A FREE online learning revolution sweeping higher education in the US is about to take off in Ireland.
The Sligo Institute of Technology is following in the footsteps of elite universities like Harvard and Stanford to become Ireland's first third-level college to offer a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) from next September.
IT Sligo is already the leader in Ireland in the delivery of online courses, and its latest move puts it at the forefront of a seismic shift in third-level education.
As the global demand for higher education grows, online learning is hailed as a way to deliver information to mass student audiences at low cost.
However, the trend raises questions, including what are the implications for financing of third-level education and whether employers will recognise such learning.
The MOOC craze means about 1.7 million people registered on Coursera, one of the pioneers of the movement in the US, which boasts that it is 'growing faster than Facebook'.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested $3m in the development of MOOCs in the US last November, and Mr Gates said MOOCs are going to 'revolutionise education'.
While online learning is not a new phenomenon, traditionally colleges charge fees for such programmes and offer accreditation upon completion. By comparison, under the MOOC model, courses are free but are not accredited by the college.
Although MOOC courses are not formally accredited by the college, students get a certificate of completion and also benefit from the learning experience.
The first MOOC at IT Sligo will be a six-week course in Lean Sigma Quality, the process improvement approach for companies in the manufacturing and service industries.
Brian Mulligan, a programme manager at IT Sligo's Centre of Online Learning , said they had chosen the Lean Sigma Quality course because of a demand from US companies for more workers with such skills. Many MOOC courses relate to specific workplace skills.
The IT Sligo course will include one to two hours of live and interactive classes every week, with two lecturers – one presenting and one facilitating questions from students – as well as recorded material.
While a MOOC course from the renowned Stanford University in California could have as many as 100,000 students, Mr Mulligan said IT Sligo is expecting 1,000 to 2,000 students with about 400 logging on for live classes.
Students who complete the course will receive a certification of completion and will have the option of progressing to a more advanced IT Sligo-accredited online course.
Dublin City University (DCU) president Dr Brian MacCraith recently announced that the college would soon be launching its own MOOC.
Although not associated with a third-level college, a Galway-based website called Alison is one of the world's most popular free learning websites with over one million unique visitors per month.