Universities UK report considers development of online courses 

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16 May 2013

Universities UK has published a report today looking at the impact and potential of massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Massive open online courses: Higher Education's digital moment? tracks the development of MOOCs from a small selection of specialist courses to major online platforms, offering hundreds of courses with millions of users. The report is being launched today at a Universities UK conference to discuss the development of MOOCs. Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts MP will speak at the event alongside speakers such as Martin Bean, Vice-Chancellor of the Open University and Simon Nelson, Launch CEO of Futurelearn.

The report explores MOOCs’ surge in popularity and discusses whether this signals the beginning of a significant transformation in higher education, similar to those seen in other sectors, such as the newspaper industry. It pulls together the recent trends in online education delivery and looks at how universities can respond to the changing online environment.

The report looks the ways MOOCs could change higher education by:

Promoting lifelong learning opportunities

  • Given the decline in part-time study, MOOCs may become a more prominent feature in lifelong learning models.
  • MOOCs could offer flexible learning for people in work, providing the ongoing training needed in an advanced knowledge economy.
  • A key factor in this area would be the development of a system of  recognition and credit arrangements for MOOCs.

Raising institution profiles and encouraging recruitment to paid-for courses

  • The ‘try before you buy’ model may become more prevalent and has the potential to open up courses to many more students than traditional prospectuses and websites. The Open University’s experience suggests that ‘try before you buy’ can increase up-take of paid-courses by 10%.

Driving internationalisation

  • Two thirds of MOOCs users are outside the country of the host institution. In contrast overseas students enrolled in the UK make up 10% of the student population.
  • MOOCs may also play a role in the development of transnational education, where international students study on UK courses overseas. Students could study for less, complete part of their course in their home country  or use a free course to help decide whether to come to the UK.

Changing costs structures

  • Universities face the challenge of ensuring that students are still attracted to their conventional educational offer. The current development of ‘unbundling’ some components of higher education (content, delivery platform, feedback and support, and awards) for no- or low-cost increases this risk.
  • Although much of what universities offer cannot easily be replicated online, (personalised feedback or qualitative academic support, for example), free online courses do have the potential to impact the higher education’s tuition-based model. 

Encouraging collaboration

  • MOOCs have the potential to transform the ‘traditional’ degree course experience. Institutions may look to share educational service, reducing duplication of some courses and materials, for instance in first-year modules or technical modules. For example, the University of California is experimenting with shared online courses enabling students to study standard core modules across its whole system.


  1. The report - Massive open online courses: Higher Education's digital moment? - is available to download.
  2. The report is being launched at Universities UK’s conference Open and online learning: Making the most of MOOCs and other models on Thursday 16 May 2013.


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