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‘Making sense of the MOOCs’ - report from ACA-EUA Seminar in Brussels (10 October)

October 18, 2013

Around 150 participants, including representatives from higher education institutions and associations, public authorities, quality assurance agencies and the media, gathered last week for the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA)-EUA Seminar “Making Sense of the MOOCs”.

The event was designed to enable participants to discuss and find out more about the development and potential impact of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which have been developing rapidly and are creating much discussion and debate in Europe and further afield. Speakers at the event included representatives from HE institutions in Europe and the US, MOOC platforms and representatives from ACA and EUA.

While the initial development of MOOCs was largely concentrated in the US, there has recently been a sharp increase in the number of European HE institutions offering them. According to the European MOOC scorecard on the EC’s Open Education Europa website there were more than 250 MOOCs across Europe at the end of August.

Some institutions in Europe have preferred to offer courses through platforms/activities initiated in the US such as Coursera, edX and Udacity. Others have joined the growing number of initiatives launched in Europe (such as FutureLearn and Iversity), some of which have received public funding or government support (such as France Université Numérique), or have launched their own MOOCs. In April, with the support of the European Commission, the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities also launched OpenupEd, described as the first pan-European MOOC initiative.

Participants at last week’s event heard that the expansion of MOOCs had been driven by a number of factors including technological developments, the changing expectations of students (the ability to “shop around” for course content), the internationalisation of HE, and in some countries public funding pressures. While they were initiated by essentially elite and reputable private universities in the US, they have gained speed with universities of all types, often with differing objectives.

HE institutions for example can see MOOCs as potential ways of: increasing the quality of courses, raising revenue, enhancing the visibility of their brand internationally, reaching new learners, “scaling pedagogic approaches”, and collecting detailed data on how students learn. MOOC students meanwhile have been attracted, for example, by possibilities of easy access at little/no cost, broadening horizons in new subject areas and even updating professional knowledge. It was noteworthy that some speakers explained that many students who presently sign up for MOOCs already have a higher education degree. In addition, few actually complete the course they sign up for.Photo (bottom right): © Academic Cooperation Association

It was clear from different presentations that there are a number of challenges and open questions with regard to the future development of MOOCs. While there is an expectation that MOOCs could contribute to improving the cost effectiveness of higher education, questions still remain about the development of sustainable economic model(s) for MOOCs platforms and universities given the costs in developing and producing such courses and making sure they will be up to date.

Other questions and issues that have been raised include: how “massive” these courses will actually be in the future (given that many platforms are starting to develop different types of fee-based services), how they can provide access to higher education for groups of disadvantaged learners, how they will be positioned in relation to other forms of e-learning/distance learning, the quality assurance of these courses, issues of credits and credit transfer, and ownership and intellectual property of course content.

Finally, the event was also an opportunity for speakers to address some of the possible impacts of MOOCs more generally on the future of learning and teaching. The presentations underlined the potential of MOOCs for HE to develop blended learning, and to reach out to adult learners. It also highlighted a number of open questions and challenges ahead, such as for example the possibility that organisations other than higher education institutions may validate and certify learning.

The presentations from the MOOCs Seminar can be downloaded from the ACA website.

Following this event, EUA will continue, on behalf of its membership, to monitor developments and undertake activities in this important area of MOOCs and e-learning. It is currently preparing a more detailed paper on MOOCs to update members and that will be published shortly on the EUA website/newsletter. Members and other HE institutions are also invited to take part in an ongoing survey on institutional practices related to e-learning that will be open until 31 October.

Photo (bottom right): © Academic Cooperation Association