Universities boast a long tradition of contributing to positive personal and social transformation. As far back as 1088, the world’s oldest-surviving university, Bologna in Italy, began as a coming-together of various groups of foreign students who used education as a means of gaining respect and promoting their human rights.
Universities still exist to benefit local and wider communities, whether through the general dissemination of knowledge, the teaching of specific skills or the creation of jobs. But today we live in a rapidly-shrinking world: people can communicate instantly from opposite sides of the planet; national economies and labour markets are ever-more unified, and traditional national borders have lost some of their significance. This has caused an inevitable shift in the nature and scope of the higher education institution’s social remit.
Evidence of this shift is the steady increase in the numbers of students choosing to study overseas (up from 0.8 million in 1975 to nearly 4.3 million in 2011) and the advent of more and more globally accessible, online courses such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and distance-learning degrees at undergraduate and postgraduate level.
Today’s universities have the opportunity and, I believe - perhaps more controversially - the responsibility to think in terms of positive social transformation on a global scale. MOOCs in particular are a really exciting way for universities to do this.
The rise and impact of Wikipedia has shown that people everywhere constantly want to know things and that it’s possible to provide that knowledge through websites at little or no cost to the user.
In their current form, MOOCs provide free knowledge. It’s as simple as that.
Whereas Wikipedia is a sprawling mass of facts and information (some more reliable than others), MOOCs are put together in a pedagogically-rigorous way that ‘softly’ guides the learner along a pathway towards not only knowledge, but a deeper understanding of the subject.
Inevitably, people are already talking about ways to capitalise on the commercial potential of these courses, both from the providers’ and users’ standpoint. However, whilst understandable, I would argue that MOOCs are significant and exciting for a reason that has nothing whatsoever to do with money.
People have been travelling the world for generations, to experience other cultures and broaden their horizons, and this behaviour is universally enjoyed and applauded. Yet travelling doesn’t help you find work; it doesn’t make you rich (quite the opposite in my experience!) In fact, it wouldn’t appear to be worthwhile measured against any established economic criteria. So what is the appeal?
For me, it’s this: travelling abroad is a great way of deepening your understanding and awareness of the environment you live in and the people who live in it with you. We humans enjoy learning about the world around us and about each other. To my mind, a MOOC should be viewed in the same way. You’ve heard of backpacking? Well this is a new phenomenon called ‘factpacking’!
Now, I’m not suggesting you would learn as much about, for example, the culture of Brazil by doing a four-week online course than you would by getting on a plane and going there - experiencing first-hand the day-to-day happenings in a favela (shanty town) or shaking your derriere at Rio Carnival - but a month in Brazil will almost definitely cost you more than the month’s broadband required to do my imaginary Brazilian Culture MOOC. And you will know significantly more about the South American country’s culture after doing the MOOC than you would otherwise have done.
If being more aware can have a positive impact, whether socially or personally, then it follows that doing a short course about ‘Muslims in Britain', 'climate change' or the 'causes of war' (a few of the offerings available at FutureLearn) must also have the potential for a positive shift in your cultural, ethical, environmental or political understanding.
It may sound obvious, but if more people are aware of the dangers of climate change, then more people are likely to want to do something about it.
With MOOCs, universities have an exciting opportunity to offer people all over the world the chance to be knowledge tourists, exploring the rich landscape of their own interests and deepening their awareness. Who knows, perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of a world in which the internet, harnessed by educational institutions that have existed to improve lives for nearly a thousand years, can fulfil its potential for positive, global social transformation. A place where all people can be better informed, more open-minded and more fulfilled.
It’s education in its purest form, for fact’s sake.
Andy Wright is Distance Learning Developer for the College of Medical and Dental Sciences. He is working on four of the five MOOCs being developed by the University of Birmingham for FutureLearn, part of the Open University.