MOOCs seen from Brussels

January 2013, only three European universities, among which the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), offered MOOCs on the education platform Coursera. Since then, the universities of Zurich, Geneva and Lausanne have joined EPFL on this platform and the overall number of European universities went up to 28. As pointed out by the European University Association’s (EUA) second paper on MOOCs published in January 2014, European universities now account for one-third of the MOOCs in the world. This increase is also obvious if you compare the picture here below with the one from March’s post on “MOOCs development in Europe”. Written by  Anouk De Bast, Attachée to the S&T Counsellor (Mission of Switzerland to the EU) and Florence Balthasar, European Advisor for Education (SwissCore)

MOOCs in the broader European context

Because of the economic crisis and the related high youth unemployment rate, the question of ‘how to produce relevant skills for the labour market’ has been high on the European agenda. Making a better use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for teaching and learning is one answer to that question, and many countries struggle with it, especially at primary and secondary education levels. Therefore, a thematic working group of national experts (in which Switzerland was represented) led by the European Commission (EC) worked towards an initiative entitled ‘Opening up Education – Innovative Teaching and Learning for all through new Technologies and Open Educational Resources’, which touches upon all sectors of education, from primary to higher education. Like most initiatives of the EC in the field of education, which falls under the exclusive competence of the Member States, this communication is rather broad. It basically gives a large set of advices on the use of Open Education Resources (OER) and how to innovate in teaching and learning via ICT.

In the Opening up Education initiative, MOOCs are described as a disruptive innovation with the potential to “transform higher education and create competition and centres of excellence among universities worldwide”. The communication highlights that exploiting this potential can best be achieved through ‘strategic partnerships’ and gives the example of OpenupEd. This partnership of distance learning universities from 11 European countries was launched in April 2013 and offers MOOCs that all respond to the following principles: openness to learners, digital openness, learner-centred approach, independent learning, media-supported interaction, recognition options, quality focus, spectrum of diversity. Based on these features, the partnership has agreed on applying an international quality label for its MOOCs. It is too early to say what the outreach of this quality label will be.

Recognition, quality and a strategic use…

Quality assurance is indeed at the core of the discussions held in Brussels. In its latest advice paper ‘Online Learning at Research-Intensive Universities’, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) stresses that quality control of online courses is absolutely fundamental. Since most MOOCs are produced by higher education institutions themselves, they must assume responsibility for their quality, like any other learning activity. LERU advises the research-intensive universities to take the lead in defining standards and expectations for quality assurance in online education. Furthermore, according to LERU, the future of online learning at research-intensive universities will most likely be part of a ‘blended learning approach’, i.e. a mix between on-campus experience and online courses when it has more added value. It means developing a strategic approach towards MOOCs and using their potential in the creation of partnerships and alliances, which will create this added value for students, teachers and institutions.

Besides the issues of quality, the question of recognition is a huge one. So far, according to the EUA’s second paper on MOOCs, there are only few cases where universities offer ECTS for MOOCs learning. The question is then how exactly MOOCs are supposed to change higher education if there is no established mechanism for validating the acquired knowledge? How can the existing instruments of the Bologna Process, like the ECTS or the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance, take into account the development of MOOCs?

This issue will certainly be put on the table at the next Bologna Summit in May 2015 in Yerevan (Armenia). It will be up to the education ministers of the 47 Bologna countries to discuss it then. Coming to the policy-maker role of the European institutions, the European Commission (EC) of course also follows with close attention the emergence of MOOCs : it was decided to support them among others through studies, the set-up of the OpenupEd platform, or by allocating funds via the European Education, Youth, Training and Sport Programme ‘Erasmus+’. But its responsibility is quite narrow: the EC has mostly incentivised universities to take a strategic approach and stimulated them to be innovative, but has not done much more beyond that.

A genuine European dimension for MOOCs?

Beyond the central issues of quality and recognition, the question also arises whether MOOCs should and can get a genuine European dimension? The current trend observed rather moves towards a development of online platforms regrouping the same type of institutions (e.g. OpenupEd) or MOOCs in the same language. The establishment of a central European platform is an idea occasionally mentioned, but it is unlikely to materialise.

Would a European platform be the only way towards a European dimension for MOOCs? There could be other options for a common European approach for MOOCs, e.g. by putting them high on the agenda of the Bologna Process. It would for example mean that the renewed Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area have a dedicated chapter on online education. One could also imagine that the Bologna countries would agree on common guidelines regarding the use of MOOCs, e.g. recommending a ‘blended learning approach’ as mentioned by LERU or the establishment of strategic alliances of universities according to their strengths and needs. However, given Europe’s diversity, EUA expects that Europe’s strength probably rather lies in decentralised approaches that compete and also cooperate. Moreover, it is worth asking what the benefit of a European dimension of MOOCs – potentially competing with an American or an African one – would be?

Those questions still remain open to further discussion. ‘Food for thought’ will be provided in September in a report of the High Level Group for the Modernisation of Higher Education, which is currently assessing how higher education can make best use of new modes of teaching and learning. In the autumn, another EUA paper on digital learning will provide new elements for the debate. So will the next Bologna Summit in May 2015. To be continued…

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