MOOCs not a threat to universities – Policy seminar

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are not a threat to bricks-and-mortar universities – as some in Europe fear – a seminar held in Brussels by the Academic Cooperation Association and the European University Association heard.

One reason that should reassure universities is the difference between students who study on campus and those who choose to study through MOOCs.

“The profile of MOOCs users is not the usual undergraduate profile,” said Tim Gore, director for global networks and communities at the University of London International Programmes. According to Gore, most students engaged in a MOOC already have a degree, are employed and are older – usually in their 30s.

Moreover, MOOCs can neither replace the social experience students have on campus nor the support and tutoring they receive from professors, agreed participants at the 10 October policy seminar on “Making Sense of the MOOCs”.

And these types of courses do not serve disadvantaged students who cannot afford campus-based courses either, as is sometimes thought.

“Socially disadvantaged students do badly in MOOCs because they are missing the tutoring and the social experience,” said Dr Rolf Hoffmann, executive director at the German-American Fulbright Commission.

Moreover, many students worldwide do not have an internet connection and therefore cannot even access MOOCs, noted Kris Olds, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States.

“Education goes where education is already,” stressed Michael Gaebel, head of the higher education policy unit at the European University Association, or EUA.

He noted that the majority of students following MOOCs offered by the University of Edinburgh, for example, were from richer countries such as the US, the United Kingdom and Spain, or advanced emerging market countries such as Brazil. Moreover, only a third of those attending MOOCs from the University of Amsterdam were not Dutch.

MOOCs in Europe

The statistics provided by Gaebel showed that there are currently 276 MOOCs offered by universities in Europe, with the number expected to increase to about 450 by the end of the year.

The most MOOCs were provided by universities in Spain – 79 – followed by 66 in the UK. “We don’t know what’s going on in Eastern Europe,” Gaebel said. There seemed to be no MOOCs offered by any university in that region at present.

The cost of setting up a MOOC ranges between €20,000 and €35,000 (US$27,000 and US$47,000), according to Tim Gore. His university offers MOOCs on topics such as ‘English Common Law’, ‘Creative Programming for Digital Media’ and ‘Mobile Apps’.

In the US, the costs are similar, as long as universities use an already existing online platform, according to Hoffmann.

While American suppliers have generally dominated the market for such systems so far – with players such as Coursera, edX or Udacity – lately many European platforms have taken off, according to Gaebel.

Most of them are national initiatives: FutureLearn in the UK, iversity in Germany and France Université Numérique, which was launched this month.

Rather than the quality of these platforms, it is the reputation of the universities that use them for MOOCs that seems to be critical in determining their success, according to some of the speakers.

That might spell trouble for FutureLearn, for example. Unlike some of its American competitors, the UK platform does not have the country’s top universities among its users, according to Dr William Lawton, director of the UK-based Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.

“Cambridge, Oxford and University College London are holding back” from offering MOOCs, Lawton added.

“MOOCs may not be for all institutions in the end,” said the EUA’s Gaebel, noting that universities like Cambridge and Oxford do not want to offer MOOCs to protect their brands.

This may be good news for many smaller universities who fear that MOOCs offered by top international institutions may take students away from them, according to Rolf Hoffmann.

“Stanford does not care about the future of other institutions,” he said, adding: “MOOCs are cross-border and the effects on regional higher education systems are not yet completely understood.”

It is also not yet clear how and if MOOCs will impact on student mobility programmes, such as the European Union’s Erasmus, according to Gaebel. Some believe MOOCs will not replace Erasmus.

“No one wants student exchanges like Erasmus to go away,” said Hannes Klöpper, managing director of iversity. He noted, however, that MOOCs help students who would not study abroad anyway. “They have this virtual mobility where institutions are coming to students instead of them going to the institutions,” Klöpper said.

Credit recognition

He is now working to ensure MOOCs taught via the iversity platform are recognised through the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, ECTS. At the moment, there are ad hoc arrangements, with a small number of institutions granting ECTS credits for the MOOCs they offer, according to Klöpper.

Next year iversity is planning to guarantee credit recognition through contractual arrangements with a group or groups of institutions granting ECTS credits.

Klöpper’s ambition is that by 2015 there will be an official decision by inter-institutional associations or government bodies to guarantee the recognition of credits obtained through MOOCs on the basis of clear, universally accepted rules.

It remains to be seen however how big the demand for credits obtained through MOOCs will be, as some speakers noted that most MOOC students are not seeking credits.

“In the long run, MOOCs will be for adult learning, but the market will decide,” said Hoffmann. “It’s additional learning rather than replacing higher education,” EUA’s Gaebel added, stressing that most MOOC participants are lifelong learners.