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Making Sense of Euro MOOCs
July 17, 2013 - 12:54pm

Our European MOOCs in Global Context Workshop (19-20 June 2013 @ UW-Madison) went very well, in my biased opinion.  The event was kicked off by a provocative and well-crafted keynote lecture by George Siemens of Athabasca University. As I noted in the workshop webpage:

Siemens developed and taught (with Stephen Downes) the first ever ‘MOOC’ in 2008, and is one of the world’s leading experts on MOOCs. Siemens is an educator and researcher on learning, networks, analytics and visualization, openness, and organizational effectiveness in digital environments. He is the author of Knowing Knowledge, an exploration of how the context and characteristics of knowledge have changed and what it means to organizations today, and the Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning. Knowing Knowledge has been translated into Mandarin, Spanish, Persian, and Hungarian. Siemens is the Associate Director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University, leading the learning analytics research team. Previously, he was the Associate Director, Research and Development, with the Learning Technologies Centre at University of Manitoba. Siemens is also the co-founder of the newly established MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) which is being funded by the Gates Foundation.

An integrated slide/video (with captions) of Siemens' keynote is available here for your viewing pleasure:

 

See below for those of you interested in Siemens' slides, minus the audio/video element:

Siemens is a very informed analyst/practitioner/interlocutor regarding MOOCs, and it is a pleasure to engage with a person who clearly sees the pros and cons of the fast evolving MOOCs phenomenon, and especially the importance of viewing them from multiple perspectives (from the pedagogical through to the political-economic). I also recommend that you take a look at his reflections on his talk ('Neoliberalism and MOOCs: Amplifying nonsense') via the elearnspace blog, which includes this statement:

In recent presentations, I’ve been positioning MOOCs in terms of the complexification of higher education.... The argument is simple: Much of today’s economy is knowledge-based. In a knowledge economy, we need to be learning constantly. Universities have failed to recognize the pent-up demand for learning as the economy has diversified and society has become more complex and interconnected. As a consequence, the internet has contributed by creating a shadow education system where learners learn on their own and through social networks. MOOCs reflect society’s transition to a knowledge economy and reveal the inadequacy of existing university models to meet learner’s needs.

Following a perfectly timed (weather-wise) reception on the rooftop of our Education Building, we spent a full day engaging with the MOOCs phenomenon from a range of perspectives.  Michael Gaebel of the European University Association (EUA) and I laid some context for the day's discussions. Michael's slides are available here:

 

It's worth noting that Gaebel is in charge of the EUA’s task force on MOOCs.

We then heard from representatives of EdX (Howard Lurie) and Coursera (Pang Wei Koh) about the 'Place of Europe' in their emerging global strategies. While there was a lot of information conveyed in these two informative talks and Q&A sessions, it is clear that Europe plays a very important part in the global strategies of EdX and Coursera. European universities are increasingly interested in engaging with these two platforms, and in so engaging with the platforms European universities are simultaneously altering the DNA of said platforms.  European universities bring with them particular understandings and approaches to online education, lifelong learning, credit transfer, inter-institutional cooperation, outreach/public service, governance, and capacity building. The linguistic dimensions of the MOOCs on offer have helped these two platforms grapple with multiple language matters both in Europe, but also in the vast post-colonial worlds Europe has footprints in. Indeed there is a structural logic for engaging with European universities in the early phase of truly global platform development as US universities are unilingual.

We then dug deep into the Euro MOOCs theme via a fascinating talk by Pierre Dillenbourg who spoke about the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Experience with MOOCs (Situated in the European Context). While we never recorded his talk, see below for his informative slides, as well as another of his presentations from an early June Euro MOOCs summit:

 

 

 

 

Linda Jorn (UW-Madison) and Pang Wei Koh (Coursera) ably responded to Dillenbourg's informative presentation. Dillenbourg and others at EPFL are active and critically engaged practitioners regarding MOOCs. Their work with MOOCs seems to be situated in historic perspective, and taken very seriously regarding course vetting and development and learning analytics. It is no surprise, then, that EPFL is an emerging centre of dialogue and debate regarding European MOOCs. As noted in the photo of Dillenbourg above, their philosophy regarding MOOCs is it is "Better be an actor than a spectator."

