“When the best brands start giving their courses away for free, we have to take note. We must ask, are we prepared to be on the wrong side of history? We disrupt ourselves now or let someone else do it,” – that was the message from Open University Vice Chancellor, Martin Bean, at a fringe meeting at this year’s Labour party conference. A former manager at Microsoft, Martin Bean has an entrepreneurial spirit and great faith in the potential of internet technology. Having just launched Futurelearn, the UK’s biggest online higher education project, he is an engaging evangelist for MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses (an abbreviation which surely won’t need spelling out for much longer).

No one would be talking about MOOCs had they not been backed by US universities with strong international reputations, such as Stanford and Harvard. In the UK the 21 universities who will offer online courses for Futurelearn include four members of the prestigious Russell Group: Leeds, Liverpool, Queen’s Belfast and Southampton. Yet there are many non believers and “not surers” too.

Although MOOC has made it into the Oxford online dictionary – Oxford University itself is sceptical, “We are watching the MOOC trend with interest,” begins its media statement, “However, we think that the demand for the individualised, high quality of teaching that Oxford offers through the tutorial system and the onsite experience of studying at Oxford’s colleges will continue as strongly as ever.” Not that interested, then. However, Oxford didn’t start offering MBA’s in business until 1996. Now, according to the FT, its Said Business school ranks third in the UK and 24th globally. Perhaps there’s no disadvantage to being a “late adopter”.

The early list of who’s in and who’s out gives no clear indication of where MOOCs might go or what their impact might be. Some commentators have concluded MOOCs are not for smaller institutions. Is that so obvious?

According to the US credit rating agency, Moody’s,

“Positive credit effects are likely to develop for the higher education sector as elite universities offer more classes for an unlimited number of students through low-cost, open courseware platforms. However, there will eventually be negative effects on for-profit education companies and some smaller not-for profit colleges that may be left out of emerging high-reputation online networks.”

But in the same statement it is claimed, “Moocs create new revenue opportunities, increase brand recognition, and provide improved operating efficiencies. The availability of open platforms enables a university to post content without incurring the cost of developing and maintaining the infrastructure.”

Surely far from excluding smaller universities these opportunities to operate more efficiently particularly favour them, especially if up to now they have been unable to increase their international reach or give greater exposure to their brand.

And as for claims that “MOOCs create new revenue opportunites…” why should small universities be less likely to benefit than any other – especially since no one has yet worked out what those revenue opportunities are. A successful idea for a lucrative MOOCs business model is the big quest and a prize worth winning. But it is quite possible that idea could come from small, niche organisations especially those with specialist knowledge of industry needs and those who are unfazed by entrepreneurial ideas and unafraid of innovation.

Small institutions with a social mission to widen participation might also find MOOCs can be turned into a good vehicle for opening up higher education. Many smaller institutions are much more likely to achieve this aim with an online offer when finding the land and capital to extend campuses is not an option.

In a survey of the small body of analytical literature on MOOCs, commissioned by BIS, The Maturing of the MOOC , the perspectives of different groups of people are revealed. The authors record “Learners who have completed MOOCs emerge from the literature as relatively enthusiastic about the MOOC format.” But they also report how some university lecturers criticise the concept “…the MOOC format itself suffers from weaknesses around access, quality of learning, poor engagement of weaker learners, exclusion of learners without specific networking skills.” It’s as if these weaknesses can’t be found daily across the UK in some part or other of the current HE system.

For those institutions which can not be driven by their star ratings in research but do want to deliver effective teaching and close industry/employer liaison leading to genuine employability then it is quite possible to see how MOOCs might help. Students investigating the most up to date industry developments in their area of study, for example, might follow a MOOC featuring the global expert. They could then continue with analyses and discussions coached and facilitated by their local ‘live’ lecturer. This is what Martin Bean means when he says the focus of MOOCs is not on being bigger but getting better. It is also a plausible future model for blended learning where MOOC and non-MOOC elements are combined.

The talk of ‘avalanches’ and ‘disruption’ can easily push the debate into an anxious guessing game,”What will MOOCs do to me?” Whatever part of the sector you are in it might be better to focus on “What can MOOCs do for me ?” And perhaps most importantly what they can and can’t do for students.

This is not an argument for or against MOOCs and certainly not an attempt to predict the future. It is a challenge to some assumptions that MOOCs can only be relevant to large, high brand, research intensive universities. It just might be possible to be small and massive.

Sue Littlemore is a media consultant for GuildHE. Sue is an education journalist and former BBC Education Correspondent.