The Virtual University — impact on accounting and business education

| August 13, 2013

Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs have been widely discussed in the last year. James Guthrie from the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia examines if they are an opportunity or threat for educators and students.

No debate is more topical or timely than that featured in a new Academic Leadership publication co-produced by the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia and the Centre for Accounting and Governance at the University of South Australia. It explores the impact of technology on education, with a particular focus on MOOCs.

The rise of MOOCs has been meteoric. Before 2008, the acronym MOOC was unheard of, yet the New York Times declared 2012 to be the ‘Year of the MOOC’. To date, more than 6 million students have enrolled in over 800 free classes produced by universities around the world.

The numbers are dizzying. Supporters of MOOCs point to its advantages in terms of access, equity and cost. MOOCS are available to anyone, anywhere, providing education regardless of students’ educational background, social class or geography. If education is the key to social mobility, then MOOCs have immense transformational power. Currently enrolment in MOOCs is free although, in some cases, access to a certificate of achievement requires payment.

MOOCs provide self-paced learning in which students can learn and revise the course material as many times as they need. Small chunks of information are tested with interactive learning technologies, such as quizzes. This approach is popular, as is access to the world’s great minds. These teachers are the rock stars of academia, with global reputations. MOOCs like these are the most likely to succeed because in time they will be able to charge for content. Where does this leave other universities?

The likely gap between the ‘glamour’ universities and the rest is likely to widen in the future. That is one of the reasons why big names have been so quick to jump on the MOOCs bandwagon. For universities like Harvard and Stanford, MOOCs are a marketing tool, enhancing their reputation as the best of the best.

With MOOCs undoubted benefits also come challenges. One of these is assessment. How do universities assess the work of so many enrolled students? How do they prevent plagiarism? How are completions of courses of study recognised and credentialed while maintaining free access? To date the attrition rates for MOOCs have been high – while hundreds of thousands of students enrol, completion rates are very low.

So where to from here? MOOCs are polarising educators, students and employers. Are they an opportunity or threat? Or a hybrid of both?

Current developments in the MOOCs space suggest that universities are using the online experience to optimise their teaching and learning outcome. Offering certain kinds of rule-based learning online is in part a solution to the ballooning costs of higher education and provides universities with the opportunity to experiment with course delivery. But a MOOC cannot replicate the ‘campus experience’. When students study on campus they learn a range of skills that simply cannot be acquired in a virtual setting — developing a network of peers, teamwork, collaboration and presentation experience.

Typically universities are attempting to introduce a blended learning approach using online and face-to-face teaching. One such innovation is the flipped classroom, using active learning opportunities, including problem solving and collaborative exercises. Instead of doing problems for homework, students watch a video or listen to a podcast in their own time, then apply the knowledge in class with the teacher as facilitator. In these cases it is important that the content is designed effectively.

Finally, what does this new technology in education mean for business and accounting students? The Institute of Chartered Accountants sees itself as taking a leadership role in this debate. There are significant potential benefits for the accounting profession – as long as the quality of the content is ensured. Technology is a means to an end. In this case the end is the best possible learning experience and outcomes for students.

For more information and a copy of the publication see