The rapid expansion of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has left many in international higher education asking how they can compete. With elite American universities dominating the emerging market, will foreign institutions be left behind?
“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” some have decided. The California-based MOOC provider Coursera counts eight foreign institutions among its 33 university partners. Meanwhile, 12 universities in the United Kingdom have launched a new MOOC platform of their own. The Open University, a distance education institution based in London, recently announced the formation of Futurelearn in partnership with Cardiff and Lancaster Universities; the Universities of Birmingham, Bristol, East Anglia, Exeter, Leeds, Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick; and King’s College, University of London.
Initial marketing material  for Futurelearn emphasizes its U.K. identity -- asserting that the Britain should be at the forefront of advances in educational technology and stressing that, until now, U.K. universities interested in offering MOOCs have only had the opportunity of working with U.S.-based platforms. However, Futurelearn’s CEO, Simon Nelson, said the company is open to eventually working with universities outside the U.K.
“We are well aware that we are operating on a global platform, the Web, and one that doesn’t respect traditional national boundaries," said Nelson, a veteran of the BBC Online. "If we build the Futurelearn MOOC product in the right way, then it might be applicable to a whole range of partners outside the U.K., as well as in the U.K. But of course you have to start somewhere. We wanted to get started by trying to marshal and organize the U.K. university sector, which has some of the leading global higher education providers within it."
“MOOCs have been dominated to a good degree by U.S. universities and U.S. providers: whether you like it or not, it is simply a fact,” said Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick. “I think there was a feeling that the British higher education sector is probably second in the world at this point in time and therefore it’s not a massive surprise that it might have a platform that’s based on that success. However, I don’t think there’s a view that this platform is going to be nationalistic.”
Coursera similarly started with only American university partners, but quickly broadened to include foreign institutions: the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the Universities of British Columbia, Edinburgh, London International Programmes, Melbourne, and Toronto. While these universities span the globe, they are all established research universities with lots of international connections.
Jeff Haywood, the vice principal of knowledge management at Edinburgh, said the university's decision to join Coursera evolved naturally out of preexisting relationships between Stanford University (where Coursera's two co-founders teach) and Edinburgh, particularly in the fields of artificial intelligence and computer science. "In other words, it wasn't a cold call," Haywood said.
The École Polytechnique is offering a French-language MOOC  (about the computer programming language, Java), Coursera’s first MOOC in a language other than English. Andrew Ng, Coursera’s co-CEO, said one of his long-term goals is to offer all of Coursera's introductory courses in multiple languages. Already, he said that many of the video lectures feature crowdsourced subtitles.
Ng said he hopes to continue increasing Coursera’s number of international partners, although the growth won’t be extremely fast, as the emphasis right now is on supporting the existing partners well. “It makes sense for us to partner with all of the best universities all around the world, especially given the language issue,” Ng said. “Coursera’s mission is to offer high-quality education to everyone in the world, and to actually make that happen, students will need content in different languages.”
Colleges view MOOCs as one strategy for engaging students from all over the world: Coursera’s enrollments are 34 percent American and 66 percent international. Nelson said that Futurelearn also hopes to attain a global audience: "This is not only targeted at U.K. learners," he said. "It's targeted at anyone all over the world, anyone with an Internet connection."
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, a Coursera partner, already works with four other Hong Kong universities to offer distance education through a platform called Hong Kong Virtual University. But Ting-Chuen Pong, a professor in computer science and member of HKUST’s task force on e-learning, said that while the Hong Kong Virtual University has been successful at attracting students from within the region, it’s proven difficult to successfully market the courses abroad. He said the reputations of HKUST’s Coursera partners – universities like Columbia, Princeton and Stanford – will help the university reach new global audiences. “The name recognition is very important,” Pong said.
Regarding the two other big U.S.-based MOOC providers, edX at this point does not have any foreign university partners, although on its website  it expresses interest in exploring possible partnerships with universities from around the world. Udacity has worked with universities in Austria and Germany  to facilitate the awarding of credit for its classes, and this fall signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Alberta to form a research partnership. Researchers in Alberta's Centre for Machine Learning and its Faculty of Education will be working with Udacity to conduct research on online learning technologies. Alberta will also be offering up to six MOOCs on Udacity's platform this fall.
“It is kind of a scary thing to do because the revenue models [for MOOCs] are not well-formed yet,” said Jonathan Schaeffer, the dean of Alberta's Faculty of Science and a professor of computing science, “It’s easy to build courses that cost lots of money but at the end somehow you’re going to have to recoup those costs either in the short or the long term. It is a gamble, but to me, universities are all about change, and I see MOOCs as being a very important, disruptive technology. I would rather be on the leading edge, understanding and working to establish a reputation for quality now, rather than two or three years from now, when everybody’s in the game and we’re all fighting over market share.”
Schaeffer added that he believes that MOOCs are a mechanism through which university reputations can be more quickly earned. "This is a brand-new, wide-open space," he said. "With MOOCs all the sudden reputations can be won and lost."