Monday, November 11, 2013

Fàilte gu Alba

In its October edition the Strathclyde Telegraph featured the Strathclyde's first MOOC on forensic science, planned to be offered from January 2014  -- no, it was not the first Scottish Mooc (massive open online course) launched.  The University of Edinburgh led the movement; being the first non-US institution to launch its initial six Moocs through its US-origin consortium, Coursera, early this year; they attracted more than 300,000 students.

Strathclyde partners FutureLearn, the UK's first platform recently created for the online courses, with more than 20 other UK universities offering the free learning which would benefit students practically anywhere in the world.  FutureLearn now has 29 partners, including the British Council, the British Museum and the British Library.  

The US universities are ahead of their UK counterparts to run the Moocs almost two years ago through the Coursera partnership.  The response was impressive with more than three million people registered.  

The Moocs would enable anyone, literally, who wishes to upgrade themselves academically, for free.  Without tutoring, without assignments or passing any examinations, students receive no credits if they complete the short courses, but they are to receive a certificate of completion. 

The high response received by these online courses has notably revealed the high demand of online courses.  Academics positively welcome the revolution and foresee the free access to potentials of innovation, and investing in pedagogic research of their own programs, amidst the debates of pros and cons on Moocs.  

And one of the thorny, difficult issues raised by the fast-paced growth of online courses remains to discuss here: if anyone could get access to quality education and information completely free of charge, how should universities respond to students chose to be studying on-campus?  How can they be value-added for (international) students paying full course fees?  What does this trend mean for funding systems of universities? 

Welcome to Scotland: the students experience 
With the increasing growth of free online courses and how they aim to provide students with more and more options of academic courses to fulfill the unmet university education demand worldwide, universities should start to seriously think on how to answer those big questions; what students get from classroom, how to do better, what new initiatives to implement, what no longer works.    

In my opinion the following factors are worth considering:
1.  Local flavor
     From personally engaged with the local customs and culture (I really enjoy listening to bagpipe playing, or visiting museums and seeing the leaves change color in autumn), to daily face-to-face interaction with the locals (getting familiar with the notorious glaswegian accent), international students value their every touch point with anything local.  In relation to that is the balance mix of local and international students in a classroom; it is as beneficial and enriching as it has been widely believed, both socially and academically, not only for both international and local students, but also for the wider community of Scotland.  

2.  Customer service
     Probably in the past decade there has been a lot of discussions on the evolving nature of profit-making of the education industry (notice the word 'industry'). Students are now inevitably seen as 'consumers', hence their well-being has become the 'business' of universities. With a wealth of information around them, students are spoilt with choices and have become more and more aware on how they could make an informed decision. Customer service could be one of the key determining factors for students to make a final choice and help the university to stand out in the competitive business.
Staff training on good customer service is beneficial, from a friendly smile and being approachable (especially for people in the front desk who are the 'face' of the university), to promptly answering phones or replying emails, to listening to customers complaint  -- even though there is no immediate profit in it.

3.  Partnership: a collective effort     
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to be in a meeting with the Indonesian Ambassador to the UK, H.E Mr. Teuku Mohammad Hamzah Thayeb,
at the School of Law of the University of Edinburgh with a few other Indonesian students representing the other Scottish universities.  It was dubbed a follow-up meeting after the Universities Scotland was in Indonesia for the first time last September, its mission team visited five cities.  
I chatted briefly with the Ambassador on current issues the embassy is dealing with pertaining to Indonesian citizens studying in the UK.  Not so much of a surprise, he mentioned 'visa policies' as one of the key issues his team has been working on.
Government policies on visa most of the time seem to be in the other direction against all efforts to allow the number of international students to grow.   Ideas on engaging government more closely in attracting more foreign students on shore and at the same time implementing the most realistic practices on visa regulations are almost like an utopia to me.  Yet I believe more could be done. 

Responding to the trend 
We could say that courses offered online do not seem to pose any threat to courses offered on-campus, due to their different nature and mode of delivery -- some could even argue that online courses may not be attractive for certain markets.  However, universities should respond to the growing trend of online courses by identifying key potential issues that may arise, signals that should not be missed; by doing so universities won't be caught in poor planning.  More to this, as a business student, the upshot is that business school has taught me to master the art of scenario planning.  

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