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Do you know what MOOCs are? It’s probably time you learned, because there’s every chance they will have a huge effect on university education.

They aren’t bovine noises, something Simon Cowell keeps in his shirt or another new type of exam. They are massive open online courses – MOOCs, see.

What this means is that further education courses are available online to anyone who fancies them, and – most significantly – they are free. No longer is knowledge locked away in hallowed historic halls available only to those who qualify and can afford to go to university. Nope, now all you need is a computer and access to the internet.

Tutorhub

So theoretically, most of the teaching you could possibly want is there for the taking. On the face of it, this might usher in a whole new world of ‘who learns wins’. This is particularly true when you see that the prime movers in the MOOC world aren’t upstarts and fly-by-nights, they are the big beasts of academia.

Udacity, edX and Corsera were all started from within America’s Ivy League and they have already attracted hundreds of thousands of students, and considerable sums of money. The University of Edinburgh is involved with Corsera. And a more British consortium, FutureLearn, is expected to join the fray this year.

There is some panic that these free courses will signal the death knell for expensive universities, as the next generation of students simply won’t bother going. However, so far, MOOCs stop short of replacing offering degree courses – instead there are various ways of being tested and accredited all of which stop considerably short of a ‘proper’ full octane qualification.

Obviously there’s no such thing as a free learn. MOOCs are still working out the best way to make money but among options are fees for more advanced courses or exams, charging employers for the pick of the students and simply advertising to the hoards of students.

This is all very well, but what does it mean to students and their parents?

Yes, there is the potential for a student to gain knowledge and qualifications at a much reduced cost, but that won’t work for everyone. Few undergraduates are motivated enough and clear enough in their ambitions for a MOOC to replace a ‘proper’ course.

So, if you’re a parent like me, who is quietly fretting about how to pay for your child’s further education, then I’m sorry this isn’t going to provide a cut-price solution.

What this modern idea might do, however, is reintroduce the idea that everyone is entitled to a slice of university, as it was when I was a student. This time you don’t have to apply for a grant and retire to the student union while you wait for the money to turn up, instead, if you are ambitious and motivated you can help yourself to the learning. A good thing, surely?

With all new ideas, once the initial hysteria has settled down and common sense applied, I believe MOOCs will benefit the hard working and stop learning establishments from resting on their laurels. New technology is always at its best when blended with good old fashioned values – long live the MOOC.

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