MOOCs make waves in higher education worldwide

The development of MOOCs – massive open online courses – outside the ‘Anglo-centric hothouse’ of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia is “characterised by strong involvement with professional needs, wide experimentation and enthusiastic engagement in all significant geographies”, according to a British government review.

An annex to the main report published last week, The Maturing of the MOOC – Literature review of massive open online courses and other forms of online distance learning, finds that opinions on the role of MOOCs in development have polarised.

While many identify MOOCs as providing direct access to global high quality education, others “detect a new form of cultural imperialism”.

The report, published by the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, points out that initiatives using open learning to address developing world needs have a significant heritage. It cites Open University initiatives in delivering healthcare and teacher skills in Africa.

“Literature considering MOOCs in a global development context points to two sides of an issue of access and equity.

“On one side, MOOCs are hailed as a cost-free access to excellent resources and learning experiences for students in less educationally privileged geographies, notably India, China and Africa,” the report says.

“Alternatively MOOCs, with their high demands for connectivity, online literacy and English language skills, may be excluding developing world students and privileging learners from the most highly developed educational environments.”

What reviewers say

The report looks at the findings of experts and academics, including Michael Trucano, the World Bank’s education technology specialist, who has reviewed the relevance of MOOCs from a development and developing country perspective.

“He describes the emerging response to the phenomenon in less developed countries, and identifies more risks than upside,” the report says.

“On the upside, Trucano says MOOC formats may offer developing world universities a means to unbundle ‘long-standing dissatisfactions of various sorts with the current educational status quo at the higher education level’. These include access to other learners, learning materials, experts and respected qualifications.

“Reporting the risks, Trucano identifies critics who have expressed fears that MOOCs may be ‘yet another wave in cultural imperialism from the North and the West crashing across borders, washing over (or possibly washing out) local educational institutions, cultural norms and educational traditions’.”

Also, Trucano wrote “of a markedly two-tier system of global higher education, with a small number of elites able to participate in education the 'old-fashioned way' in small, intimate, face-to-face groups in close physical contact with their professors, while the vast majority of students, especially those in developing countries, have to make do with participating in a watered down, inferior educational experience delivered through MOOCs”.

Writing in the MIT Technology Review, Jessica Leber noted the apparent potential of MOOCs to ‘democratise’ education with the promise of free access to top courses by elite global institutions, the report says.

However, she also identified technical obstacles – mainly lack of computing infrastructure and bandwidth – and cultural barriers. To deliver on the needs of learners in less developed countries, “MOOCs would need to be tailored to a more diverse worldwide audience, not the Westernised Anglophones currently served”, says the report.

Leber highlighted attempts to tackle such problems – tweaks being made to MOOC platforms to enable developing country learners to download instead of stream course content.

“EdX is reported to be exploring ways to open source its software, allowing more universities to post online courses and customise interfaces in a way that reflects the technological affordances of their locales. Efforts are underway to launch French-speaking courses for Francophone Africa, led by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland,” says the report.

In India, Leber reported a ‘hybrid’ classroom model of MOOC application being used, with MOOCs “mined as repositories of lectures and quizzes” for engineering students at different institutions.

“In Rwanda, the establishment of an entirely MOOC-based university is being attempted, in which students could access modules from a Harvard social justice MOOC, and an Edinburgh critical-thinking MOOC.”

Europe, Germany and France

In Continental Europe, the report finds, MOOC activity has been aggressive in some centres although it is not visible on a Europe-wide scale.

“The innovations in these settings have been primarily pedagogical but have also made headway in terms of business model and technology. The display of flexibility, simplicity and self-organising among professional MOOCs is instructive.”

Individual MOOCs have been run in Europe since early 2012, the report notes, and some centres are well advanced.

For instance, Helsinki University presented its 41st MOOC in July 2013. École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, or EPFL, in Switzerland, launched a MOOC on Coursera on programming skills in March, offers four other Coursera MOOCs and by May this year had another 15 in development. The courses are in English.

“With 150,000 students having registered for its MOOCs to date, EPFL has emerged as a focal point for debate about a European stance on MOOCs and is proposing in the first EuroMOOC conference to investigate whether ‘Europe needs its own MOOC platform’.”

One of the EPFL MOOC professors reported that the MOOC had been completed by 400 EPFL and 3,600 outside students. The outcome for external students was that 70 sat the final exam and 40 passed it, 15 with distinction.

“A survey of the EPFL students showed that a majority welcomed the MOOC but a quarter did not wish [for] any more of them. Nevertheless, EPFL is committed to further MOOCs and will explore in particular how the internal EPFL students can receive a differentiated course which is better than the free and openly offered version,” the report says.

The first – and thus far the only – French MOOC to be completed is a course on improving techniques in online learning, which ran late last year and was completed by 1,000 learners.

A listing site for upcoming French MOOCs, including Canadian MOOCs in French, “shows that the emerging French language MOOC offer has a decidedly vocational spin”, says the report. IT, finance and project management are represented, and most of a dozen courses listed for summer 2013 have professional themes.

More recently, the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities, or EADTU, has joined with partners in 11 countries to launch the first pan-European MOOC platform – OpenupEd – supported by the European Commission.

“At the platform’s launch towards the end of April 2013, partner institutions (mostly open universities) were drawn from France, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, the UK, Russia, Turkey and Israel. A further nine institutions from six other countries are expected to join.”

As elsewhere, there is a wide range of disciplines available. But unlike the case with US platforms, courses are offered via institutions’ own learning platforms, with the OpenupEd website acting as a portal.

OpenupEd, says the report, has suggested that all its courses may lead to recognition, “for example with a completion certificate or a credit certificate that may count towards a degree”. There will be costs attached to credit certificates, ranging from €25 to €400 (US$540), depending on the course length and institution.

“Courses are provided in the 11 languages of the initial partners, plus Arabic. However, of the 61 courses listed in OpenupEd at the time of writing, nearly 70% are either in English (23) or Spanish (19), largely drawn from two large distance-teaching institutions – the Open University and Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia.


Microsoft has adopted MOOC formats for professional training, mostly outside the US and the UK.

Microsoft Germany has launched a Windows-8 MOOC, and is launching a pilot MOOC at Visvesvaraya Technological University in India, offering free teaching in analysis and algorithms that leads to a certificate.

“This focus on core theoretical skills, rather than applied business techniques, suggests a clear role for MOOC formats in complementing higher education content,” says the report.

Microsoft Research India has extended the pilot across 27 technical universities, and is offering a prize of 10 internships to the best students. “The connection of MOOCs to recruitment, an approach mooted in US but not yet delivered at scale, is noted.”

The report was unable to identify China’s official position on MOOCs in academic literature, but referred to a report in University World News about Coursera’s planned Chinese-language MOOCs from National Taiwan University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“This report confirmed that Coursera had held discussions with Chinese Universities, and Coursera’s Andrew Ng has addressed Beijing University on the topic of MOOCs. However, political control was potentially a show-stopper.”

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has committed to MOOCs with Coursera, in the English language. “Development seems likely in the course of 2013-14, as China has a thriving e-learning industry which is keen to globalise,” the report concludes.