As more and more people clamour for access to higher education, innovative new projects provide effective, accessible courses online.

Kindergarten. School. University. Sometimes even in your job. To use a timeless cliché, we learn something new everyday, but this experience is changing the traditional perception of the way we learn. This happens mainly because almost all of us learnt at a desk, copying down the things that our teacher told us or wrote on the blackboard. Now, this fabulous experience through which we discover the world has changed due to (you guessed it) the internet, and the innovative new styles of education that it brings.

Nowadays, almost all universities give their students the opportunity of studying a collection of articles and books in digital format, either through a monthly subscription for an online library or through a database. But this further evolved some years ago when young professors passionate about teaching wanted to make this experience more widely accessible. Before the digital era, distance learning was available only in the classical shape of correspondence. Even so, this allowed many people who were unable to attend regular courses in higher education to learn more and gain specialist knowledge in certain areas. As the years pass the technology has evolved so much that it has ‘invaded’ our lives at an unexpected level. And so the universities have started to improve their distance learning, firstly by introducing the electronic correspondence and a database of courses and grades for students.

Increasing demand makes traditional education unfeasible for many people in rapidly developing countries like the BRICS. | Image: Unknown ( flickr)

The platforms of e-learning, developed by universities, were the basis for the early MOOCs. But what is an MOOC? Massive Open Online Courses represent a collection of video-lectures, aimed at attracting great numbers of students through internet-based learning. There are many successful examples of websites promoting MOOCs – Coursera, Iversity, AcademicEarth and OnlineCourses to name but a few. 

The success of all these stories comes from a common goal: making higher education accessible to students from all over the world, regardless of the costs or resources involved. For the most part it has been the innovations of teachers and students. All they needed was the open-mindedness of universities. We can only imagine the flurry of excitement after the go-ahead for the first project of this kind was granted. The second decade of the new millennium looks set to to bring the most interesting developments, with almost 100,000 students having already enrolled for the first course provided by Coursera. Now, this has become an immense challenge. The students are happy and eager to have more online courses as they don’t need a fixed schedule or to spend considerable amounts of time going to regular live courses.

With the rise of the middle class there is a parallel rise in demand for higher education. It is impossible to keep up with that demand by simply expanding conventional offline education.

An exploration of the reasons why people are choosing online courses over traditional ones could fill an article of its own. But in short, they provide flexibility, accessibility and scope for more effective time management. Some online students can add the experience of their different cultures or the fact that they are employees with a full time job; and of course the latter cannot afford to go return to school and learn the subjects they care about. Relevant information for specific types of careers makes even young adults consider taking online courses, either because they are not available in traditional curriculums or because the necessary information needs to be regularly updated. Trying to find out more about the reasons why some people choose MOOCs over traditional education, one can see that the students come from many different backgrounds and cultures. In a sense this means that the main goal of online courses has already been achieved: making higher education available to people all over the world.

The huge boom in online courses, far from harming traditional institutions of learning, seems to have complemented it. After all, the number of regular students is growing. Yet the future of MOOCs has never been related to the weakening of traditional lectures, but to strengthening the role of higher education in developing a better and more flexible world. Everybody should be able to provide solutions or at least pertinent opinions on important issues and this is why MOOCs have been made available on a large scale. The low costs make them advantageous and attractive to people of all ages and backgrounds.

As long as distance learning through correspondence and internet-based learning allow a greater development of traditional universities, the MOOCs will only make things more clear and adjustable to people’s needs. In this way, we can hope that professors will further understand and accommodate the needs of their students when they come to university. Hannes Klöpper, the co-founder and managing director of Iversity answered some of our questions on the project.

How did you come to the idea of launching your website?

Jonas Liepmann and I founded Iversity in 2011 because we were unhappy with the digital infrastructure in use during our own studies. It was clear to us already back then that the walled-in software solutions universities were using were glaringly outdated. Thus, we built a learning management system that was a blend of an online workspace and a social network for faculty and students. That platform also enabled instructors to open up their courses to the world. When Sebastian Thrun launched his famous MOOC about Artificial Intelligence, we knew we were on the right track and decided to fully focus on the idea of open courses. In 2012 we spent a lot of time on evangelism in an effort to inform people about the MOOC phenomenon. In 2013 we launched the MOOC Production Fellowship contest. This was a great success with over 250 applications from 20 countries. Right now we are working hard on launching our first set of courses on 15 October.

How do you feel now, after you’ve reached so many members of the community?

We are thrilled to have the opportunity to change the world a little bit by providing quality education without admission restrictions. In particular, two aspects of our work make me particularly happy:

Iversity will soon enable virtual academic mobility within Europe. In the context of the Bologna Process there was a lot of discussion about student mobility. MOOCs offer the chance to let this vision become reality. But instead of students moving between institutions, the universities will come to them: By offering courses and granting credit points recognized within the European Credit Transfer and Accreditation System (ECTS).

Secondly, our online courses open up education to people who otherwise would not have access to higher education. Think of India and other emerging economies for example: With the rise of the middle class there is a parallel rise in demand for higher education. It is impossible to keep up with that demand by simply expanding conventional offline education. Because the governments cannot build as many new universities as would be needed overnight. And even if they could; who would teach there? Training faculty is a lengthy process that can hardly be sped up. In certain fields, however, our online courses will soon allow us to provide quality higher education at on a large scale.

How did this initiative change your perception over learning?

Most importantly, MOOCs make excellence in teaching visible. Up to now faculty members who are stuck in the “publish or perish” trap paid relatively little attention to the quality of their teaching. What mattered was research and the evaluation of student satisfaction rarely brought about substantial change. With MOOCs students will soon have the option to opt-out of this system in which the quality of their education is viewed as an afterthought. MOOC teachers on the other hand get direct feedback from their students as well as lots of data on the basis of which they can improve their teaching. Because of this new digital transparency we have the chance to learn a great deal more about teaching and learning as well as our students and teachers.

What are your future plans regarding this project?

As I said before, we just announced the first Iversity courses that will grant ECTS credit points. This is the crucial first step towards integrating online learning into the traditional university system. We are planning to extend the certification and will grant ECTS credit points for as many of our courses as possible. Apart from that, we will steadily expand our course offering so as to remain the leading European provider of Massive Open Online Courses.

If you’re interested in signing up for a MOOC try browsing through the following platforms. If you know of any cool MOOCs please post it in the comments section! We’re always interested!





Cover Photo: by hdzimmermann (CC BY-NC-SA)

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