SOME of Britain’s leading universities are to begin offering free online courses this week to rival those available from top American universities.
Students will be given remote access to tutorials featuring high-profile lecturers and will be able to browse treasures held by the British Museum and British Library, which are partners in the scheme.
Bristol, St Andrews, Warwick, Leeds, Nottingham and Exeter, which all charge fees of ₤9000 ($15,300) a year for a degree on campus, are among the 23 UK universities backing FutureLearn, the company behind the venture.
E-courses on offer include The Mind is Flat, an explanation of “nudge theory” and decision-making, which will feature Lord (Gus) O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary to three prime ministers.
Southampton has created e-courses including one on web science, which investigates how the internet evolves and its effect on people’s lives, and another exploring the mysteries of the oceans is in the pipeline.
“These are the first free electronic courses to be offered by British universities and I think they will end up being hugely popular,” said Simon Nelson, the chief executive of FutureLearn.
Some academics, including AC Grayling, the philosopher, have so far declined to put any of their lectures online.
Neither Oxford nor Cambridge is taking part although a spokesman for the latter said it was “watching developments with interest”.
Students from more than 140 countries have signed up to sample FutureLearn’s free teaching in literature, business, psychology, marketing and science.
Using internet discussion groups, they will be able to engage in intellectual debates and take exams and multiple choice tests online as they study.
They will not, however, get a free degree – at least not immediately. Instead, mini taster courses lasting between two and eight weeks may in future attract credits which could be added together into a degree.
Nelson said: “If people are interested in going further, we will offer them the chance to take an exam to demonstrate mastery of their subject, and we can also provide the link to applying for a paid degree at one of the partner universities.”
Nonetheless, the initiative has raised fears that in future free e-degrees, studied at home, could undermine study on campus and even put some universities at risk.
“Universities could go the way of the dodo,” said one unnamed academic. “Why will students want to pay ₤9000 a year when they can take an online degree for free?”
Grayling believes that the threat to traditional degrees has been exaggerated. “In the humanities online courses will never displace face-to-face conversation,” he said.
Ministers are concerned that Britain is being left behind in the e-learning market with Stanford, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology already offering online courses.
“In America, the Ivy League have been offering online courses for some time,” said a source close to David Willetts, the higher education minister.
“In 10 years’ time there may be just one university or platform offering online courses and it may have become the dominant player worldwide.”
Nelson believes traditional degrees and e-courses can co-exist. “The digital world is here to stay but I do not think it will mean the death of the university,” he said.
“That would assume that universities would do nothing to adapt.
“The rules are not written for this market yet. This is the entry of some of the highest quality universities in the world into this space.”
Professor Nick Chater, from Warwick’s business school – which will offer The Mind is Flat course – said: “Online learning certainly heralds a big change in the way universities do things.
“I hope this is not the death of the university as we know it. I’d prefer to see it as very exciting.
“The fact that you can find out about the latest development in artificial intelligence from MIT for free from anywhere in the world – that is truly revolutionary.”
Source: Education News