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Free online courses offered by universities will not revolutionise the way traditional degree courses are delivered, says expert

A new initiative that will provide students with free access to online courses run by some UK universities will not displace the traditional mechanism for delivering degrees, an expert has said.18 Dec 2012

Universities law expert Gayle Ditchburn of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the 'Futurelearn' scheme would provide both UK and foreign-based students with a "taster" of what they could expect from signing up to traditional degree courses at UK universities.

Ditchburn said that the value of signing up to traditional degree courses run by universities would not be diminished by the scheme.

Last week The Open University (OU) announced that it had partnered with 11 UK universities, including Birmingham, Cardiff, King’s College London, St Andrews and Warwick, to deliver 'Massive Open Online Courses' (MOOCs) to students.

OU said it had launched a new company called Futurelearn to "bring together a range of free, open, online courses from leading UK universities, that will be clear, simple to use and accessible". It said Futurelearn would draw on the OU's "expertise in delivering distance learning and pioneering open education resources" in order to "underpin a unified, coherent offer from all of its partners". The scheme would make higher education more accessible for both UK and foreign-based students, it added.

Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the OU, has said that the scheme "has the potential to bring about long-lasting change to the HE (higher education) sector", whilst David Willets, the Minister for Universities in England, said that it could lead to the "revolutionising [of] conventional models of formal education".

However, Ditchburn described the scheme as providing an "opportunity to reach out to a wider audience" for the universities involved which in turn could lead to an increase in applicants for degree study. She said it would be unlikely to revolutionise the higher education sector in the way that has been trumpeted.

"Free, open courses give students opportunities to participate in learning," Ditchburn said. "However, it is not clear yet whether the Futurelearn courses will be accredited. If not, they will have a limited value to participants in terms of how they are recognised externally by employers. Their value will be in attracting prospective students, particularly those based abroad, those unsure about enrolling on fee paying courses or mature students seeking to return to study, by exciting those people into learning."

"In the case of foreign students, they will continue to come to study in the UK because a degree here is highly valuable. Universities are likely to use MOOCs to provide a taster of what they can provide in traditional degree courses. In that sense the Futurelearn initiative can be seen as an exciting marketing opportunity for traditional degree programmes offered by universities," the expert added.

Ditchburn said that a blog by the University of Nottingham's Registrar published in May had highlighted more of the limitations of MOOCs.

The blog looked at MOOCs delivered by prominent US universities and said that it had found problems with "quality assurance" in the way that "courses are offered by self-selecting academics and followed by self-selecting students". It also reported "very high" drop out rates from the courses and said that, currently, "there isn't any meaningful assessment" of students. Whether employers would value the accreditation that students are given for completing courses was also questioned.

"Completion of all of the work will mean you get the equivalent of an attendance certificate or a virtual badge," the blog said. "These may have currency in certain businesses in some sectors (mainly IT) but it is not clear that they will achieve wider recognition."

"It’s all very exciting and has prompted breathless commentary about the imminent demise of traditional universities. Yes, these developments will have an impact but MOOCs will not replace universities – rather they will offer a different avenue to self-improvement," it said.

The OU has said that details about the MOOCs that Futurelearn will run and the way the company will be structured are due to be announced in early 2013. 

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