Reinventing higher education – MOOCs, SPOCs and hubs

Massive open online courses, SPOCs – self-paced open courses that may become MOOCs – and university hubs generated most interest at the fourth annual international conference on “Reinventing Higher Education”, which took place in Spain from 7-8 October.

The conference, which had the theme “Time for New Frontiers and Cross-collaboration in Higher Education”, was organised by Madrid-based IE University, a private non-profit institution owned by the Instituto de Empresa SL.

Jean-Claude Burgelman, head of unit in the European Commission’s directorate-general for research and innovation, kicked off a panel discussion on “The Production of Learning Experiences: Hubs, technologies and new players” with provocative questions about the future of research.

“Which professor would you hire if you had to choose between one who had published two articles in Nature and another who ran a blog that was read by the top 500 people in their field?” he asked.

“And what if you had to decide between an applicant with a good degree or one who had qualified via MOOCs at Harvard and Oxford University?”

Burgelman argued that in the past three to five years, irreversible technological acceleration had opened up the whole research process because there was growing global demand for science and an explosion of actors involved.

“We are heading for a fundamental change in how we do research and science,” he argued. “The Facebook generation is hitting universities and this, along with cheap ICT, is going to lead to more productive and better science.”


Professor Carlos Delgado Kloos, vice rector for infrastructure and environment at Spain’s Universidad Carlos III, said that MOOCs had both extended the reach of education and were also capable of improving its quality.

“People say there is nothing like face-to-face teaching, and they also say there is nothing like a live music concert. But there are moments when you can’t have these experiences, so why not take a mix?” he asked.

The mix at Coursera, the MOOCs platform that partners with leading universities to offer online courses, takes place in blended programmes, which represent 24% of the company’s five million students.

“The preparation for our courses is intense,” said Gayle Allard, a professor of economic environment and Coursera instructor at the IE Business School. “We are constantly trying to find courses that will engage our students.”

Donatella Sciuto, vice rector and professor of computer architecture and operating systems at Italy’s Politecnico di Milano, explained that her university had decided to initially offer MOOCs only internally to students of engineering, architecture and design.

“We have found that companies are demanding improved soft skills from our students so we are developing synchronous MOOCs based on role-play, games and immersion techniques, to teach students about negotiation, conflict management, change and diversity, so they can self-assess and see if they are responding in the way that companies would expect,” she said.

“These courses don’t have credits but they are useful to show to companies.”

O’Neill AS Outar, vice president of advancement at the University of Alberta in Canada, said his institution had a palaeontology course that had initially been struggling. By developing it into a MOOC, it now had 90,000 students signed up.

“MOOCs are the tip of a seismic shift as self-driven students develop and design their own educational models,” he said.

The scale and the various forms of MOOCs were discussed.

Michele Petochi from the World Economic Forum suggested that no less than 50 universities in Europe had MOOCs and that the model was still developing. “Some are on campus, others are small dedicated MOOCs… and I think we’ll see hybrid forms,” he said.

Carlos Delgado Kloos said that Universidad Carlos III had 10 SPOCs. “What is important is trying to fill the gaps in our students’ education now. Instead of trying to solve the problems of tomorrow we want to enrich our students’ education today.”

Burgelman concluded by reminding the audience of the need to innovate and seek win-win situations. “Twenty years ago the music industry faced Napster and downloading and they spent a lot of money trying to stop it. Many of those companies don’t exist now because they could not find a new model for the times.

“I wonder how many of our institutions will exist in 20 years time?”

Transformation and hubs

Transformation of the learning environment on a global scale was the topic of another panel debate in which Stavros P Xanthopoylos, executive director of the Brazilian Fundação Getulio Vargas, explained that his institution faced tough constraints to promoting change.

“Brazil has 70,000 laws relating to education alone,” he said, “and we lack good schools. The attrition rate at secondary [level] is very high and 60% are functionally illiterate when they finish university.”

Nonetheless, his institution’s number of online students had grown from 1,000 in 2003 to 1.3 million today, and he argued that regular performance exams had helped ensure that course quality remained good.

Xanthopoylos said his institution’s efforts to offer masters and doctoral students more experience abroad was “sad” because many never returned. This was supported by Dr Ahmad Hasnah, associate vice president for higher education at Qatar Foundation. “We have many who go to Europe and the US but don’t come back,” he said.

Nonetheless the Qatar Foundation has taken the bold step of investing in human capital to provide quality in education, research and community services – such as trying to improve the health of the population.

“We are trying to jump-start activity by offering a lot of inter-disciplinary programmes such as international journalism,” he said.

Professor Mazliham Mohd Su’ud, president of Malaysia’s University of Kuala Lumpur, explained that his university was addressing human resource challenges by developing two educational city hubs: one with seven international institutions, such as the UK’s Newcastle and Southampton universities, and the other based around Kuala Lumpur University.

“We have agreements with German, French, UK and Spanish institutions who transfer their curricula, allow us to copy their equipment and even bring over their experts for three years. We now offer many programmes on our own,” he said.

“There is nothing global anymore,” concluded Xanthopoylos, “because in two or three years' time we will become singular. There’ll be no old world and new world, there will just be survivors. If we don’t partner with the communication industry our universities are going to close.”

Trends in UK higher education

How universities in the United Kingdom are changing in the context of new student profiles, government cuts and changing policies were further key topics of debate.

Vincenzo Raimo, director of the international office at the University of Nottingham, said that to meet the higher expectations of students, his institution was aiming to send 25% of students overseas as part of their studies. Currently the figure is 4%, with 200 of Nottingham’s students studying at its partner institutions in Malaysia.

“We eventually want our students to do double degrees across three or four universities,” he said.

“Are we going to see fewer universities in the UK in the future?’ asked Dr Don Guttenplan, an education journalist at the International Herald Tribune. Yes, replied Dr Jo Beall, director of education and society at British Council. The current process was about allowing universities to specialise and “letting differentiation run its course”.

“I think we’ll see consolidation around degree programmes but also services,” responded Raimo. “We linked with another university and we now ask ourselves: ‘Do we really need two HR departments? Two computer departments?’”

Professor Santiago Iñiguez, president of IE University, concluded. “It is not yet clear if the increase in tuition and the relative autonomy of universities to decide on programme prices has led to a better offer, more competition and an overall improvement of quality at universities.”

But it was particularly interesting to follow what was happening at universities in the UK “since it may anticipate what comes next in continental Europe”.