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To Ride on the Trend of MOOCs: Opportunity? Revolution? Educational Reform?

Prof. Hau Kit-tai
Prof. Poon Wai-yin
Ms. Chiu Chih-hua Carol

The continuous developments in information technology have not only changed the speed and ways of information access, they have transformed higher education. Online learning is not new—MIT posted its course contents on the Internet about 10 years ago by launching what it calls 'OpenCourseWare'. By last year, OpenCourseWare has accumulated 100 million individual learners and the number is increasing by one million a month. Two years ago, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were launched by top universities in the US and Europe. Anyone with Internet access can take these courses for free.

Pedagogical Challenges

A single MOOC may recruit thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of students. The development has been astonishing. It has even been predicted that MOOCs will transform or threaten higher education. If students can download the courses of elite colleges anywhere in the world, why would they want to pay expensive tuition and put themselves in debt?

Will MOOCs replace traditional universities? Prof. Hau Kit-tai, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Choh-Ming Li Professor of Educational Psychology, is placid. 'Back in the day when radio and television came into being and were used as tools of teaching, people commented that they would have a deep impact on education. E-learning or multimedia learning has been popular for the last decade. MOOCs are a development of the e-learning trend. Human interaction is crucial in traditional education; it cannot be replaced.' He admitted the trend is irreversible. The key point is to make the best use of the situation and respond positively. MOOCs, to a certain extent, lead to the further release of academic resources and healthy competition among universities.

The advantage of MOOCs is that they are open, they transcend traditional boundaries, and they make learning autonomous. In 2012, 753,000 learners registered for edX free courses. Most of them came from India, Brazil, Pakistan, and Russia. The diverse geographical, national, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds stimulate teachers' reflections and teacher-student discussion. Online learning gives students more autonomy in choosing the most suitable way for learning. Those who could not fit into a traditional school learning environment such as those poor in social skills and concentration, sufferers of autism who rely on the computer for communication, can now learn comfortably via these platforms.

Professor Hau pointed out that MOOCs also have an impact on traditional classroom teaching. With this convenient platform, teachers upload introductory material online for students to study beforehand. They can use time previously reserved for lectures to solve students' problems; they can tutor through in-depth discussion. He said, 'This is known as the “flipped classroom” where the traditional order of teaching, i.e., lecturing in classroom, followed by homework, is flipped. Proven to be more efficient, the “flipped classroom” is applicable to higher education, even primary and secondary schools which have seldom used it in the past.' In addition, the 'flipped classroom' is characterized by an interactive real-time Q&A function that allows teachers to be immediately notified of students' questions and to see the distribution of the answers. This allows them to adjust their teaching.

Another Form of Knowledge Transfer

CUHK has offered free educational programmes to online learners since 2010 by joining iTunes U. These programmes are well received by the general public.

Last year, CUHK joined Coursera as a partner, offering five courses for free to world learners. The Centre of Learning Enhancement And Research (CLEAR) is responsible for coordinating matters regarding Coursera and supporting University members to design and compile the courses. Prof. Poon Wai-yin, Associate Vice-President and director of CLEAR, said, 'One of the University's missions is to apply and disseminate knowledge to the wider world community, which is in line with Coursera's mission. So the partnership was a natural development. It's also another way of serving the community and transferring knowledge.'

Professor Poon said, 'MOOCs have quite a lot of science and engineering courses, whereas we selected five courses belonging to the humanities, economics, education and engineering. The courses on “Classics of Chinese Humanities” and “The Beauty of Kunqu Opera” underscore CUHK's characteristics in Chinese studies while other research strengths are also included. Launched in September 2013, the first course—“The Role of the Renminbi in the International Monetary System” was completed. Starting from January 2014, “Information Theory” has been posted online. Both courses have attracted over 17,000 students. “Classics of Chinese Humanities” will be offered in the coming May or June, followed by others in the near future.'

Valuable Experiences

Ms. Chiu Chih-hua Carol, head of the Academic Support Division, Information Technology Services Centre, said, 'Coursera takes care of its own infrastructure, maintenance and development. What we do is arrange and compile the lecture materials that uphold the University's teaching quality and fulfil the uploading standards set by Coursera.'

Professor Hau said, 'Participation in Coursera has given us hands-on experience in each step of the process, such as preparing teaching materials and catering to students' needs. Such experiences are useful for integrating this innovative pedagogy into CUHK's education.' Professor Poon said, 'CLEAR promotes MOOCs on campus. Prof. Lee Ngar-yin Louis of the centre is responsible for designing and compiling CUHK's Coursera courses. Hosted by Prof. Ng Wai-yin Will, a workshop on the topic will be held on 18 March. On the other hand, Prof. Lam Lai-chuen Paul is reviewing the Coursera experiences for future developments and the application of the “flipped classroom”.'

Professor Poon concluded that MOOCs are still in its infancy and its impact is under observation. CUHK is considering a wider use of different e-learning methods beyond MOOCs. The University has recently set up an ad-hoc group for integrating various e-learning platforms.

Looking Ahead

It may be early to say that MOOCs will replace university education, but its increasing importance is inevitable. As MIT president L. Rafael Reif said, what we now call a 'degree' will be a concept 'connected with bricks and mortar'—and traditional on-campus experiences that will increasingly leverage technology and the Internet to enhance classroom and laboratory work. Alongside that, many universities will offer online courses, develop credible credentials that verify that the student has adequately mastered the subject, and can be counted on by employers. Cross-institution introductory courses will be offered to save resources for individual universities to spearhead their focused areas.