MOOCs a game changer for universities – UQ lecture by Roly Sussex OAM


Our very own University of Queensland is a world leader in MOOCs. (Image attribution: By James Dover (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Last Thursday night, at the University of Queensland’s Customs House in Brisbane, Emeritus Professor Roly Sussex OAM gave a terrific lecture on a recent “game changer” for universities: the rise of Massive Open Online Courses, abbreviated to MOOCs. What makes MOOCs special is that anyone around the world can enroll in a MOOC – so long as they can access the internet and download the lectures and course materials – and they are free. The promotional webpage for the lecture provides a nice summary of the importance of MOOCs:

In 2013 the University of Queensland joined edX, the international consortium led by Harvard and MIT whose goal is to create and deliver learning through MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. UQx, the University of Queensland’s title for its MOOCs, was born. By the end of 2014 there were nearly a quarter of a million enrolments from more than 250 countries and regions in UQx courses. That is nearly five times the University’s current regular enrolment.

I was very impressed by the innovation and quality displayed in UQ’s MOOCs, particularly a recent MOOC that UQ has developed called Denial101x: Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. The video promoting the course is brilliantly produced and gives you a sense of the quality of course content for UQ MOOCs, which typically cost an estimated $50,000 to $100,000 to produce.

The economics of MOOCs are fascinating. The delivery of MOOCs appears to be coming at a significant cost to UQ, and it isn’t recovering the costs of delivery via course fees. So is the university just engaging in a philanthropic endeavour, spreading knowledge to people who previously wouldn’t have been able to access it around the world? In part, the university’s motivations may be philanthropic, but the business case for MOOCs depends on MOOCs exposing the university to potential international students, and those students eventually enrolling in real degrees on campus and paying tens of thousands of dollars in course fees. Time will tell whether this strategy is successful.

MOOCs may also contribute to more efficient and effective teaching at universities. Emeritus Professor Sussex suggested MOOCs may redefine the role of the campus. MOOCs reinforce the trend towards students watching lectures online. This provides flexibility and saves transport costs for students. It also means contact time with teachers can be spent on interpreting and exploring course content, as is done in tutorials, which will increasingly become more important than lectures. With students increasingly being responsible for reviewing course content prior to class (e.g. by course reading or watching a recorded lecture), students may no longer have to attend lectures on campus in the future. This would be consistent with the so-called flipped classroom model. This trend would reduce the need for large lecture theatres, and would free up space at our universities – space that comes at a high opportunity cost, given the prime real estate that, for example, both UQ and QUT occupy.

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8 Responses to MOOCs a game changer for universities – UQ lecture by Roly Sussex OAM

  1. Katrina Drake says:

    I have participated in a number of MOOC with Coursera – and am a big fan. I’ve always wanted to understand music theory – and undertook 2 different fundamental of music theory courses in 2014. One course was conducted by Berklee University, the other by the University of Edinburgh. I was very impressed by the quality of the lectures, the course notes, the subject matter covered, and exams. There were google hangouts were you could meet other students and lecturers, and discuss the tutorials, weekly quizzes, and prepare for the exam piece. The courses were free, but I paid the additional $65 to have my identification confirmed, my results mediated and a certificate issued.

    In fact I usually have a least 1 MOOC on the go! Some courses I participate in fully, other are not quite what I was expected, or I get a bit behind due to time pressure and do not complete. I find the MOOC invaluable to be able to stream educational content of interest, and participate in my own time, and pace. I particularly enjoy being able to re-wind a lecture and watch it again when the going gets tough.

    My participation in inexpensive, and successful MOOCs has opened my eyes to the massive rorting in Australia’s VET-FEE-HELP scheme.

    I recently received a cold call from an overseas call centre to enrol me in a ‘Free’ on-line Diploma Course.

    A discussion with the sales person confirmed my fears that the VET-FEE_HELP scheme is being scammed, and the Commonwealth is failing in its responsibilities as a lender under the VET-FEE-HELP scheme.

    VET-FEE_HELP was created as a good intentioned scheme to provide assistance for people without qualifications to obtain financial assisting for a Certificate or Diploma course.

    It has evolved into an organised rort;

    The scam – Australians are cold called and offered a ‘Free’ Government course, and free laptop or ipad, and printer, no repayments. The sting – you are sold an over-priced course, that 65% will not complete, and left with a debt.

    • Cold calling by call centres and placement agencies who are paid a 20% place fee to enroll people in a course.
    • The call centre offers a ‘Free’ course, subsidised by the Australian Government, and you don’t have to pay anything unless you earn of over $53,000.
    • As an incentive to enroll, you are offered an ipad, or a laptop, and printer that you can keep.
    • The course is ‘valued’ at $12,000, and the target is encumbered with a VET-FEE-HELP debt to the Commonwealth.
    • The course is fully on-line, and the ‘value’ of $12,000 is grossly over-stated. A comparative course, such as international on-line ‘Coursera’ Business Foundations is $595.
    • The sales pressure is fear of missing out – that the program has been running since 2009, and the more people they can enroll the longer the program will keep running. If you don’t sign up you might miss out on ‘free’ funding.
    • No upfront cost, no repayments, and an overvalued product. Typical scam.

