Europe lagging behind in open education: for how long?

In May 2012 the president of EdX, a collaboration between Harvard and MIT, referred to massive online open course, dubbed MOOCs, as “the single biggest change in education since the printing press.” In September 2012, the US academic news magazine Chronicle of Higher Education, predicted the end of traditional higher education in the article due to MOOCs. In November 2012, the New York Times announced that 2012 was “A year of MOOCS”, and only few weeks later the Washington, DC-based think tank Education Sector suggested that the freshly re-elected president Obama should consider creating a new undersecretary of MOOCs in his cabinet.

A European reader may feel perplexed and start to wonder: did I miss something? What are those MOOCs everyone is talking about on the other side of the ocean? It seems as if a revolution is taking place and nobody noticed in Europe.

MOOCs are a new educational tool allowing millions of people all over the world to gain education by participating in free of charge internet-based courses. Their scope ranges from programming and engineering to law, humanities, and social sciences. Whether we are interested in exploring the intricacies of “Artificial intelligence for robotics,” want to understand “Ideas of the 20th century,” or simply get an “Introduction to data science,” MOOCs’ platforms are a place to go.

No matter how diverse, they all share one thing in common: the vast majority of MOOCs are organised by American universities. According to educational consulting agencies ICEF, headquartered in Bonn, Germany, the United Kingdom is the only country based in Europe out of eight leading countries in on-line education; including distance learning in addition to MOOCs.

What is the source of this disparity? During the reThink PSU Winter Symposium on 16 January 2013 George Mehaffy, vice president of the US university association AASCU, explained that what might contribute to the MOOCs’ popularity in the United States is the fact that American colleges and universities have “distorted reward structures, limited success, high costs [and] massive inefficiencies.” He believes that students want to avoid these problems, and are looking for the best quality education, which they find in MOOCs.

There are also cultural differences in the way education system works on both sides of the Atlantic, that may explain the success of MOOCs in the US. “The role of branding, of building an educational mark, is crucial for American institutions,” says Pablo Achard, MOOCs’ coordinator from the University of Geneva, Switzerland. “The American commercial start-up culture plays an important role in popularising the MOOC model in the United States,” he adds. Most of the MOOCs are offered by the universities from the prestigious Ivy League: it guarantees the high-quality and constitutes an excellent advertisement.

European universities are lagging behind in developing MOOCs because they are funded differently than in the US. “It’s all about the business model,” notes John Zvereff, an administrator at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona. He spoke at a conference organised by the British think tank Observatory on Borderless Higher Education back in February 2013, which was entirely devoted to the MOOC movement. “Europe is desperately playing catch-up,” he adds. But the downside is that currently none of the MOOCs offered proposes an individual approach to students. By contrast, his institution’s philosophy is “based on [personal] accompaniment.”

European universities are still playing catch up. They propose numerous new courses starting from the next academic year 2013/2014. In June 2013, the University of London is planning to launch a course entitled “Creative programming in digital media and mobile apps.” In August, this year, Munich’s Maximilian University will offer a course called: “Volcanic eruptions: a material science.” And, in October the University of Geneva will offer a class on “Calvin: histoire et réception d’une réforme” in French. And these are only few of the many new courses announced each month. “We hope to start many more in 2014,” Pablo Achard told EuroScientist.

Online teaching communities are finally emerging in Europe too. For example, Panos Kostakos from Finland, founder of the first among the largest European on-line teaching platforms, called He believes that his portal “will be part of the 10 largest educational online communities by 2014.”

For now, many European MOOCs pioneers have to ensure the sustainability of their initiative. George Mehaffy concludes that the painful part of this transition is that it will “produce winners and losers.” And the ones who survive are not the ones that are “the strongest or the most intelligent” but those who are “most adaptable to change.”

Marcin Krasnodębski and Bethany Eldridge

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA by Marc Wathieu

Go back to the Special Issue: The future of science education

Marcin Krasnodębski

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