Bumpy start for Pan European MOOCs

25 april 2013 - The EU starts its own MOOC initiative with a special feature: courses taught in 12 languages. Although the launch event was unfortunate, the ambition runs high. “Doubling the number of courses and nine new partners in 2014.”

Universities from eleven different countries joined forces to launch this pan-European MOOC initiative, OpenupEd. The initiative will start with 40 free courses in a variety of subjects, but what it really sets apart from other MOOC platforms is that the courses will be taught in twelve languages. The initiative involves partners from France, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, UK, Russia, Turkey, and Israel and also includes courses in Arabic.

A future heralded?

With any luck the initiative will be more successful than the webinar that was organized to launch OpenupEd. Skype connections that should have brought EU Commissioner on Education Vassiliou and Xavier Prats Monné, the deputy Director-General of the Commission's Education and Culture directorate, into the discussion were never established. Even after 45 minutes of continuously trying, this “high-tech technology” was a bit too difficult for the European online education experts.

While the world’s leading online education experts from Coursera and edX were watching the Europeans struggling with their technology, EADTU (Open Universities) President Will Swann assured that “The technology that failed will not be used in the MOOCs of OpenupEd”. Willem van Valkenburg, the MOOC and OpenCourseWare specialist from Delft University of Technology that recently joined edX, hopes that the “amateur impression of the OpenupEd launch doesn’t herald an unfortunate future.”

To a new level

In a speech that couldn’t be delivered by Androulla Vassiliou personally, the Commissioner stated that she is happy with this new breakthrough in European online education. “This is an exciting development and I hope it will open up education to tens of thousands of students and trigger our schools and universities to adopt more innovative and flexible teaching methods.”

Vassiliou sees the added value of the European MOOC initiative clearly. “The MOOCs movement has already proved popular, especially in the US, but this pan-European launch takes the scheme to a new level. It reflects European values such as equity, quality and diversity and the partners involved are a guarantee for high-quality learning. We see this as a key part of the Opening up Education strategy which the Commission will launch this summer.”

Scaling up the use of ICT-supported learning and access to high quality Open Education is one of the six pillars in the EU’s ‘Rethinking Education’ debate. Next to improving the digital literacy of European students, the EU needs 900.000 new IT employees in the next five years. A viable online education infrastructure could contribute to both goals at the same time. The EU wants “education and training institutions to adapt their business models to the emergence of Open Education.”

Quality of institutes counts

How will OpenupEd guarantee the quality of the offered MOOCS, will it like Coursera only include ‘Quality Institutes’ and thus assure the quality of offered courses? “In order to join OpenupEd the institute has to be recognized by its national government and it has to meet the standards set by national education validation organizations”, said Swann.

“When a university wants to join that is not a member of EADTU, the quality of the institute will be assessed through existing mechanisms for validation. We will not check every MOOC that goes online, that is not very cost-effective.” In the United States they want to solve this differently, they are planning to launch the ‘New University of California’, with the only goal of certifying online learning.

Not a platform, a window

It was clearly underwritten that OpenupEd is different from the American Big Three, Coursera, EdX and Udacity. “We don’t create a new MOOC platform we create a new window for universities that want to participate in MOOC learning”, Will Swann explained.

The initiative is not solely for EU countries. Fred Mulder, the former rector of the Dutch Open Universiteit: “The Commission has a special approach to internationalization; we can include partners from other continents. The initiative already encompasses universities from Turkey and Israel. This way we can stretch the importance and relevance of this initiative.”

Swann adds, “We  aim at growing with an ever-expanding range of courses from our partners, and we will welcome new partners from across the world who share our vision and practice of flexible, responsive higher education.”

The future of OpenupEd is still unknown, but serious expansion is planned. Mulder: “Nine new partners will be joining soon, all with 1, 2 or 3 MOOCs per institute. On top of that, existing institutes will offer new courses. I think that in 2014 the number of courses will probably have doubled, and that is on the a modest estimate.” Swann adds: “We are at the beginning of a great adventure in European higher education, and like in all great adventures we know where we want to go, but we don’t know how we get there yet.”