Is the future of university teaching digital? – Insights from Austria

On 24 September 2014, the Embassy of Switzerland in Vienna organized a round table entitled “MOOCs, e-learning, virtual campus : is the future of university teaching digital?” in which participated Professor Karl Aberer, Vice-president for Information Systems, EPFL, Prof. Christiane Spiel, Professor for Educational Psychology and Evaluation, University of Vienna, Prof. Joachim Metzner, Vice-President of the German RectorsConference, Cologne, and Prof. Martin Ebner, Assistant Professor at the Institute for Building Informatics (IBI) at Graz University of Technology.

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In his keynote speech, Prof Aberer briefly described the recent history of MOOCs, which started at Stanford University in 2011 and attracted at that time more than 160’000 students. Sign in + video (5-10 minutes) + quiz tests + social interaction + certificate are according to Aberer the key elements of MOOCs. MOOCs offer an opportunity to educate more people, allow students to enter in contact with the economy and may serve as a recruitment tool. Generally, MOOCs provide a good opportunity for universities to improve their international visibility and should allow economies of scale. The question of the recognition of the certificates is still open. A certificate confirming merely the attendance of a MOOC is certainly not enough. MOOCs allow also the universities to diversify their teaching offer. However, a university should not concentrate on MOOCs and MOOCs should not replace traditional teaching at universities. In other words, MOOCs shall be complementary to traditional lectures.

MOOCs are rather an option for students who are well organized in their studies and constitute a big challenge for disorganized students. Indeed, visiting MOOCs requires more discipline than going to the lectures. This means that universities cannot just offer MOOCs to its students; they must teach them how to work with MOOCs. The introduction of MOOCs requires from the universities a new pedagogy or teaching method. It also requires from professors that they review permanently their lectures and keep them up to date. They cannot just repeat every year the same lecture. In summary, the MOOCs should improve the role and importance of the professors as well as the teaching quality.

In the case of EPFL, visibility and reputation, enhancing teaching and outreach (especially in Africa) were the main reasons for establishing MOOCs two years ago. If in the meanwhile more than 600’000 students attended the EPFL MOOCs; only 8% got the certificate (73% visit once the MOOCs, 61% watch the video; 41% do the quiz; 25% turn assessment). Average age of participants is 26. 34% have a bachelor, 31% a master. 79% have already an advanced career, which means that MOOCs interest rather professionals with a university degree than students. The cost of a MOOC at EPFL amounts to 93’000 Swiss Francs.

The feed-back of students and professors about EPFL MOOCs is diverse. If students usually appreciate the flexibility of the lecture and like watching it in a group, they also fear to lose contact with the professors and are concerned about data privacy. They like the opportunity to stop and start again the lecture at any time. On their hand, the professors see the need to invest a lot of energy in the lectures, fear the risks to open their teaching and are compelled to strive for eIMG_4285 (Small)xcellence.

In Austria, MOOCs are not an issue today. If the Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) together with six other universities outside Austria created recently the first MOOC to promote education in the public, it did not receive at the beginning any financial support from the Austrian government. After it considered the opportunity to save money in education, the Land of Steiermark decided to support the endeavor of TU Graz. For the moment, the Austrian Rectors’ Conference is not ready to recognize the certificates issued by the MOOCs.

The educational potential of MOOCs in developing countries is enormous but it faces also big infrastructure (internet-access, electricity) and financial challenges. The language, working method and discipline required by the MOOCs are real obstacles to the spreading of MOOCs in these countries. In the long run, MOOCs shall provide for more educational equality.

MOOCs are a chance and a threat at the same time. Could MOOCs monopolize the university teaching? Is the future of traditional universities jeopardized? Can the MOOCs question the essential role of critical thinker of the universities? Will MOOCs cut teaching jobs? What are the real costs and revenues of MOCCs? Are MOOCS a way for universities to save money or only to use it more efficiently? Who delivers which certificate? What kind of certificate is the economy ready to recognize? Is the certificate an essential element of MOOCs? Who owns MOOCs? Do MOOCs provide enough privacy and fair access to students? Can MOOCs really improve the quality of teaching? Could the MOOCS be in the future a new teaching instrument at primary and secondary schools? Are the MOOCs the right response to the massive increase of students at universities? Will the MOOCS allow the IT Industry to control the educational system? What is the future of MOOCs?

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