Edinburgh has become the first university in the UK to join a consortium of US higher education institutions that provide free online undergraduate-level courses to anyone who wishes to access them.
The Scottish university will use the network to deliver its own five-week- long, tailored "massive open online courses", or MOOCs, starting this autumn. Six courses will be offered initially:
- introduction to astrobiology and the search for extra-terrestrial life;
- equine nutrition;
- online education and digital media;
- critical thinking in global challenges;
- artificial intelligence planning;
- introduction to philosophy.
The Coursera programme, founded by Stanford University in 2011, is based on video lectures and interactive content delivered to a global community of students.
Professor Jeff Haywood, vice-principal at the University of Edinburgh, told TESS that pupils anywhere could take the courses as there were no entry requirements.
In time, universities might offer such courses to education communities - probably UK-wide as "scale is everything" in this form of online delivery - he suggested.
"The other possibility is that schools might say: `Maybe we could do this stuff' and create their own open courses." This could offer a means for less well-endowed schools to expand their curriculum, he said.
MOOCs differ from taught online undergraduate courses, such as those delivered by the Open University, in that there is no interaction between student and teacher.
Assessment is automated, making science-based subjects particularly suitable, but automated marking can also be applied to short text answers.
The courses should not be seen as a taster for university, counselled Professor Haywood. "You are learning with a very large number of other people who in different ways can support you. If you ask a question, the odds are that it will be another student who answers it and not a member of teaching staff."
MOOCs were not about to see off traditional campus-based learning, particularly for school-leavers, he said. They might offer an insight into the standards and kind of thinking required at university level, but there was a danger that the lack of structured teaching might put some people off, he added.