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  • Physical universities the new bookstores

    - “Coursera is the Amazon of the academic world.” iversity-CEO Marcus Riecke predicts that universities will face a similar challenge bookstores and newspapers faced 15 years ago. iversity, which will start offering MOOC’s this fall, “is ready to become the European MOOC-platform”.

    Marcus Riecke, an internet-entrepreneur who was involved in the online marketplace eBay, joined Jonas Liepmann and Hannes Klöpper (founders of iversity) in 2012 when he got to know about the developments in open education. “They got to know about the whole MOOC-phenomenon immediately and they knew that something much bigger was going on in academia.”

    Started as a Blackboard

    iversity was, until then, working on a web based learning management system like Blackboard, but immediately recognized that it had to adjust its strategy to this new development, Marcus Riecke said. “iversity already started offering open courses in 2011.” The MOOC-phenomenon according to Riecke, was the trigger for iversity to fully focus on this new development.  

    And that is where Riecke, already successful in several internet start-ups, came in. “By that time I hadn’t heard about MOOCs at all. In our first meeting Hannes Klöpper told me: ‘Obviously, you know nothing about education’. So he provided me with a reading list to get in to the details. When I was reading that list, it struck me that the MOOC-revolution could well be the single most important trend in the internet.”

    Marcus Riecke is really enthusiastic about the developments in online education that will seriously challenge current academia. “Universities will face a large disruption in the coming years. It’s a bit like what bookstores and newspapers faced fifteen years ago, when the internet as a marketplace began to prosper. Coursera, in that sense, is the Amazon of the academic world”

    The leading European MOOC-platform

    iversity is now determined to become the leading European MOOC-platform. “Of course there are European universities working with Coursera and edX, but we think it will prove to be more useful to work with an organization that is based within three hours of flying distance. The proximity on the supply side will be a valuable asset.”

    For now, iversity is working hard to get ready to launch its first MOOCs in October this year. A process in which The MOOC Production Fellowship, a contest where professors could get granted with startup money for developing their own MOOC, played a large role.

    “When I was getting in contact with universities to get them to commence with MOOC’s via iversity, I was met with complete denial. That was the moment I knew we’re onto something. It’s the same denial newspapers and bookstores had years earlier. It also meant we had to change our approach. Our collaboration with the well-respected think-tank ‘Stifterverband for Deutsche Wissenschaft’ gave us a lot of respectability and through the contest we are now able to start with 24 MOOCs in the coming months.”

    Charging for the final exam

    Offering MOOCs to get as much students as possible to higher education is a noble goal, but Riecke says iversity is, as well as Coursera, aiming to eventually making money. “It’s a misunderstanding that MOOCs are completely free. Entrance might be free, but it’s already usual to charge for an official certificate or the final exam.”

    iversity will go for the latter option, Riecke announces. “For me I think it’s normal to charge for this kind of knowledge. The content these professors are offering is so valuable, it is the same for a professor getting profit from writing a study book.”

    Next to charging for exams, Riecke sees two other sources for income. “We can work as a recruiter to link our top graduates to corporations in need for people with specific talents. The other idea we are developing is to license universities to adopt our MOOCs in their regular programs.”

    Adapt or die

    A university as customer of Coursera, edX and Iversity, is the new world for academia. According to Marcus Riecke universities have to adjust to this new situation in order to survive. “A university that will not start with MOOCs will not make it.” But there are more challenges.

    Riecke: “As opposed to American universities, in European higher education egalitarianism and fair-change are in very high esteem. I think in the future you will have an elitization of higher education. Universities will have to adapt to that. I think big lecture halls will become empty, and only the physical university as a place to discuss knowledge together will prevail. For large courses, the internet wins.”

    With this trend, universities can’t be holding on to a system in which they offer all kinds of courses, Riecke states. “Universities will have to start specializing. They have to build upon their strength. A good MOOC by one of your best professors is a way in which this strength can be easily identified.”

    Everybody will know about MOOC’s

    One of the obstacles iversity, and other MOOC-providers, have to overcome is the accreditation of study credits. iversity is already lobbying in Brussels and Berlin for this. “There are politicians who are reluctant, but also ones who are very smart. They see the potential. In Europe you have the ECTS-system. It’s an academic currency which actually isn’t being traded at all. I think MOOC’s will be a facilitator of that process.”

    Marcus Riecke is an optimist who undoubtedly sees a bright future for the MOOC-phenomenon. “Universities for this moment are scared of the disruptive power of MOOC’s. That is the same you saw with large telecom providers when Skype emerged. That’s so exciting about the internet, you’ll never know when which industry will be affected. At this moment MOOC’s will still be quite an unknown phenomenon but I’ll grant you, a year from now everybody will know about it.”