Europe hopes for common Mooc market and single currency

Credit transfer system could give Continent advantage over US

The European Credit Transfer System provides a legal basis for the creation of an online marketplace for academic credit that could be exploited by massive open online course providers, a conference has heard.

Hannes Klöpper, managing director of the new German Mooc platform iversity, also said he believed that Europe’s burgeoning community of online providers was better placed than US organisations to work with universities and offer academic credit to students.

Speaking at Making Sense of the Moocs, a conference held in Brussels on 10 October, Mr Klöpper unveiled a plan that he believed could lead to European platforms offering a large range of for-credit courses within two years.

As part of a pilot scheme, Germany’s University of Osnabrück and the Lübeck University of Applied Sciences have already agreed to offer ECTS points for their iversity Moocs, provided that students can pass an “on-campus exam”.

“Typically, when you are looking at start-ups, the Americans have a big advantage because they have a common market,” he said. “This time, I think it’s the other way around. Europe has a big advantage over the US because in the US, credit transfer is a nuisance.”

Decisions to accept credits from other institutions there were always ad hoc affairs, he added.

Points to make

The ECTS was introduced in 1989 and is widely used across Europe to facilitate student mobility. Under Mr Klöpper’s plan, a corporate partner – such as iversity – would organise the teaching and assessment of Moocs and would award ECTS points on behalf of partner universities.

Although details of how the system will generate revenue are as yet unclear, it could resemble the arrangements made by some US Mooc platforms, under which students pay fees to take invigilated exams and receive completion certificates.

Also speaking at the event was Rolf Hoffmann, executive director of the German-American Fulbright Commission, an international scholarship programme that provides, among other things, teaching and research grants.

He told Times Higher Education that improving the quality of online tuition could be one way to make savings in countries such as Germany that have less private university funding.

“We don’t have tuition fees or any large private institutions – but we still have the same drivers: the German government needs to save money, institutions need to save money.”

He added that German universities should move towards a “blended” teaching model mixing online and campus undergraduate study to cut costs.

But he warned: “Going to a blended system is going to be a challenge for the instructors…because German faculty do not necessarily adapt to new technologies quickly.”

The conference took place at a key moment for European Moocs, with several countries’ course platforms at critical junctures in their development.

The first iversity courses were launched on 15 October, with about 100,000 students reported to be taking part.

FutureLearn, the UK’s Mooc platform, is due to start teaching on 21 October, while newly unveiled French provider France Université Numérique is set to announce details of its first courses at the end of the month.

Swiss lessons: ‘bilingual’ university aims for Africa

A significant number of students in Africa are signing up to take massive open online courses in French, according to a Swiss university.

École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne advertises 13 Moocs on its website, eight of which are delivered in French.

Karl Aberer, Lausanne’s vice-president for information systems, told the Making Sense of the Moocs conference in Brussels on 10 October that the university was exploring Africa’s online education market.

Lausanne “has a very interesting role because we are a bilingual university – French-speaking and English-speaking. This is exactly like Africa,” he said.

“The absolute numbers for the English courses are still higher than for the French,” he added, but once relative distribution was taken into account, it was possible to see that the French courses were beginning to attract francophone Africans.

This was particularly encouraging in sub-Saharan Africa, where the technology infrastructure is still “pretty much a disaster”, Professor Aberer added.

In Cameroon, for example, a computer programming Mooc had attracted 200 sign-ups – something the academic described as “significant”.

As a result, three courses in development at Lausanne had been targeted specifically towards “the needs of Africans”, he said. “For example, we have a course on urbanisation that is co-produced with African partners to give examples of urban development in Africa.”

Meanwhile, Patrick Aebischer, who has been president of Lausanne for 13 years, is taking a six-month sabbatical to research online education in Africa with a focus on the languages used, something that Professor Aberer said underlined the importance of online learning in the developing world.

However, he also warned that the proliferation of Moocs could in theory lead to a two-tier global higher education system, where those who can afford to learn on campus get a premium product while everyone else – regardless of their location – “takes what they can get for free”.

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