ICEF Monitor returns to MOOCs today with the second half of a two-part look at the current state of the online education landscape. With ongoing questions about whether MOOCs will draw students away from traditional fee-based education, the topic is of significance for institutions, educators, and recruiters.
As highlighted on ICEF Monitor last year, online education is rapidly expanding in numerous countries, with the US leading the way. But other nations are exploring the model, and today’s article will examine international developments in the specific area of MOOCs, with a focus on countries where the technology is beginning to flourish.
MOOCs and international recruiting
Speaking at this year’s Going Global conference in Dubai, British parliamentarian and Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts directly addressed the effect of online education on international recruitment by suggesting the technology could “weaken the power of agents.”
Willetts was speaking specifically about British universities that traditionally rely upon international recruitment, but his comments could apply to recruiters from any country. In light of such of bold public pronouncement, just how far along are MOOCs on the international scene?
Asia’s first MOOCs
MOOCs are no longer solely the province of American institutions. Just this month, Naubahar Sharif of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) launched what was dubbed “Asia’s first MOOC” on Coursera: an online course entitled “Science, Technology and Society in China.” Sharif expected 8,000-10,000 students for the three-week course, but 17,000 registered.
In addition, China’s first cross-university online course debuted last month when Professor Wang Defeng of Fudan University taught an introductory philosophy class to 1,072 students from 30 schools across Shanghai. While not a true MOOC in the sense that it was not open to global registrants, it made use of the basic model, and follows a trend of Chinese universities trying to offer wider access to top universities’ resources.
And in Japan, the University of Tokyo, or Todai, signed an agreement with MOOC developer Coursera to create a September course on the evolution of the universe, followed by an October offering on peace and conflict. Both of these courses will be taught in English.
Coursera’s additional partners in Asia include The Chinese University of Hong Kong, National Taiwan University, and the National University of Singapore.
Meanwhile in India, Carnegie Mellon University professors Raj Chakrabarti and Anisha Ghosh are running the Academic Financial Trading Platform (AFTP), which calls itself the first MOOC dedicated exclusively to business education, with the specific goal of teaching skills that facilitate business decision-making.
While many AFTP participants have been MBA students and executives, the website touts the course as being for the average investor. It promises no less than to deliver, “for the first time, fully automated and transparent quantitative stock market prediction techniques and trading strategies, developed at the world’s top research centres.”
Non-English MOOCs on the rise
Naubahar Sharif, when assessing his Hong Kong MOOC, said that about 60% of the enrolees were from the US, UK, Canada and other developed nations. The remainder of the participants came from Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and middle-income Asian countries. Some of those Asian participants were from China, but with language still a barrier in online education, China is currently only the tenth largest market for MOOCs – though it has 22% of the world’s Internet users.
Coursera has addressed this language gap by offering courses conducted in Chinese, but the Chinese government – according to rumour, at least – is moving toward developing its own MOOC platform, with potentially far-reaching effects on student mobility patterns from one of the world’s leading sending markets.
The Chinese effort, if true, comes as no surprise. Concerns have been expressed about MOOCs’ domination by US developers, the one-way transfer of educational content from rich nations to poorer nations, and the cultural damage that could occur in the wake of “a wave of intellectual neo-colonialism.”
Sun Maosong of Tsinghua University put it bluntly to Xinhua News Agency: “Chinese courses need to be made in China, not America.”
It’s massive but is it tailoured?
If one of the strengths behind MOOCs is their ability to educate the masses, it is also one of their weaknesses.
Today’s trend experts tell us that the more a product or service can be tailoured to an individual, the better. This is certainly true for millenials, and personalised learning is no different. So it will be especially interesting to see how MOOCs adapt to different people’s needs, cultures, languages, nationalities, and socioeconomic status.
Armando Fox, a computer science professor at the University of California at Berkeley and teacher on an edX course, told Inside Higher Ed that one of his students is “working on a dashboard for MOOC instructors to analyse subpopulations of MOOC users to see if instructors can spot differences based on users’ locations, something edX can detect automatically using users’ IP addresses.”
“Ultimately, Fox said edX might be able to use this data or even collect more (like information on income) from users and then create classes tailoured to different student populations.”
“You can imagine different pathways through course material where a student might not necessarily follow every pathway,” he said.
Europe’s first MOOCs
Moving along, we come to Europe, where partnerships with MOOC developers are popping up everywhere. The latest is in Denmark, where the 500-year-old University of Copenhagen plans to offer four Coursera MOOCs, for which more than 40,000 students have registered and as many as 100,000 are expected. Other European universities linking up with Coursera include:
- Ecole Polytechnique, France
- Edinburgh University, Scotland
- IE Business School, Spain
- Leiden University, The Netherlands
- Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat, Munich, Germany
- Sapienza, University of Rome, Italy
- Technical University of Denmark
- Technical University Munich, Germany
- University of Copenhagen, Denmark
- University of Geneva, Switzerland
- University of Helsinki, Finland
- Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain
- The University of London, England
In addition to university partners, Coursera has also announced a collaboration pilot with Russian tech centre Digital October to bring more courses to Russian-speaking students, via translated subtitles and in-person meet-ups.
