This is graduation week at a lot of Canadian colleges and universities. It’s a happy and exciting time for most; it’s also an anxious time, as graduates enter an uncertain job market burdened by debt. But the world of post-secondary education is changing fast.

There is a revolution taking place in higher education. The Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, may do to many universities around the globe what the Model T did to the automobile industry. It may put some smaller institutions of higher learning out of business — or, at the very least, turn them into service providers for a few elite universities that could come to dominate the global market for post-secondary learning.

Already, a group of U.S. universities — Harvard, Stanford and MIT among them — are investing millions in making courses taught by top-flight faculty available to literally thousands of students through the worldwide web. The University of Georgia is just the latest entrant into this game.

MOOCs are courses that can be taken for credit by anyone, anywhere in the world with access to high-speed Internet. They are also interactive in the sense that assignments are graded and students can discuss the course material with their instructor or designated teaching assistants through monitored blogs and dedicated chat rooms.

Lectures can be downloaded and viewed at a student’s leisure. The quality of the podcasts is extraordinarily high — a far cry from the amateurish productions we’re familiar with, involving a single instructor recorded at the far end of a dimly-lit lecture hall.

MOOCs often employ Hollywood production values and special effects to illustrate the material. The professors who teach MOOCs are star academics, coached by media professionals to ensure a degree of polish.

For years, discount degrees and online courses have been available through institutions like the University of Phoenix or Canada’s Athabasca University. These institutions do a credible job of educating students who don’t have the time for, or can’t afford, full-time enrollment at a college or university. But they lack cachet — and this is where the MOOCs have a distinct competitive edge, especially if the price is right.

In a MOOC world, a lot more students will be studying at Ivy League schools or their equivalent via the worldwide web. Other institutions will come under mounting pressure to allow their students to cross-register in MOOCs as university administrators look for ways to cut runaway costs and reduce the number of permanent faculty on the payroll. Eventually, MOOCs could reduce the role of instructors at second-tier institutions to running face-to-face discussion groups or labs in the sciences and engineering, things which can’t (yet) be done online.

Economics will be a key driver in the success of MOOCs. Universities in the advanced industrialized world have shown no real productivity gains since the 19th century, when higher education became more widely available. The unit cost of a university degree has skyrocketed as academic salaries have steadily increased over the years, yet teachers teach roughly the same number of classes and students they did years ago, using roughly the same format.

But if you can reduce the unit cost of degree delivery through MOOCs, you’re in an entirely different ball game. The great advantage of MOOCs is that once the course is put online it can be delivered at almost zero additional cost to a (potentially) infinite number of students, particularly now that software is available to grade not just multiple choice exams but even qualitative work like written essays. As a consequence, MOOCS can be revenue generators for chronically cash-strapped institutions of higher learning.

To be sure, MOOCs are an imperfect substitute for the real thing. A virtual educational experience is not the same as interacting with fellow students and instructors in the real world. But if you can get the same educational content at a price that is far lower than the 50K per year you have to pay to go to an Ivy League school, the choice is an easy one.

However, the real market for MOOCs is not the already-saturated market for higher learning in North America and Europe, but the emerging markets of Asia, Latin America and even sub-Saharan Africa. As student visas become harder to obtain in the developing world, many foreign students will be looking for educational opportunities closer to home.

The problem is one of both quality and capacity. India alone, for example, is going to have to build more than 300 new universities during the next 10 to 15 years to meet its exploding youth population and the rapidly growing needs of an economy increasingly based on services and technology. MOOCs are one potential way to address that demand.

Canada needs to become a major player in the global MOOC market — but it’s going to take real leadership from our universities and governments to get with it and get online. Many of our universities have global reputations and are generally viewed as better, more user-friendly alternatives to U.S. or British schools.

Right now, the push is on to bring more international students to study in Canada. But we are late getting into this game and well behind some of our competitors, like Australia, who have done a far better job tapping international education markets.

Canada’s new global strategy to attract the best and the brightest to our shores and our institutions of higher learning should be accompanied by a push to take higher learning directly to the doorstep of emerging markets via MOOCs and the Internet. The gains could be huge. But if we don’t get started soon, others will beat us to the punch.

Excellence should triumph over mediocrity. Too often in Canada, we stress quantity over quality. By embracing online learning, we can have both.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • Fen Osler Hampson

    Fen Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of the Global Security & Politics program, overseeing the research direction of the program and related activities. Previously, he served as director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and will continue to serve as chancellor’s professor at Carleton University. He is the recipient of various awards and honours and is a frequent contributor to the national and international media.