Moocs have helped Italy keep teaching during the pandemic

Online learning content is being shared across universities and accessed by record numbers of users, say Valentina Reda and Ruth Kerr

March 31, 2020
Source: iStock

Italy finds itself at the centre of the current global emergency, and measures implemented here are setting a precedent for Europe. Efforts to keep the national education system in operation highlight the important balance between having the resources, tools and infrastructure available, and a crisis management strategy that can guarantee continued education delivery to the whole nation. Among the many issues at stake, the coronavirus is refocusing attention on e-learning, and the strategic importance of quality, open-access multimedia learning for the public higher education sector.

China illustrated this perfectly with its speedy and effective “disrupted classes, undisrupted learning” initiative. On 7 February the ministry of education presented a national plan for higher education institutions, that would provide 24,000 university level courses from more than 20 online platforms free of charge, covering 12 different subject areas at graduate level and another 18 at post-graduate level.

What is emerging is a plan to enhance university online delivery to guarantee the next two semesters, the development of additional and alternative forms of assessment, and schemes to monitor the evolution of a project which will continue beyond this emergency.

In Italy, with campuses closed, all 98 universities have been working to transition teaching and learning activity into the online space.

Each of these universities has reacted as best they can, enhancing their own existing systems and tools, or adopting and adapting one of the commercial systems offered for use in this period.

Guidelines on how to manage the technology, teaching environment and resources are similarly ad hoc, circulating at institutional, departmental or even the individual level, creating the conditions for one of the biggest educational experiments the country has ever known.

To give an indication of the scale of this project, at University Naples Federico II, 3,500 courses, 3,200 exams and 270 final degrees have transferred to the online space. And although data is currently self-reported by the universities, the ministry of education is reporting a 90 per cent transition of university education to the online space countrywide.  

One of the significant elements in Italy’s transition is Moocs, which are essentially chunks of ready-made, quality learning content available as open education resources. The University of Naples Federico II provides insight into one of the biggest Mooc-based experiences in the country.

Our pre-existing portfolio of Moocs, available on our own platform, contains 200 curricular courses in a broad range of disciplines that reflect the content of on-campus versions. These institutional Moocs allowed for flexible delivery models pre-Covid, but are even more valuable now. Especially because online time via video-conferencing can then be devoted to more in-depth discussion and clarification of content, rather than the transmission of hastily put-together materials.  

Around 100 Federico II professors are currently integrating Moocs from Federica and using Microsoft Teams to hold lessons. And the analytics confirm the numbers – we saw an all-time high for users on the platform on 9 March, the first day of the online transition, and the number of new users in March was the equivalent of total new registrants for the preceding six months.

This use of Moocs as interactive learning content for the asynchronous component of blended online delivery holds true for Federica partner universities too. The courses from national and international institutions like the universities of Padova, Florence, Pavia, Milano-Bicocca, Naples “L'Orientale” and Wellesley College that are hosted on the Federica platform are showing similar increases in user numbers. Third-party universities are also being invited to integrate any of the Federica Moocs into their own online courses.

Another component of the Moocs response to Covid-19 was setting up an emergency task force to create shorter, lighter Moocs for immediate use in online courses, especially in law and medicine classes. The team at is currently supporting 100 teachers to produce these courses.

Italian Moocs are also helping school-leavers as they wrestle with difficult choices about their future – potentially without the physical support of the classroom. Some 50 orientation Moocs are offered by the Polytechnic University of Milan to help bridge the school-university gap, and other courses are available via the collaboration between and CISIA, the inter-university consortium responsible for university entrance exams and admissions. Its maths for engineering course, for example, a subject identified as a “weak area” by Italy’s 2019 Programme for International Student Assessment results, is drawing audiences of over 20,000.

Online readiness via quality open-access resources is proving to be a key factor in Italy’s response to the coronavirus emergency. We should remember, however, that opportunities for university study should not be limited to those who can attend class, but form part of a normal higher education policy of inclusion. There is a chance that the online educational experiment currently under way may prove a major catalyst for more widespread access to higher education across the country. For the moment, however, we can only wait and see.

Valentina Reda and Ruth Kerr are part of the Federica web learning team at the University of Naples Federico II in Naples, Italy.

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