Brisbane's original sandstone university is set to give academic content away for free as part of a revolutionary program transforming the business of higher education around the globe.
But the University of Queensland will likely have competition from the state's other leading tertiary institutions – the Queensland University of Technology is also making a foray into massive open online courses (MOOCs).
A fledgling concept in Australia, MOOCs are established overseas and essentially offer anyone with an internet connection the chance to take part in university coursework without having to enrol in a degree program or set foot on campus.
Though assessment takes place for the sake of certification, completing a MOOC typically does not award a student the same program credit a fee-paying student would earn.
The director of the UQ Centre for Educational Innovation and Technology, Professor Phil Long, said the university was finalising a deal with leading MOOCs provider Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop and deliver the option.
Professor Long said the centre had been considering it for a year, with the catalyst coming when Melbourne University said it would launch MOOCs online early next year in partnership with the United States start-up company Coursera.
“We knew we needed to do something,” he said. “There is a recognition delivering online content you would be proud of is something that would be valuable to the institution and our students, as well as the broader community who would gain an insight into what a research institution looks and feels like.
“And we're also quite clearly going along the lines of other universities – like the University of Virginia – in that we're clear it might also provide an insight to students from other institutions to join in our campus-based program. We're not naive to the possibility this exercise could help address the problems of dwindling international student enrolments.”
Up to two courses will be offered across UQ's six faculties over the next two years, with the pilot to inform the university's approach to the online delivery of some courses offered as part of undergraduate and graduate degree programs.
The deputy vice-chancellor of technology, information and learning support at QUT, Professor Tom Cochrane, said it was “early days” but the institution was also looking closely at MOOCs.
Professor Cochrane said QUT began offering coursework online as part of degree programs over a decade ago.
“We've been in this space for quite a long time,” he said. “In the '90s the Australian government sponsored a study into borderless education because of the amount of press about what technology might do to our schools and universities, and the answer is we'll see a lot of change.”
That change is reflected the growth of Australia's Open Universities Australia, launched as Open Learning Australia in 1993, which today offers higher education coursework from Australian bricks-and-mortar universities online.
Open Universities Australia chief executive, Paul Wappet, said more than 60,000 students would graduate from digital courses this year and the number of units available was growing by about 30 per cent a year.
“There's been an enormous growth over the last decade in terms of online engagement as people understand the flexibility of studying online in relation to their lifestyle,” he said. “What's offered online is every bit as rigorous and high-quality as what's offered on campus.”
But Professor Long and Professor Cochrane said there were challenges associated with online higher education, either through MOOCs or as an alternative mode of program delivery.
Offering the same high-standard of examination achieved on-campus wasn't yet a satisfactory possibility, Professor Long said, though the UQ trial of MOOCs would look for solutions to the problem.
Resistance from faculty members was also an issue for some schools, Professor Cochrane said.
“Bearing in mind that in many universities the average age of faculty belongs to the group we call digital immigrants rather than digital natives, there are those who are still very successful and enterprising, and those who've found it harder,” he said.
“QUT has a policy of renewing academic staff to reduce the average age of faculty, which is helping to address this ... we foster new, young talent when it comes time to offer new placements.”
Still, traditional campus-based education is not yet endangered, Mr Wappet said.
Although Open Universities Australia coursework is largely conducted online, students still sit physical exams at designated addresses near their homes so that established standards are met and retained.
“At the centre of the traditional bricks-and-mortar value is their right to confer an award which is still important for employability, and something outside of MOOCs,” Mr Wappet said.
“But any institution that relies on that and thinks things will stay that way for ever and does not invest in the changing demand will not be doing very well.”
Professor Long said that the UQ MOOCs offering would look to include some kind of formal certification beyond just “marks for attendance” while Professor Cochrane said QUT's move into the digital sphere was motivated by a similar need to innovate.
“What we've been thinking is that to develop an approach – especially for a big inner city campus or pair of campuses as we have – which is popular, which people want to attend, means we need to systematically develop our online experiences to allow people to engage with us more at a time that suits their lifestyles or demands with work,” he said.
“Because the idea of a full-time student is almost gone – we have very busy students, and we need to address that.”