The Americans are coming – again!

Circa 2000 I remember attending a conference on online distance learning at the University of Salford where the CEO of an American-based internet development company stood up (classic alpha-male stuff!) and shouted at all the academics in the audience ‘the Americans are coming!’ Basically he was warning that US HEI’s with Californian venture capital backing etc. will be soon taking over global higher education as new learners flock to take cheaper, more flexible online degrees. ‘Change or die’ being the basic message! Over a decade later not much has changed except the emergence of for-profit online distance teaching providers (our partnership with Laureate Online Education for example), the development of open-educational resources (MIT’s open courseware etc.) and the steady expansion of blended learning using technologies within residential universities. Arguably more of a steady evolution than the technology-led revolution predicted.


The recent press announcement of a new partnership between Harvard and MIT to form edX online education suggest the Americans might be at it again! The press conference on the website is full of revolutionary fervour! Is this nothing new or potentially a subtle but important evolution in how we learn? My initial reaction was here we go again! But watching the press release video (once you get through the hyperbole) and other media reports, possibly there is something new emerging here:

  • First pilot module they ran attracted 120,000 registrations worldwide.
  • Free open courses – can’t get a degree but you can get an assessed certificate.
  • Created a clever online research environment to gather a lot of data about how people learn online. Essentially a large global experiment. (Learning analytics)
  • Created new agile open-source software which can be developed from this emerging pedagogical research. Interesting that they are not using existing VLE or Web 2 technologies.
  • Builds on their experiences with open courseware, and particularly their student’s use of online resources such as the Khan Academy to supplement their campus-based learning.
  • A big driver is to support the development of campus-based learning – sort of flipped classroom model on a global scale! Online cases taught with campus-based classes.
  • Part altruistic strategy to spread learning globally & part marketing opportunity.
  • Potentially fills a gap between formal and informal online education – clear benefit for non-formal CPD type professional education. People who already have masters etc. but want to study specific topics within a large global community.
  • Employers and companies can be part of these learning communities and get to know students.


Other major US HEI’s are developing similar initiatives – Coursera (Princeton, Stanford, Michigan & Pennsylvania) and Udacity (Stanford computer science) for example. Coursera looks an interesting online learning model with a well defined pedagogical research foundation. I’ve signed up for a course on gamification over the summer so I let you know more about this online pedagogy!

Nick Bunyan

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