Posted on Wednesday 22 January 2014 by Ulster Business
Whether it is funding, fees, employer demands or new policy initiatives, universities in Northern Ireland, across the United Kingdom, Ireland, Europe and further afield work in dynamically changing environments.
However, in many ways, the system we see today is not exactly unrecognisable from that which has operated for centuries. Innovations emerge at the edges, improvements are made, but the fundamentals remain reasonably stable.
Throughout 2012 and 2013 a "disruptive innovation" emerged - Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs as they are widely known. Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, has described this as the "Napster moment for higher education", and many experts agree. The advent of Napster – which allowed fans to share music for free online – upended the traditional business model for the music industry forever. How this type of innovation will play out in higher education remains to be seen.
Using the internet as its platform, MOOCs have the potential to bring higher education to masses of people in a new way, taking distance learning to a new level. Significant events in the growth of MOOCs have emanated from North America following the movement's birth in Canada. Companies such as Coursera and US universities like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have so far been dominant in driving the direction of open online education.
As an established leader in open, high quality, distance higher education, The Open University stepped up to mark by establishing the UK's first MOOC platform, FutureLearn. Working with over 25 universities, including Queen's University Belfast and Trinity College Dublin, as well as the British Museum, British Council and the British Library - the first courses have recently been launched.
Some 25,000 people signed up for the eight FutureLearn courses available on launch day. Each course is between four and eight weeks long and involves a few hours of study a week. Topics on offer include the causes of war, climate change, how the web is changing the world and critical listening skills for sound production.
MOOCs are revolutionising online education. They have generated an enthusiasm that has not been seen in this field for a very long time. The recent news that Coursera has made its first million dollars by allowing students to pay for MOOC certificates marks a major milestone in the open education movement.
Online learning has been revitalised by this new addition and that means we can really begin to explore sensible, scalable options for educating via the web, be that in the form of MOOCs or as component of a more traditional degree. There is clearly an opportunity higher education delivered online and targeted at mature students.
In an increasingly digital world in which post-PC, personal devices like tablets and smart phones are both powerful and available, there is huge emerging potential for Northern Ireland's citizens to embrace higher education.
John D'Arcy is National Director of The Open University in Ireland.