Online courses are springing up all over the continent. We examine the opportunities and pitfalls this presents.

As Massive Open Online Courses conquer the continent, they offer a great opportunity for young Europeans to learn about a range of subjects, improve various skills and develop cultural sensitivity – Erasmus 2.0, it seems, is on its way.

Giuseppe, a young Italian, has just finished his first massive open online course on Terrorism and Counterterrorism taught by Leiden University. Like more than 20,000 fellow online students from across the world he had signed up for the course on the web platform coursera. Over a period of five weeks, he watched weekly video lectures, completed online assessments and was rewarded with a statement of accomplishment in the end. “It has been a really good experience, ” he tells me.

As the name implies, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are free university-level online classes for the masses, often offered by top-notch universities. Many courses see tens of thousands of students enrol to follow pre-recorded video lectures and complete online quizzes or peer reviewed assignments. A discussion forum allows them to interact with each other, to post and respond to burning questions.

Over the last two years, MOOC platforms have been mushrooming. The New York Times dubbed 2012 the ‘Year of the MOOC’ and this summer, the acronym made it into the Oxford Online Dictionary. “MOOCs are simply something extraordinary,” Guiseppe, who spent part of his youth in South Africa, says. ‘Drawing from my own experience I think this is a great opportunity for people who can’t have access to standard education.’ And the Italian is not the only young European who has become infected with the MOOC fever. Gohar from Armenia, too, is very enthusiastic about her MOOC experience and the doors it opens for her generation: ‘Open online courses are wonderful. We can expand our knowledge in various spheres, deepen and improve skills and meanwhile practise languages and make new friends.’ The 26-year-old particularly appreciates the flexibility that comes with MOOCs: ‘The best point I guess is that people can do all that stuff just by sitting on the couch. It is great for those folks with time constraints.’ Indeed, students can learn at to their own pace, pause the professors and re-watch lectures as often as they wish.

Originating in the US, American platforms such as coursera, edX and udacity have so far dominated the MOOC market. Now, European universities, too, have started to scramble for a place on the MOOC landscape. The Catholic University of Leuven, the Technical University of Munich as well as Swedish Karolinska Institutet have joined ranks of top international universities offering free education on edX, the MOOC platform of Harvard University and MIT. Last year, the University of Edinburgh was the first non-US institution to collaborate with coursera, the largest MOOC provider with more than five million users to date. Since then, dozens of universities across Europe have joined the coursera partnership.

Open online courses are wonderful. We can expand our knowledge in various spheres, deepen and improve skills and meanwhile practise languages and make new friends.

Active support for massive open online courses also comes from the EU. In the Entrepreneurship 2020 Action plan of January 2013, the European Commission promised initiatives to strengthen MOOCs. And in its summer Higher Education Strategy, the EU body notes that ‘Europe must take the lead in the global efforts to exploit the potential of digital education – including…the provision of MOOCs.’ Earlier this year, a group of open universities from eleven countries under the leadership of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities and with support from the European Commission launched the first pan-European MOOC initiative. Called OpenupEd, the platform hosted 80 MOOCs in different languages by autumn 2013; another 100 courses are already in the pipeline. For Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, the project “reflects European values such as equity, quality and diversity. ‘Alex Katsomitros, a research analyst at the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, goes even further. In a commentary for the Guardian he asserted that “MOOCs constitute a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a truly European university.’

Oxford Exam Schools
The Exam Schools at Oxford: a thing of the past? | Image: Cornell University Library; Public domain 

On top of that, MOOCs could at least provide part of the solution as Europe’s labour market remains plagued with high unemployment and sluggish growth. The Internet giant Google prided itself on supporting the launch of 25 MOOCs on the continent. According to Google University Relations Manager Michel Benard this initiative will help job-seekers develop new, valuable expertise: ‘Particularly in Europe, where youth unemployment remains high, MOOCs offer a new way to boost skills and employability.’

The latest Eurostat figures from September 2013 place youth unemployment at 23.5% in the EU; more than half of the under 25-year-olds from Greece, Spain and Croatia are without work. For this eager-to-learn, tech-savvy generation, open online courses could be a way of learning new skills in a fast, easy and cost-free manner. Indeed, clicks from Spain and Portugal led the statistics of the pan-European OpenupEd initiative three months into its existence. Crisis-rattled Italy and Bulgaria also featured prominently in the monthly top five.

Iris is a young Belgian, currently looking for work – and an avid coursera disciple. Out of interest, she followed two MOOCs: Leiden’s course on terrorism and counterterrorism and a class on International Organisations Management offered by the University of Geneva. Even though she did not pass the first course, Iris says that she has learned more than expected and gained a better understanding of the core issues surrounding terrorism. ‘I clearly learned new skills’, Iris is convinced and names in particular the ability to research academic sources. Other students I spoke with highlighted improved language and arguing skills.

