some are now predicting that the new trend will be to look for higher education remotely, for free. In fact for some time now universities have been making their course content available online. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) started the trend 10 years ago, and it now offers 200 courses on its MIT Open Courseware website. Not only can you get free access to programmes from Aeronautics to Writing and Humanistic Studies, but if you complete the online programme you can also get a certificate that you have done so successfully. So, why bother paying $40,732 (the standard MIT undergraduate tuition fee) when you can get the programme and a result for exactly $40,732 less, i.e. for nothing?

Other universities have similar offerings, and indeed there is Apple’s iTunes U that acts as broker of free higher education programmes offered by some of the world’s best universities.

How all this will go may depend a little on how higher education is able to present itself to communities across the world. On the whole, the assumption has been that university programmes have a value based not on their content or available expertise, but on the reputation of their qualifications. A Stanford University degree certificate gets you a better job, or at least a better prospect of one, than one awarded by, say, the University of Northampton. So what the institutions are ‘selling’ is the qualification. But what if society increasingly doesn’t see it that way, and if people come looking for knowledge (in other words, content), and employers for an assurance that this has been acquired (without worrying too much whether it involves a degree)? This will not necessarily mean that open courseware is suddenly all that is needed, but it may mean that the heavily controlled degree programme with its relatively inflexible pathways to a qualification and resulting professional success may lose value.

And if that happens, it may be worth pointing out that the whole funding edifice just created in England may fall apart, because the financial assumptions on which it is based will prove doubtful.

For higher education, these are interesting and unpredictable times.

The web presence

November 23, 2010

These days, most people who have an interest in a university or college, in whatever context, first encounter it on the internet. A university’s home page on the web is, usually, its main opportunity to make a good first impression.

Today I needed to access all Ireland’s university websites to find two pieces of information; one of these would be very relevant to potential student applicants, the other to a potential philanthropist. I have to say most Irish universities do not come out of this well. Typically their home pages are far too busy and contain too much information under too many headings. The main function of the home page, in my view, is to act as a map that will direct a visitor to where they want to go, and that will do so in a reasonably attractive way. Typically this task is best performed if the page gives maybe nine or ten different options, which can then move the visitor closer to the information they need in a user-friendly way. In fact, Irish universities typically provide around 35-40 clicking choices on the home page, often in confusing separate sections on the page, and often offered in very small print with densely written sub-texts. One university gives the visitor 45 choices. Three universities also do not manage to contain all the links and clicks on a single screen, so that the visitor has to scroll down to see all of it, which on a home page is an absolute no-no.

The one Irish university website that pretty much gets it right is NUI Galway, which has a clean, uncluttered and user-friendly home page, with a reasonable and manageable set of links. The next best is my own former bailiwick, DCU. The others are all in varying degrees a nightmare for the first time visitor.

Apart from Galway’s rather excellent effort, a good model of how to do it is the website of US university MIT.

One hint I would give to university web designers is to keep breathless news announcements to a minimum. Visitors to a website are not really likely to be there in order to enjoy the latest propaganda messages. A well designed news site linked from the home page, and kept up to date, is a much better bet.