A large panel discussions was then held regarding Emerging European Institutional Perspectives on MOOCs. Minister Antonio de Lecea (European Union), Michael Gaebel (European University Association), and Fernando Galán Palomares (European Students’ Union) spoke about the MOOCs phenomenon from their particular standpoints, and then Roger Dale (University of Bristol), Susan Robertson (University of Bristol), and Barbara McFadden Allen (Committee on Institutional Cooperation) responded with insight from equally diverse perspectives.

The final session involved Revisiting ‘Disruptor, Saviour, or Distractor: MOOCs and their role in higher education.’ Some time to digest Siemens' keynote talk the night before, to get to know each other a little more, and to learn along the way, generated a variety of fascinating (I'm biased, I know, but they were!) reflections on the theme of European MOOCs in Global Context.  Amongst the many important points raised, three stand out in my mind a few weeks later while writing this summary up.

The first is that there is genuine interest in the MOOCs phenomenon in Europe. MOOCs have captured the imaginations, for good and for bad, of key European higher education stakeholders. This interest is partly driven by the US-led MOOCs juggernaut which is generating some angst and concerns in Europe. So yes, there is some concern about an initial U.S. domination of the MOOCs landscape, and the discourse about MOOCs. This said, there are many other reasons the MOOCs juggernaut is generating interest in European quarters. There is, for example, a long history of online/distance education in Europe and the MOOCs phenomenon both supports and destabilizes this movement and these historic players. European institutions of higher education also have advanced digitalization (for lack of a better word) and open education resource agendas underway on a number of levels and the MOOCs agenda has potential to sync in well with these. And European HEIs are being asked to do more and more to enhance opportunities for lifelong learning, and to build ties with alumni, and MOOCs have some potential uses on these two fronts.

Second, the global dimensions of the MOOCs phenomenon articulates in fascinating ways with the both the intra- and extra-dimensions of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). MOOCs have some potential to encourage virtual mobility across European space, to build understandings of how different European universities approach teaching and learning, and to share research expertise and strengths via open online courses. MOOCs, be they offered via European or non-European platforms, also enable European universities to reach into other world regions, often in languages other than English. In other words, MOOCs have some untested potential to enhance the building of interregionalisms - an agenda that has been underway since the global dimensions of the formalization of an external dimension to the Bologna Process was spurred on, in May 2005, when the Bergen Communiqué was issued. The Communiqué included the following statement:

The European Higher Education Area must be open and should be attractive to other parts of the world. Our contribution to achieving education for all should be based on the principle of sustainable development and be in accordance with the ongoing international work on developing guidelines for quality provision of crossborder higher education. We reiterate that in international academic cooperation, academic values should prevail.

We see the European Higher Education Area as a partner of higher education systems in other regions of the world, stimulating balanced student and staff exchange and cooperation between higher education institutions. We underline the importance of intercultural understanding and respect. We look forward to enhancing the understanding of the Bologna Process in other continents by sharing our experiences of reform processes with neighbouring regions. We stress the need for dialogue on issues of mutual interest. We see the need to identify partner regions and intensify the exchange of ideas and experiences with those regions.

The Bergen Communiqué then led to the development of a more formal 2007 strategy document titled Looking Out: The Bologna Process in Global Setting: On the External Dimension of the Bologna Process, from which the above quote is taken. And while this statement was issued before George Siemens and Stephen Downes taught the first MOOC in 2008, a read of the Bergen Communiqué and Looking Out will help you see how and why MOOCs might matter to select European higher ed stakeholders. Indeed, just last week the European Commission released a Communication titled 'European higher education in the world.' [For the non-European readers of this entry, a Communication is a paper produced by the European Commission (EC), most often to the key institutions (e.g., Council of the European Union or the European Parliament). It is generally the outcome of a series of initiatives that might follow this sequence: the production of (i) a staff working paper, (ii) the development of a consultation paper that asks for wider inputs and views, and then, if it keeps proceeding it is in the form of (iii) a Communication. The decision to move to this stage is generally if the EC thinks it can get some traction on an issue to be discussed by these other agencies. This is not the only pattern or route, but it does register that issue has wider internal EC backing (that is in the nerve centres of power), and a sense that it might get traction with the Member States.]

