Anka Mulder from OpenCourseWar writes:
"Europe's higher-education institutions are perhaps confronting
their biggest crisis ever. A sag in state funding and the mismatch
between research output and the need to drive innovation-led growth
are converging to create a 'gathering storm'.
For the European economy, let alone its higher-education sector,
the stakes could hardly be higher. In the midst of this turbulence,
there is little doubt of the growing importance of digital
education to the future of European prosperity.
Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner for the digital agenda,
last month reiterated her goal of making "every European digital",
setting out a vision in which information and communications
technology in the classroom will be "so commonplace, so
unremarkable, so integral to learning, that people cannot think of
the classroom without it".
This is the right starting point. However, an even more radical
approach is needed if Europe is truly to succeed in the digital
economy and if the Commission is to succeed in its ambition to
increase the number of Europeans with a tertiary education from 26%
to 40% by 2020. A more radical approach could also provide fresh
encouragement to use the internet to the remaining quarter of the
continent's population who remain offline.
A key part of the answer lies in Europe embracing, much more
fully, online learning, or the so-called 'open education resources'
(OER) revolution. This has become an unstoppable global phenomenon
since the Massachussetts Institute of Technology started publishing educational resources online
as OpenCourseWare (OCW) in 2001.
OER and other forms of digital learning may not be effective for
all types of education. For example, OER will not easily replace a
laboratory practical or social training. However, some types of
virtual learning methods are as effective as live teaching, perhaps
even more effective.
Since the OCW consortium was formally founded, more than 250
institutions have joined, including the university of which I am
the secretary-general (Delft University of Technology). Today, OCW,
which is the largest OER organisation in the world, offers 20,000
courses online and millions of learners across the world.
While the digital learning revolution began in the United
States, Europe is now finding its feet. Given the high stakes, it
is vital that Europe now assumes the vanguard of this educational
However, for Europe to fully seize the opportunity, there is
need for enhanced support from Brussels, member states and, indeed,
a sea-change within Europe's higher-education sector. Key
initiatives such as last year's 'modernising higher education in
the EU' strategy presented by the European Commission, and the
Commission's e-Inclusion Awards, are a great start. But, more is
needed to improve take-up of online learning.
One key challenge is making more of our higher-education
institutions 'fit for purpose' for the digital age. Whereas they
used to have a knowledge monopoly in higher education, they now
share their role in developing and spreading knowledge with many
other institutions and individuals.
Some in the higher-education community fear that their
institutions will increasingly become certification factories if
information is available freely for all and if the learning
community can be found online. The concern is that students will
study online for free, after which they will shop around for
higher-education institutions that are willing to test to a given
standard and - if they pass - provide them with an appropriate
I do not see why this is a threat, especially given Europe's
ambition to increase dramatically the percentage of its population
with a tertiary education. Online learning offers the opportunity
to teach many more students than we do now: a higher-education
institution could potentially have one million students, including
lifelong learners who find it difficult to take part in on-campus
courses, instead of the typical 10,000 currently.
Loss of HE monopoly?
The business case for higher-education institutions would be
different, of course, forcing them to change from a system of
tuition fees to one of course-completion or certification fees.
However, as long as they have a thorough system of testing and
provide high-reputation certified diplomas, offering online
learning might even be an advantage, allowing more time for other
institutional work, such as research.
For some, the real danger is if higher-education institutions
lose their monopoly on certification. The answer here must be to
enhance the quality and reputation of Europe's institutions.
Students generally attend an institution not only because they want
to learn something, but also because a diploma helps them with
their future career. The greater the reputation of the certifying
institution, the more valuable the diploma will be.
Going forwards, people may well be less willing to pay for
tuition at an institution with a poor reputation, preferring to
attend a free, virtual one. They will continue to pay, however, for
a diploma or certificate from high-quality institutions. These
diplomas prove reliably what they have learned and at which level,
providing a valuable ticket for a future career.
In general, the European higher-education sector thus has little
reason to view OER as a threat. On the contrary, OER can help
provide education to rapidly increasing numbers of Europeans, and
potentially new revenue streams from others across the world, based
on Europe's long-standing reputation for high-quality knowledge and
Anka Mulder is the secretary-general of Delft University of
Technology and global president of OpenCourseWare. The world's
first Open Education Week was held in Delft on 5-10 March.
This opinion piece was also published on EuropeanVoice.com