According to the Chinese zodiac, 2012 was the year of the dragon; according to The New York Times, it was the year of the Mooc. On balance, the latter seems the more accurate.
But is the massive open online course a fire-breathing beast that, having convinced higher education fortune-tellers of its potential, is about to rock, or wreck, your world?
The answer, this time, may be yes. At the very least, Moocs represent a hugely significant technological shift in higher education.
For the uninitiated, and there cannot be many left, a growing number of top universities - led as so often by the US elite - are now offering courses for free via online platforms such as Coursera, often to tens of thousands of students at a time.
The Mooc model is far from perfect. The issues to be worked through include how (and whether) to apply credit to courses, how best to support students and whether Moocs will ever be effective across all disciplines.
As in other industries, the shifting frontiers of the digital age also pose a considerable threat to traditional ways of doing things.
In our news pages, for example, we discuss the accuracy of student-to-staff ratios in UK universities, but such questions start to look pretty irrelevant in the context of Moocs, which might have one professor and 50,000 students.
As with other online ventures, the resulting deficit in one-on-one interaction is being addressed through a web-based community model, with students providing peer-to-peer support. It is hoped that such approaches could help to tackle the high attrition rate currently attached to Moocs (only a fraction of students complete a given Coursera course), and students are also finding other ways to develop the Mooc experience.
According to the Indian newspaper Business Standard, there are now almost 100 groups in Delhi alone, where students taking Moocs meet up to “benefit from physical interaction” (an undeniable attraction of undergraduate life).
Another question for Moocs is whether they are of benefit to all or accessible only to those who are already well qualified.
This is explicitly addressed by some tutors, such as Gautam Kaul, a professor of finance at the University of Michigan, who says of his Introduction to Finance Mooc: “I do not believe in prerequisites, except for a sense of curiosity and an attitude. Having said that, exposure to economics (the mother discipline of finance), accounting (the language of business), and/or algebra and statistics (we all need it) will clearly help.”
The democratisation of knowledge is a grand ideal, but one does wonder how those living in poverty in a developing country will be able to raise themselves up by the bootstraps (or should that be Moocstraps?) without educational foundations that may be unavailable to them.
The issues raised here are the tip of the iceberg, but ultimately they are details.
From the newspaper industry to the music business, the digital age has demolished traditional financial models and approaches to delivery. Now, it seems, it is higher education’s turn for a shake-up.
That need not be an apocalyptic statement. There will always be a role for universities, for good teachers and respected brands, particularly in accreditation. But denying the significance of the Mooc movement would be a great mistake - as would allowing the US pioneers such a head start that they disappear over the horizon.