As the EUA put it in their summary of 'European higher education in the world', the new Communication:

places emphasis on the broad range of issues that are important for the internationalisation of European higher education. The document, which references the EC’s recent Communications “Modernising Europe’s Higher Education Systems” and “Rethinking Education”, places specific emphasis on how member states and higher education institutions can develop strategic international partnerships to tackle global challenges more effectively.

Among the key priorities outlined is the development of comprehensive internationalisation strategies at national and institutional level. The Commission states that such strategies should cover the following areas:

  • The promotion of international mobility of students and staff (for example through enhanced services for mobility, tools for recognition of studies, better visa procedures for foreign students and emphasis on two-way mobility – into and out of Europe).
  • The promotion of “internationalisation at home” and digital learning (including language learning, using ICT to internationalise curricula).
  • The strengthening of strategic cooperation, partnerships and capacity building (with emphasis on joint and double degrees, partnerships with business and also international development cooperation partnerships).

The EC aims to contribute to the realisation of this strategy through stronger policy support and financial incentives for internationalisation strategies in particular through the future EU programme for education that will be called Erasmus+ (formerly called Erasmus for All). It said the programme, which still needs to be formally approved at the EU level, would integrate external funding instruments and put an end to the fragmentation of the various existing external higher education programmes. It would also link these closer to intra-European cooperation, as the EC said it would provide increased support for mobility to and from non-EU countries through Erasmus+ and the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (under Horizon 2020). The Commission also outlines measures in the areas of quality/transparency, cooperation and policy dialogue.

It is worth taking note of what is stated on page 7 of 'European higher education in the world:'

While online courses and degrees are not a new phenomenon, the exponential increase in the supply of online education and digital material, as well as the increase in the provision of assessment, validation and academic credit by selected MOOCs (an emerging trend particularly with many HEIs in countries such as the US and Australia) has the potential of transforming higher education radically. New trends in digital education and the emergence of MOOCs should be an incentive for HEIs to rethink their cost structures and possibly also their missions, and engage in worldwide partnerships to increase the quality of content and of the learning experience through blended learning.

Europe must take the lead in the global efforts to exploit the potential of digital education - including the availability of ICT, the use of OER and the provision of MOOCs - and to overcome the systemic obstacles that still exist in quality assurance, student assessment and recognition, as well as funding. This potential and obstacles will be addressed in a future Commission initiative. [emphasis in original]

Third, it is clear that while in some ways MOOCs are a post-national phenomenon given their multiple identities and citizenships of their visionaries, albeit propelled by well resourced U.S. MOOC platforms, the institutionalization and governance dimensions of MOOCs in Europe are only just unfolding in a complex and different (in comparison to the U.S.) state-society-economy context.

For example, we were pleased that Antonio de Lecea, Minister and Principal Advisor for Economic and Financial Affairs Delegation of the European Union to the United States, was able to join us for the entire workshop. Minister de Lecea provided some fascinating insights on the EU's emerging views regarding MOOCs and broader contextual factors regarding politics, regulatory systems, and debates about important issues like data privacy (a rather topical issue right now!). As de Lecea, Michael Gaebel, Mark Johnson, Fernando Galán Palomares, Roger Dale, and Susan Robertson all pointed out, Europe is inevitably going to take a broader and more strategic approach to MOOCs than what we see unfolding in the U.S. Given this it is important to critically deliberate about the nature of the MOOCs phenomenon so wise decisions can be made by key European institutions.

Indeed it is clear that the message that MOOCs are no silver bullet for revolutionizing higher education, and resolving all sorts of crises and tensions, is being recognized. In short, proselytizing and the hype factor is evident in Europe, as it is here in the U.S., but given what I witnessed with respect those representing the EU, the EUA, and the ESU, not to mention specific European universities (Bristol and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), the MOOCs phenomenon is being grappled with in a relatively informed and critically engaged manner. And in doing so, we here in North America, and at UW-Madison, are learning much about MOOCs, as well as Europe, at the same time.

My thanks to all of the participants for their many inputs, and to the many UW-Madison units (the European Union Center of Excellence with additional support via Education Innovation, Division of Continuing Studies, Division of Information Technology, L&S Learning Support Services, Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, Department of Geography) that made this Euro MOOCs event possible.

 

 

 

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