A partnership of UK universities is launching an online project- MOOCs who are challenging US universities that have dominated this new market.They will aim to give the public access to higher education courses via computers, tablets or smartphones.
A new company called FutureLearn is being set up to run this online project, which will be majority-owned by the Open University.
These have become known as Massive Open Online Courses – or MOOCs.
The partnership will include the Open University, King’s College London, Bristol, Exeter, Warwick, East Anglia, Leeds, Lancaster, Southampton, Cardiff, Birmingham and St Andrews.
The project will represent the biggest UK response to rapidly growing online universities – with these universities planning to offer courses through a shared online platform.
There are usually no formal entry requirements for students on such courses but individual universities will have to decide how students can be examined and accredited.
Martin Bean, the Open University’s vice-chancellor, said that the arrival of online courses meant that UK universities could either “stick their heads in the sand” or rise to the international challenge.
The vice-chancellor said higher education had to face up to the impact of the internet on delivering courses.
“What the web has taught us is that you can take nothing for granted – those who sit back and hope it goes away will lose,” he said.
Online joint projects, offered by some of the world’s leading universities, including Harvard, Stanford and MIT, have attracted registrations from millions of students.
They have raised the prospect of reaching many more students at a much lower cost. Their courses have used the internet to deliver video and provide interactive exercises and automated testing.
The announcement from the FutureLearn project sees the first major challenge from the UK, headed by the Open University, which has pioneered distance learning.
These universities will be responsible for the content, quality, accreditation and cost of courses offered online.
There will also be social networking-style communities for students. Materials will be designed for portable devices, such as iPads or mobile phones.
In the US, in these early stages of development, courses have been offered free – but there have been charges introduced where there are certificates and invigilated exams.
There are also expectations that high levels of web traffic will be used for advertising or links to other services.
And when universities are charging high levels of tuition fees for their campus-based students, this raises questions about how this will be balanced against awarding online degrees for much less.