No MOOCs for Iran or Syria?

This entry is also available on Inside Higher Ed here.  Also see this new IHE article ‘Massive Closed Online Courses‘ for more information about this matter.


Yesterday’s news that Coursera and Udacity need to follow US sanction rules is a reminder that the forces shaping the evolving global geographies of MOOCs is an issue that needs to be grappled with more thoroughly and systematically.

In recent entries here on Inside Higher Ed, I’ve argued that the MOOCs phenomenon has helped deterritorialize higher education institutions and practices via their ‘global reach’ such that the American-centric debates about MOOCs (e.g., completion rates; their uses to resolve austerity-induced public higher ed challenges), are important, yes, but just the edge of much broader debates that need to be engaged in.

From the global reach of MOOCs, to the cosmopolitan nature of the labor force working at the offices for platforms like Coursera and EdX, we see glimmers of a post-national higher ed future emerging. Moreover, we also see a global MOOC development agenda emerging, one backed by international organizations like the World Bank. See, for example:

Nation-states are also using MOOCs to promote national higher education systems abroad to target markets (e.g., a taste of Britain in India, courtesy of FutureLearn; Francophone Africa courtesy of France Université Numérique, and powered by EdX).

But, as the economic geographer Peter Dicken has argued so eloquently over the course of his career, firms and organizations are placed – they’re born and grounded in locales, even when they aspire to operate at a genuinely global scale.

Dicken’s point – about the ‘placing of firms’ – was hammered home in ‘Online education platform Coursera blocks students in Syria and Iran’ in Wamda yesterday. Phil Hill and I chatted about this on Twitter yesterday, and he has a nice summary about the Coursera/Udacity/EdX sanctions story here.

While this issue is still being investigated, I see three initial take-home messages from what is a rather perturbing development.

First, it appears as if the output of MOOCs has been defined by the US state as tradable “services” versus “information” in the US Treasury sanction documents for Iran and Syria, and in this Coursera note. Given this, the content of MOOCs mediated and propelled by US-registered MOOC platforms cannot be transmitted into said territory for they break sanction rules. Keep in mind that the broader regulatory context here regarding GATS and the trade in services (including education services).

Second, and most obviously, this is a bizarre and depressing development. How can the US Government seriously deem engagement with this array of Coursera courses, or this array of EdX courses, as supporting the regimes that sanctions are designed to put pressure on? And, relatedly, do government officials and leaders really think preventing access to MOOCs and associated outcomes (e.g., certificates) will generate the types of internal political pressure they are supposedly designed to do? You decide:

EdXembargoeThird, what role are MOOC platform partner universities playing in these deliberations? Do they even know? I doubt it, though I hope someone proves me wrong.

In this new global higher ed landscape, it is not enough to establish bilateral relations with intermediary firms/organizations like EdX, Coursera, Udacity, FutureLearn, France Université Numérique, et al, and just use their services. Some broader strategic/governance rules of the game may need to be established. After all, if universities are willing to cede some MOOC-related authority to an association like the American Council of Education (ACE) regarding which MOOCs are credit worthy, then surely they should work via their relevant associations to collectively ensure that some very important global access issues, principle issues, and key precedents, are handled in as strategic a manner as they deserve to be.

Kris Olds

Mapping Coursera’s Global Footprint

Over the last year I’ve been stuck by how most debates about MOOCs, and MOOC platform providers, are remarkably national in orientation. In the US, for example, a surprising number of politicians and select ‘disruptive innovation’ consultants have framed MOOCs as a vehicle to help redress the fiscal challenges facing public higher education. This (the MOOC as fiscal challenge solution) is a mug’s game, though, as anyone involved in developing and running online courses (as I am for both regular credit classes and a MOOC) will tell you for they are resource intensive to both develop and run well. MOOCs are great for some things, and worse for others, but they are not going to save universities money by functioning as a silver bullet for the legacy impacts of austerity.

While the politics of MOOCs are primarily national in orientation, the developmental agendas of MOOC platforms like EdX, Coursera, FutureLearn, iversity, et al, are scaled beyond the nation, such that they incorporate multiple world regions with respect to partners and students. Select regions (East Asia, South Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America), and select countries like China and India, are clearly being targeted by US- and Europe-based MOOC organizations and course developers, and they will be so more and more. This partially explains why international organizations like the World Bank have backed Coursera, why Coursera is working with translation services firms, and why Boston-based EdX is working with an increasing number of non-US governments. See, for example, these EdX press releases:

And see these Coursera press releases:

In order to make more sense of the emerging global footprints of MOOC platforms, I recently facilitated a mapping exercise with anonymized and aggregate (i.e. non-course specific) data regarding the location of students taking courses via Coursera. Fortunately, we have a wonderful Cartography Lab in the Department of Geography at UW-Madison. Coursera kindly provided the data in October and our cartographers went to work. What follows are two visualizations – one of the location of the 3+ million students (out of 5+ million) Coursera could geolocate, and one of Coursera’s expanding partnership base.



My thanks to Tanya Buckingham who worked on the above visualizations with GIS Certificate student Laura Poplett. I asked Tanya to provide some information about the first map posted above and this is what she had to say:

There are a two things about the data represented on the map that every reader should know. First, the participant data are represented using IP (Internet Protocol) address. A map of IP addresses will closely correspond to population density. Data are normalized to avoid creating a map of social phenomenon that simply reflects population density. In the experimental stages of this map, MOOC participants (as reported by IP address) were normalized with a denominator of global population information based on the LandScan dataset, from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In the calculations, this resulted in areas that had a higher MOOC population than total population within a given area. This could be due to a handful of reasons, including how IP addresses are counted and aggregated for a certain area, or where people are living versus where they are participating in the MOOC in which they are enrolled. Considering the data by sub-country administrative units also resulted in a less than helpful map, since the area of these administrative units vary so widely. Ultimately, a hexagon tessellation was calculated to cover the earth’s surface, without considering total population within those units. Restricting the area provided a normalization of sorts–think of it as population by square kilometer rather than a population by state or province, where it is expected that the largest areas would have the highest numbers. While the map does look similar to a population distribution in Europe and the United States it does diverge in other areas of the world.