Sure, online courses are not for everyone. Barriers for entry are low but self-motivation and commitment to complete the course need to be relatively high. Consequently, dropout rates are significant: While often tens of thousands of students enrol in open online courses, initial studies and university reports suggest that on average only about 10% complete a MOOC. Nevertheless, open online courses reach more students than any conventional university-level courses. Yet, some stumbling blocks on the road to the MOOC revolution remain. Evaluation is tricky and the only mechanism in place to stop students from cheating is an Honours Code. In particular student and teacher interaction remains the Achilles heel of large open online courses. With tens of thousands of students enrolled in one course, it is impossible for the teaching staff to engage individually with students or to answer the flood of emails. Some top European Universities – including Oxford and Cambridge – have therefore shunned open online courses so far, fearing a lemming-like rush towards MOOCs. And for many, the discussion forum remains a weak spot: Students complain about dozens of unstructured threads and forum participation remains generally low. A Stanford University study looked at posting activity across 23 of its MOOCS and found that in all courses, less than 10% of students had made any contribution at all.

Leiden University is therefore experimenting with community management, an approach that has found little application in the MOOC context so far. ‘What this means is that we have assigned moderators to the discussion forum and gave them training beforehand,’ explains Tanja de Bie , coordinator of the Leiden University MOOC community moderators, who has helped to manage the discussions of the terrorism and counterterrorism MOOC. The first results look promising: ‘We have managed an engagement level of participants in the forums of about 12% of the active students. That is on the high side for Coursera.’ Given the sensitivity of the course topic, there have also been some fierce arguments and cultural clashes. ‘It has been our challenge to at least keep these debates on an academic level, by encouraging things like the quoting of sources and the avoidance of logical fallacies,’ says de Bie. The forum moderators proved to be very valuable for keeping conflicts at bay. 

The cultural contribution of the students is quite important to understand new topics or to be introduced to new issues.

Beyond academic exchange, these discussion forums can also function as a virtual campus cafeteria where students get to know each other and share the latest (course) gossip. The discussion forum of Leiden’s Terrorism and Counterterrorism MOOC did not only feature threads about the effectiveness of counterterrorism policies but also saw chatter about weekend plans and the professor’s haircut. In addition the students seemed to have enjoyed the interaction with fellow courserians from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. In that sense, finds 28-year-old Valeria, MOOCs offer possibilities that go beyond what most conventional education institutes can provide: ‘The cultural contribution of the students is quite important to understand new topics or to be introduced to new issues.’ Looking beyond one’s own nose can also help young people to develop a sense of cultural sensitivity. ‘MOOCs can contribute a lot to strengthen tolerance, esteem and respect towards other cultures,’ according to Valeria.

In the meantime, national initiatives for MOOCs are gaining ground in Europe: In Britain, FutureLearn has attracted more than 20 UK and international universities as well as institutions like the British Council to share educational material. On the continent, the French Ministry of Higher Education has just announced plans to open a national MOOC portal. Over 100 French higher education institutes will participate and the first francophone courses are set to commence in January 2014. In neighbouring Germany, Berlin-based iversity opened its virtual doors to students earlier this year. Its co-founder Hannes Klöpper is convinced that European MOOCs have a future and distinguished advantages over their US counterparts. In a recent interview with the education news blog EDUKWEST Europe he said that ‘in the US-context, where ever-rising tuition fees regularly make the headlines, MOOCs are seen as a solution to a cost-crisis in higher education. In Europe MOOCs will be more about improving quality.’

MOOCs offered by European Universities might offer very new opportunities and greatly increase student mobility, one of the core aims of the Bologna Process. Thanks to the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) now used by most European universities, online for-credit courses could help to create a common European MOOC market with students enrolling and collecting credits from different universities through free distance learning, according to iversity. Two German universities, the University of Osnabrück and the Lübeck University of Applied Sciences, are currently participating in a pilot scheme: Students that pass an on-campus exam upon completion of the online course will be rewarded with ECTS credit points. ‘Now students don’t have to switch between universities anymore. Instead, the universities come to them’, says iversity CEO Marcus Riecke.

Despite the MOOC boom it appears unlikely that higher education will be completely digitalized any time soon. Rather, talk is in the air of so called blended learning: Combining online elements with classroom education. Face to face interaction remains an essential part of university education – as does studying in another country. ‘I don’t think MOOCs will change the way students move around Europe. The experience of living in another country, even for a few months, can’t be replaced by anything – it is invaluable,’ says Giuseppe. Open online courses might have the potential for an Erasmus 2.0 experience, but they cannot make up for the cultural shocks, love affairs and motto parties of the original Erasmus programme.

Nevertheless, having completed the MOOC on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, Guiseppe has tasted blood and is looking forward to learning more online: ‘I will do it again in the near future as soon I have a bit more time.’ Gohar, too, has become a devoted courserian. The young Armenian has already enrolled in several other online courses. Amongst others, she wants to study Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World, a MOOC offered by the University of Copenhagen. And Iris is going to resit the exam of the Terrorism and Counterterrorism class next year – given its sweeping success, Leiden University will launch a second session of the course in early January 2014.

Cover photo: Cornell University Library; Public Domain

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