From left, Dr Paul Francis, Dr McComas Taylor and Professor Brian Schmidt film a video for an ANU MOOC. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
Nearly 15,000 students from 88 countries have enrolled in the Australian National University's first ever MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, which will begin rolling off the internet server in March.
Enrolments are flowing heavily from the US and India - two countries which account for about half of all enrolments - but students are also coming in from as far afield as Nicaragua, Romania, Cambodia, Chile and Norway.
Australia accounts for just 2 per cent of MOOC enrolments although numbers are expected to rise when a promotions campaign begins.
While the ANU was recently ranked by Times Higher Education as the seventh most international university in the world, a spokeswoman said the MOOCs were delivering an unprecedented international reach and massive new enrolment boon for the ANU.
MOOCs are academic courses accessed completely online. While they are similar to university courses delivered on the web, they are not transferable for university credit. Students do, however, receive a certificate of completion and ANU MOOCs are free.
ANU announced one year ago that it was joining the online learning revolution through a partnership with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's web-based course platform edX.
ANUx will contribute three courses, including Astrophysics 1 and 2, taught by Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt and Dr Paul Francis, and Engaging India by Dr McComas Taylor and Peter Friedlander.
Professor Schmidt, who was instrumental in encouraging the ANU MOOC experiment, said he was thrilled that more than 10,000 students were signed up to his astrophysics courses.
"There are 7 billion people on the planet and a lot want to understand what's going on. This is not a perfect method, but it is a darn sight better than nothing.''
Professor Schmidt said the process of filming nine one-hour lectures sounded a lot less labour intensive than it turned out to be and he was "still reeling from the process of trying to get it all together".
But with his Nobel prize making him one of the most sought-after speakers in Australia and the world, Professor Schmidt admitted this was one way to extend his reach a little further than he could in person.
Dr Francis will deliver lectures on "Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe" and "Exoplanets" alongside Professor Schmidt, and is realistic about the impact of his MOOCs. "We can't promise you any answers because no one on Earth knows the answers - the best we can hope for is a more refined form of ignorance.''
Dr McComas Taylor said the Engaging India unit would be the first south-Asian oriented MOOC to come out of Australia and had been translated entirely into Hindi.
He expected there would be a large Indian audience among enrolments and aspires to create a MOOC in Sanskrit.
Dr Taylor said the great thing about MOOCs was their popularity could be accommodated while popular university units had a student cut-off.
"We have not even promoted these MOOCs so 15,000 enrolments is excellent, and the best thing is we are liberated from all the usual constraints of staffing, space, tutorials and access to resources."
He noted that ANU academics and guest lecturers would drop in to online forums for students, but their presence could be diluted as enrolments continued to grow.
MOOCs first emerged in the late 2000s, and this year are expected to receive 10 million enrolments across the globe.
Course completion rates are low, however, with best estimates suggesting only 10 per cent of students complete their MOOC.
Professor Schmidt said the ANU would monitor closely the student experience to assess what worked and what didn't when it came to course delivery and content.
"It's very clear these are disruptive innovations within the education sector and no one quite knows where they are going to go … A big worry is people will use this technology to make education cheaper and worse, and while I am sure some of that will happen, that is not why the ANU is involved. We want everyone to get something better out of it."