    The government is expected to hand out $1.3 Billion in training loans this year.

    The rort is huge, and it is organised. You may recall the Prime Minister daughter was awarded a scholarship by a VET-FEE-HELP provider.

    It would be interesting to follow the money trail, and see whose pocket this $1.3 Billion per annum of taxpayer money ends up.

    One of the government’s top advisers Patrick McKendry on vocational education and training has recently stepped aside following allegations the company he runs employed salespeople who lured vulnerable students into expensive courses with free laptops.

    On Thursday the ABC’s 7.30 program reported that Careers Australia, one of the country’s biggest private training providers, had been accused of using door-to-door salespeople to target disadvantaged areas and enrol students with fake entrance exams.

    Careers Australia billed taxpayers for almost $110 million in VET FEE-HELP loans in the past financial year. Patrick McKendry, the chief executive of Careers Australia, has served as deputy chair of the government’s Vocational Education and Training Advisory Board, since last August.

    I am a big fan of MOOC’s , and hopefully, they may prove to be part of the solution in cleaning up the VET-FEE-HELP rort, by providing quality, inexpensive education to the masses.

  2. Jim (another one) says:

    I suspect MOOCs will become a game changer, particularly for courses that don’t necessary require physical contact or specialist facilities, which also tend to be the university cash cows (think most arts, commerce, or law courses).

    I think where MOOCs may become the game changer is where they are progressively ‘packaged’ as formal degrees (a bit of a hybrid between current single MOOC courses and an online degree). This is where the traditional model of the undergraduate degree (and some post-graduate degrees) is under threat. After all, as a consumer of education, a MOOC-style MBA from Harvard (at say $10K) is going to be a lot more attractive to most students than $20K+ for the current offerings from an Australian second or third tier university.

    So I don’t think the likes of Harvard and MIT are developing MOOCs as a philanthropic venture. I think it is more like product pre-testing and marketing before we see MOOC-style degrees with a genuine price tag. After all they can deliver a lot more of them at a very low marginal cost, which gives them lots of wiggle-room in the pricing department. And there will always be a market for the ‘premium’ face-to-face degrees have significantly higher prestige and prices.

    So for the prestigious private universities in the US, I suspect the boom times are ahead educating the emerging upper middle class masses in Asia.

    But for the also-ran universities including many in Australia, I suspect MOOCs may mean the loss of the cash cow in the medium to long term. This has a number of implications for course viability, asset utilisation and research funds available (as the cross subsidy between undergraduate teaching/fees and research is no longer available).

    • Gene Tunny says:

      Great points, Jim. I think you’re right about MOOCs being product pre-testing. Roly Sussex did mention SPOCs – specialised private online courses – which would charge fees. So unis must be hoping there is a funnel from MOOCs to SPOCs. Very interesting.

      • Jim says:


        Correct me if I’m wrong, but I suspect the way universities work out their fees is to (very crude interpretation): 1) cost all of the things they want to do (i.e. research, do marketing, have nice grounds, build monuments to themselves, and teach as a last resort); 2) then subtract known grants from governments that don’t relate to enrolments, and: 3) divide the remaining costs across estimated student numbers to to work out some form of fee structure. So fees are driven by management decisions of university administrators, not the cost of delivering a degree. There is no real incentive for a university to be efficient, or question their choices providing there are enough young people prepared to do into debt for undergraduate degrees.

        Isn’t it time the tertiary sector (and the Commonwealth) looked at the true cost of actually delivering a degree, rather than simple seeking to increase fees to maintain the status quo (more monuments to themselves, more $ for marketing etc.)? Or has Minister Pyne simply been captured by the VCs of the GO8 and the only answer is higher fees as Commonwealth grants are being reduced?

      • Gene Tunny says:

        Haha, very cynical Jim, but there may be some truth in what you say. Thanks for the comment.

      • Jim says:


        Yes I’m a cynic. Everyone knows that. But I had a very strange experience late last year that got me thinking that most of the fees were being channelled into virtually anything but teaching.

        I was asked whether I would be prepared to develop and teach a new course (half resource economics, half resource law) for a science faculty. Me and the lawyer they approached would be paid a total of a little under $7K (between us) to do the lot (including all teaching and marking etc). We were told that there would likely be around 60 students (i.e. fees for the course would be in the vicinity of $77K. So I’m pretty sure, administrative and allocated building overheads don’t equate to the other $70K, so where is the money going?

      • Gene Tunny says:

        That’s cheeky of them isn’t it?! If you considered the hours you’d have to work, if you had accepted the offer, you probably would have worked for a lot lower than the hourly rates in the enterprise bargaining agreement!

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