Are MOOCs becoming mechanisms for international competition in global higher ed?

Link here for the Inside Higher Ed version of this article if you need a better format for printing or sharing (e.g., via Twitter).

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Are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) becoming mechanisms for international competition in global higher education? Where are Europe’s MOOCs in the context of the dearth of lifelong learning opportunities in the region, or both the internal and external/global dimensions of the European Higher Education Area? Who will establish the first MOOCs platform that spans the Arabic-speaking world? Are the MOOCs born in the United States (circa 2012) poised to become post-national platforms of higher ed given their cosmopolitan multilingual architects? And will my birth country of Canada ever sort out a strategy regarding MOOCs (a point also made by George Siemens), or will Canada depend on US platforms like it does in many sectors and spheres of life, for good and bad.

I couldn’t help but think about some of these questions when England’s Open University (est. 1969) announced last Thursday that it was going to establish a MOOCs platform that will be known as Futurelearn. Link here for the press release and here for some media coverage of Futurelearn. In total 12 UK-based universities will initially be associated with the Futurelearn platform:

  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Bristol
  • Cardiff University
  • University of East Anglia
  • University of Exeter
  • King’s College London
  • Lancaster University
  • University of Leeds
  • Open University
  • University of Southampton
  • University of St. Andrews
  • University of Warwick

The Open University’s history is a fascinating one, and I’ve often wondered how it might react to ripple effects of the MOOCs being established by US-based people, universities and organizations. The OU clearly has the legitimacy to push forward their agenda, and will do so with some excellent partner universities (disclosure: my PhD is from Bristol), but the Futurelearn announcement also generates more opportunities for reflection on the territorial dimensions of MOOCs.

While Futurelearn won’t be up and running until 2013, it struck me how quickly it is conveying a UK-centric identity. From the line-up of universities, to the identity of the Launch CEO Simon Nelson (he is, as he puts it on his Linked in page, a “key architect of the BBC’s digital transformation to become one of the most successful and innovative multimedia operations in the world”), Futurelearn arguably comes across as a state- and university-backed vehicle to launch the UK into a transatlantic race to establish globally dominant MOOCs.

As the headline of this 14 December Times Higher Education article put it, “Open University launches British Mooc platform to rival US providers.’ The Times Higher Education article quotes from the official press here release, where the Minister for Universities and Science responsible for higher education in England, David Willetts, said:

The UK must be at the forefront of developments in education technology. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) present an opportunity for us to widen access to, and meet the global demand for, higher education. This is growing rapidly in emerging economies like Brazil, India and China.

Futurelearn has the potential to put the UK at the heart of the technology for learning agenda by revolutionising conventional models of formal education. New online delivery tools will also create incredible opportunities for UK entrepreneurs to reach world markets by harnessing technology and innovation in the field of education. [my emphasis]

Similarly, in the same press release, Leighton Andrews AM,  Minister for Education and Skills in the Welsh Government, said:

The area of Open Educational Resources is a fast-moving field in which the power of the internet and information technology can transform access to learning globally. I have encouraged the higher education sector in Wales as a whole to engage with this in a serious way and I am delighted that this new initiative from the OU – an organisation which already has a pan-UK and global reach – takes a lead in charting an exciting path into the future from which learners in Wales will be beneficiaries. It is especially pleasing to see that the OU will be working with Cardiff University to explore new ways of providing learning opportunities that can take some of the best of HE in Wales to the world, and bring the world to learners and HE in Wales. [my emphasis]

In some ways, at least superficially, the rhetoric and coverage associated with the launch of Futurelearn is correct and the US does dominate the MOOCs landscape, to date.  This is a point I also made in last week’s entry (‘On the territorial dimensions of MOOCs‘). The three most prominent MOOCs (Coursera, edX, Udacity), to date, were born in US universities (Coursera at Stanford; edX at MIT & Harvard; Udacity at Stanford) and provide the majority of their offerings as sanctioned by US universities, and as taught by US-based university professors. As of today, here are some national dimensions to the three key MOOCs:

Udacity (est. February 2012)

  • Udacity currently offers or is advertising 19 courses, the majority taught by US-based professors. This said, not all of them are American citizens, and there are German, Dutch and Taiwanese nationals involved in several of the courses. Note that Udacity does not badge the courses with the names of the universities or organizations the instructors are associated with.

Coursera (est. April 2012)

edX (est. May 2012)

So is Futurelearn a UK (and European) riposte to the US MOOCs that are dominating the global MOOCs landscape? In some ways yes, in other ways no.

First, these US-based MOOCs are clearly considering non-US partners and indeed some, especially Coursera, already support them (including one from Australia, one from Israel, two from Canada, one from Scotland, one from England, one from the Hong Kong SAR, and one from Switzerland). École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne from Switzerland, for example, enables Coursera to reach the French-speaking learning community in Europe, Africa, Canada, and elsewhere (assuming internet access).

Second, are the US MOOCs American through and through? No. Some of the key thinkers and backers of ‘US’ MOOCs — Daphne Koller of Coursera who was born in Israel before studying and working in the US; Andrew Ng of Coursera who was born in England but educated in Hong Kong and Singapore before studying and working in the US; Sebastian Thrun of Udacity who was born in Germany before working in the US; L. Rafael Reif of MIT who was born in Venezuela before studying and working in the US — are the types of global citizens one frequently finds in universities like Stanford and MIT. Thus, while these innovators are structurally supported by the epistemic, technological and venture capital networks associated with some of the US’ most vibrant city-regions, these so-called US MOOCs have considerable post-national developmental potential depending on how their future paths are navigated.

Third, the UK is part of the European Higher Education Area and yet the Futurelearn announcement comes across as a UK-only developmental agenda. Will it eventually open up to continental European learners and partner universities? If it does not, and MOOC platforms like edX and Coursera form relationships with leading European universities like ETH Zurich, Oxford, Cambridge, LMU Munich, Sciences Po, et al, what does it mean for Futurelearn? How the Open University and Futurelearn negotiate the complicated landscape of European higher education will surely be worth watching.

Interesting times, indeed.

Kris Olds

One thought on “Are MOOCs becoming mechanisms for international competition in global higher ed?

  1. After reading this article, there is nothing better than “friendly” competition in terms of supremacy with Massive Open Online Courses. I actually found it amusing, yet eye-opening that the U. S. could be challenged once Futurelearn launches its (MOOCs) and this could make for another interesting blog once they are off the ground and running. In my opinion, this is one of the aspects that higher education is all about when providing better and more oppurtunities for students around the globe. I think that MOOCs are becoming mechanisms for competition in global higher education and for good reason. If the U. S. continues to think that others (globally) will continue to partner with them, then they will most certainly be left in the dust once Futurelearn’s MOOCs become stable. In the ever-changing environment of higher education, the days have long passed where the U. S. were able to get off to a running start with new educational innovations and endeavors and now there is an “open” field out there that are willing to compete and stand alone in supremacy as the opportunities present themselves.

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