Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is the buzz phrase right now. Two professors making their vision a reality by making knowledge available for all is a very commendable initiative. In fact, very few initiatives in the past decades come so close to fulfilling the mission of higher education institutions. What should European higher education institutions be doing to harness the power of this new form of education?
The idea of MOOCs is simple: utilise the latest developments in technology by putting already existing lectures online and give individuals the possibility to self-study the material through an online platform with the possibility to interact with fellow participants. If the individual completes the course there is a certificate of participation waiting, not issued by a university and not carrying any credits. It could still be used by the individual when applying for jobs and to prove competence development. That is of course provided that the professor is known or the institution he or she comes from is known – some kind of credibility is needed.
Europe is lagging behind on distance learning
Currently, the largest provider of MOOCs has roughly 60 universities as clients and the second largest MOOC has a dozen universities, most of them in English speaking countries with an expansion taking place into French, Chinese, Italian and Spanish. Together they have approximately 3.5 million registered users. However it is a fact that Europe is lagging very much behind the rest of the world when it comes to distance education, of which MOOCs are a variation. There has been little emphasis on this kind of education and the infrastructure so far has been lacking and fragmented. If Europe now wants to join the MOOC trend, it is of utmost importance to do so with departure in the European context and to keep the European tradition in education and the European identity as guiding principles. A mind change is necessary to get the universities and countries on board in this kind of development. They need to see that there is an advantage in it for them. The steeply increasing demand, from India for example, for degree programmes delivered by distance learning, could be one way to get universities interested.
How MOOCs could succeed in Europe
Introducing MOOCs, courses that do not award credits and are not delivered by a university could, in theory, be done by any professor or organisation. What would make a difference is if the number of courses offered online would dramatically increase, if they would carry credits and were quality assured by higher education institutions. Since the word MOOC is becoming a brand on its own, it would be smart to define it from a European perspective, one that ensures quality and value and can be recognised both by employers and other higher education institutions and thus maybe one which can become a course in a degree at some point, depending on recognition procedures in different countries and higher education institutions. Right now, Europe has the opportunity to create its own variation of the MOOC brand and the focus should be on the value for the students. The value of their learning on the labour market and in higher education institutions should be the main goal. That kind of approach would be very much in-line with the education tradition in Europe and would give Europe its own profile in the world of MOOCs.
The European Commission launched a European MOOC platform on 25 April 2013 and the European Union will address MOOCs in its soon-to-be-released Communication on Internationalisation. It will be very interesting to see the development of the MOOCs from this point onwards: Will they remain something for the selected few to deliver or will access to knowledge be increasingly available for more?