The not-for-profit MOOC developer edX has also expanded on the continent, doubling the size of its institutional membership. Among its new partners in Europe are École Polytechnique Federale in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Delft University of Technology in Delft, The Netherlands.
Homegrown European MOOC platforms
As of December 2012, the UK has a massive open online course platform developed on its own shores in the form of Futurelearn. So far, 17 British universities, including King’s College London, Cardiff University, and Queen’s University Belfast have signed up to offer courses with the new company, along with non-university partners the British Library and the British Council.
Futurelearn CEO Simon Nelson is boldly talking about his platform expanding beyond learning. He envisions it becoming an entire social networking site. He told Times Higher Education, “It may sound ridiculous in ambition, but … in five or ten years, rather than hanging out on Facebook, people will feel they can hang around in the Futurelearn product.”
Editor’s note: For an update on FutureLearn, please see our follow-up piece: “20,000 students in the first 24 hours: UK enters MOOC space with social, mobile FutureLearn.”
Germany has also joined in the MOOC movement with the development of OpenHPI, an educational internet platform developed by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Potsdam. Conducting courses in both German and English, part of OpenHPI’s courses are aimed at a general audience, while others are geared towards Information and Communications Technology (ICT) professionals.
Not only are independent MOOC developers appearing in Europe, countries from the entire region have now joined forces.
Eleven nations (France, Italy, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, UK, Russia, Turkey, and Israel) supported by the European Commission and led by the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) banded together to launch OpenupEd, the first pan-European MOOC initiative.
Courses are to be taught in twelve languages and are broad-ranging in subject matter, encompassing disciplines such as mathematics, economics, e-commerce, climate change, cultural heritage, corporate social responsibility, Middle East studies, language learning, and creative writing.
Unfortunately, the OpenupEd launch webinar struggled due to technical issues, but EADTU President Will Swann has said that the technology that failed is not part of OpenupEd, and is promising that the MOOC will flourish.
“We aim at growing with an ever-expanding range of courses from our partners, and we will welcome new partners from across the world who share our vision and practice of flexible, responsive higher education.”
The European Commission also has a hand in Academy Cube, an open education platform from Germany’s SAP software company aimed at teaching IT skills and matching students with job vacancies. With high youth unemployment in Europe yet up to a million job openings, the initiative hopes to bridge the skills-employment gap.
Along with SAP, the MOOC has support from Microsoft, Linkedln, Software AC, Thyssen Krupp, and the German Federal Employment Agency and academic institutions. Initially, Academy Cube will get a trial run only in Spain, but the creators of the project believe it may produce MOOCs or MOOC-like learning opportunities across Europe.
Australia’s own platform
MOOC provider edX has partnered with The Australian National University, but Australia also has its own MOOC platform, Open2Study, developed by Open Universities Australia. Open2Study and Open Universities Australia both offer online classes, but differ in that Open2Study offers free, non-certification classes whereas OUA provides access to accredited Australian university and TAFE (vocational) qualifications.
In part one of this article, we asked whether MOOCs will push students into core university programmes or draw them away. Open2Study aims specifically to do the former. Paul Wappet, CEO of Open Universities Australia, has said that Open2Study is designed to let students “taste what is available, getting them familiar with higher learning, so they can build the confidence to go onto further study.”
The overall technological surge in Africa has affected the realm of online education.
The African Management Initiative (AMI) is developing what they call the first MOOC designed by Africans for Africans. Their goal is to deliver business and management education for free to small business owners and young managers across Africa through a model that blends online content with offline peer-led learning.
AMI hopes to partner with business schools, and is seeking grant funding to develop and launch a full course which they hope can draw enrolees in the thousands. The AMI MOOC is part of a larger plan for the AMI Virtual Campus, a free online platform that plans to “leapfrog traditional bricks-and-mortar training by driving practical, personalised learning and development for African managers and entrepreneurs on an ongoing basis.”
Upward march for MOOCs
With the exception of MOOC mega-advocates like Sebastian Thrun, most developers are circumspect about a potential threat to traditional universities. At the moment, as discussed in Part 1, the possibility of earning credits is rare but expanding. And the process of building MOOCs necessarily involves building the architecture to enable a credit-bearing model.
Objections to credit-bearing MOOCs are substantive, and range from them offering a watered down curriculum, to them creating a breed of superstar professors with outside influence, to them being an excuse for political hardliners to gut public education budgets.
But do all the obstacles mean MOOCs won’t disrupt the standard educational model? Not necessarily.
In a February article in the tech trends publication Wired, authors Michael Horn and Clayton Christensen looked at MOOCs from the framework of historical innovation, and pointed out that continued refinement of the model could create a tipping point where it is broadly seen as a legitimate alternative to existing models. One important observation was:
”Disruptive innovations improve over time to march upmarket. Eventually the quality becomes just good enough for the established customers to flock to it. It’s worth noting that the upmarket march is enabled by some key technology – such as bandwidth, video quality, online sharing tools – which is why MOOCs may now be having their moment, even though they’ve been around for years.”
An upmarket march for MOOCs would involve not just technology, but class credit, a healthy revenue model, and global expansion as well. All of which is already beginning to occur.