MOOCs in France: let’s have FUN

In summer 2013 France had accumulated considerable delay in catching the massive online open courses wave with a very limited amount of MOOCs (CLOM -cours en ligne ouvert et massif- in French). Only 3% of French universities were offering online courses (vs 80% in the US) and there was an ongoing debate about integrating the US based platforms vs developing a European and French speaking platform. 2014 started with a sudden rush to get onboard and it now looks like there is a kind of French “MOOCmania”, raising other substantial issues such as the preservation of the French vision of knowledge as an uncommercial value. Written by Meichtry Matadin Yasmin, STC, Swiss Embassy in Paris

Catching up

At the end of 2013, there were 25 MOOCs proposed by French universities or so called “grandes écoles”, of which 18 were to be launched in January 2014. According to the French Ministry of national education, higher education and research, these courses gathered 88’000 students – 86% established in France, 7% in Africa and 5% on the American continent. The most popular MOOC at the time was Du manager au leader with 14’000 registrations. It has been developed by the CNAM (Conservatoire national des Arts et Métiers) which is France’s major distance learning and lifelong learning institution. Though the CNAM was already specialized in e-learning platforms, the MOOC generation opens new expectations in terms of public reaching, introducing the “massive” concept and allowing online exchange between participants, thus making the difference with the e-learning courses developed in the last thirty years.

With 6’000 registrations, Philosophie et modes de vie by Université Paris-Ouest and Espace mondial by Sciences Po Paris – 5’000 students enrolled – were the two other most popular courses. In comparison, the first MOOC dedicated to programming in Scala language launched by EPFL in 2012 on the Coursera platform gathered 53’440 students.

Up to this day, French MOOCs are mainly proposed by academic institutions. Following the American trend (e.g. Udacity), courses could also be soon offered by – or in association with- private enterprises. Open Classrooms and the Solerni platform, recently launched by Orange are first examples of a new cooperation model between academia and business that might be followed by many others.

In January 2014, French State secretary for higher education and research, Mrs Geneviève Fioraso, has announced an investment of 12 million euros (in the frame of the ”investissements d’avenir” national innovation programme) to create new online courses and experiment various new technologies. 30 new courses are expected to be developed this year. As underlined by Mrs Fioraso, the MOOCs are both a chance and a challenge for French universities. Their development should contribute to build up an open and innovative university model, widening the accessibility of education to all kinds of publics, students as well as workers and unemployed, youngsters as well as retired people. To support this objective and the expansion of a French MOOCs culture, an extra investment of 8 million euros will be granted in the course of the year:

–       CréaMOOC, a 3 million euros call for proposals to develop kind of MOOCs factories, for instance video shooting studios on University Campus’;

–       5 extra million euros will be dedicated to co-finance online courses aimed at vocational education, primarily life-long education. The need to train people to the quick evolution of the job market has indeed been illustrated by the large amount of registrations to MOOCs targeting vocational competences (e.g. change management courses by the CNAM). The ministry’s project is to have the vocational training institutions financing 50% of the MOOCs they produce, mobilizing altogether up to 10 million euros on the creation of new courses.

The FUN platform

The national FUN platform -France Université Numérique-, announced in fall 2013 by State secretary Fioraso was officially launched at the end of last year, following the British and German examples (respectively Future Learn and the privately owned Iversity). The FUN platform is one the key tool of the 18 actions listed in the so called “digital agenda” designed by the ministry to promote digital culture in the French higher education and research system as well as to support students’ success, with a specific focus on BA students and vocational training. FUN is also designed as to be a major actor of the French innovation ecosytem and to benefit to employment perspectives.

Currently exclusively dedicated to host MOOCs developed by French higher education institutions, the FUN project has been built up with three major partners: INRIA – public research institution dedicated to digital sciences, CINES – national computing center and RENATER – national network infrastructure for higher education and research. FUN is based on the American edX open source technology.

Since the opening of the platform, 30 new courses have opened and 300 more are expected to be launched within 3 years. Major universities and grandes écoles, such as HEC, ENS Cachan, ENS Lyon, Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne, Paris X Nanterre or Bordeaux have already joined FUN. According to the most recent figures from the higher education and research Minister, more than 226 000 students are currently following a MOOC in fields as diverse as philosophy, constitutional law, infectious diseases treatments or transmedia storytelling. The CNAM course, Du manager au leader, remains the most popular.

The FUN platform is aimed at federating all online courses projects of French universities and grandes écoles as well as at enhancing their international visibility. Indeed, if very few large and eminent institutions – such as Polytechnique (who launched several courses in fall 2013) and HEC – are able to provide courses on Coursera, most French universities and grandes écoles lack international prestige to be accepted on the major American platforms. Furthermore, French higher education institutions showed reluctant on using taxpayer funding to reinforce the economical domination of the leading US platforms (especially regarding the commercial use of students’ data which are the main revenue source of Coursera and edX).

Challenges and perspectives

To implement its vision of knowledge as an uncommercial value as well as to be able to confront the powerful American platforms, the French government has to face major challenges:

The FUN platform will need to hold good and prove high technical level as well as be sufficiently reactive, opening up to web startups competition and private funding, whereas at this stage, most courses are financed by their own institution.

FUN should also prove sufficiently attractive and visible to come up as a real alternative to meet the international ambitions of those universities and grandes écoles likely to join Coursera or other major platforms. In this regard, the choice of the French platform’s name has fed a strong debate: according to its detractors, the FUN acronym is devoid of any international credibility. Using the word FRANCE in the platform’s heading could prevent other French-speaking universities – e.g. Swiss or Belgian universities – of organizing their own MOOCs on the FUN system and reduce its potential to become the reference MOOC platform in African countries. In this regard, FUN also has to face the concurrence of the international OCEAN platform, already uniting some French, Belgian, Swiss and French Canadian universities, with the clear ambition to become the reference platform for French speaking MOOCs.

Last but not least, as mentioned earlier, State secretary Fioraso wishes the online courses to be aimed not only at university students but also at high school students, workers and unemployed. With the launch of a 5 million euros fund dedicated to the creation of lifelong learning MOOCs, she firmly hopes to invest this sector and raise the turnover from 640 million euros at present (5% of the total amount) up to 1.8 milliard euros in 5 years. According to some experts, French MOOCs’ future does not lie in the initial or higher education fields but in the lifelong learning sector. This might well be where France has a strong card to play in the coming future.

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