Will MOOCs ever replace universities?

In the last couple of years, massive open online courses (MOOCs) burst onto the education landscape, pushing the boundaries significantly. These platforms let students watch free video lectures of some of the world’s top professors, take progress quizzes, complete assessment and, in some cases, get accredited certification for completed courses.

No longer the domain of a niche group, MOOCs are now firmly entrenched in the mainstream. Offering students the flexibility to learn whenever they want, wherever they want, and flexibility is one of the main attractions. Compare this approach to traditional education institutions, where the lecture, seminar and written assignment format has remained largely unchanged since the first European universities held their first classes many centuries ago.

But perhaps the strongest selling point is this: many MOOCs are free. Given that the average student graduates with a hefty debt pile north of £20,000 on average, the power of MOOCs to undercut the market is astonishing.

And bricks and mortar institutions are having to sit up and take note. Many universities have woken up to the inefficiencies of wasting their professors — universities’ greatest assets — on teaching the same course to student after student, year after year. As a result, several now offer introductory first-year courses in an online format, complemented with face-to-face seminar time. And for those universities with a strong international brand, the ability to expand their student base outside of the host country is enormous. But will online learning ever replace universities?

Despite the long-overdue change in institutions across the globe, it seems that teaching methods have endured for centuries simply because they work. Though online learning may enable some students to study that could not have studied otherwise — those with strict childcare requirements or who live many miles from the nearest institution, for example — face-to-face learning time is priceless. The knowledge development that occurs from lively discussion in a classroom, or the bespoke explanation of a particular concept that a teacher gives in response to a student’s hand in the air, are irreplaceable.

As with many things, it seems there is a happy medium. Despite the striding advance of education technology, it seems unlikely that online platforms will truly replace traditional academic institutions. But the rapid pace of change is certainly keeping academic bastions on their toes.