The second thing readers should be aware of is the number of participants shown on the map are just over 3.5 million people, when there are over 5.5 million people are registered as Coursera students. If the data are a representative sample, we would expect to see similar patterns as shown on the map now. However, if there is bias for a region in the world where it is not possible to geographically locate IP addresses, mapping those additional 1.5 million students could illuminate new patterns or clusters of students in areas where they are not represented on the map now. It is because of the missing data that the legend shows a qualitative value of “high, medium, low, no” participation, rather than exact numbers of participants.

The visualizations above thus represent the approximate global footprint of one MOOC platform generated by the students who sought to take courses offered by an expanding list of partners. Regardless of whether you like the idea of MOOCs or not, MOOCs are arguably post-national higher education platforms. Their names are almost uniformly placeless. As I have noted before, the founders of US-based MOOC platforms like EdX, Coursera and Udacity [undergoing pivot] are immigrants to the US from around the world, and many of the staff working in their offices are also recent immigrants. The platforms/courses also serve a growing number of students around the world. On the basis of the first map, Coursera could, arguably, be viewed as a defacto European and Indian MOOC platform for it has a major presence in both of these territories. The sames goes for EdX. Indeed I argued this point in Brussels at a recent ACA/EUA workshop, though the representative at the workshop countered that they were the “European” MOOC platform for they were born in Europe and operated by European rules with respect to the protection of student data. Indeed he went on to flag how they would be more protected from the prying eye of the NSA (a worthwhile objective, though technologically to be determined!).

In any case my point is this: US-based platforms like Coursera and EdX are serving more and more students around the world, and they will continue to do so as long as the platforms exist and partners provide courses. Mediating factors obviously include language, the nature of the courses, access to the internet (the latter of which is captured well by the World Bank and the OECD in the figures below), and access to YouTube (which is used in most courses).InternetAccess



Thus, while there is an evident national and regional (in Europe) politics to MOOCs phenomenon, it is important to recognize that these courses reach students around the world, including in countries far less well resourced than the origin country of most MOOCs. And given this, we may need to remember this point more often and open up/reframe practices, discussions, debates, regulations, intra-university governance pathways, analyses, and so on, to recognize this empirical fact. We’ve seen some magazine articles and blog entries on this issue (most recently Anya Kamenetz on ‘The MOOC Evolution‘), but the transnational dimension of MOOC provision and consumption has received remarkably little sustained attention considering how important it is.

My thanks to Coursera for providing the data, and to Tanya Buckingham and Laura Poplett for working so hard to creatively and effectively map Coursera’s global footprint (as at October 2013).

Kris Olds

Briefly Noted (reactions to Sebastian Thrun’s Fast Company hagiography)

Who is troubled by this week’s Sebastian Thrun hagiography (‘Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course‘) in Fast Company, as well as this announcement (‘Launching our Data Science & Big Data Track built with Leading Industry Partners‘) via the Udacity blog (both posted on 14 November 2013)? A lot of committed open education thinkers and practitioners, so it seems, and not merely because of the hype machine Thrun so evidently cultivates (I’ll leave aside the possible negative reaction to Thrun getting photographed in Lycra tights through a filter borrowed from a 1970s Swedish cinematographer, or the journalist’s attempt to throw in a clichéd Matrix reference):

I’ve compiled these reflective reactions as they are the only ones to emerge apart from a lot of supportive (of Thrun) tweets that are circulating said Fast Company article far and wide. Will we see some supportive articles and blog entries emerge next week regarding Thrun’s latest “pivot”? We shall see…

Kris Olds

Briefly Noted via @GlobalHigherEd

This is the first entry in a new weekly update series profiling interesting and periodically quirky reports, talks, or articles related to the globalization of higher education and research. These entries will typically be posted on Fridays on this site which is always mirrored on Inside Higher Ed. Today’s entry can be located at:

This series is being developed to bridge my daily use of Twitter @GlobalHigherEd to track and share resources with more traditional blog entries that will be emerging weekly. Briefly Noted, clearly inspired by the New Yorker’s Briefly Noted series on books, is designed to provide some filtered and hopefully useful leads on what to read for those of you who have no interest in coping with the torrent of periodically useful information flowing through the Twitterverse. As the author William Gibson (in his Twitter service Great Dismal) puts it “Twitter is like little animated hieroglyphics in the margins of a working manuscript, offering obscurely breaking news.” More recently, Gibson stated that he uses Twitter as a platform for “novelty aggregation.” The GlobalHigherEd version of Briefly Noted is being designed to provide selective material pulled out of my weekly aggregation process.

Comments and recommendations welcome! Kris Olds


ON THE OCCASION OF HIS INSTALLATION AS THE 16TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, by Meric Gertler (7 November 2013). Meric Gertler, one of the world’s leading economic geographers, was formally installed yesterday at the University of Toronto. His address highlights the role of the university as a “critical piece of social infrastructure” not just in the Greater Toronto region, but also at a national and global scale. While an installation address is by necessity a brief one, Gertler outlines the need to address some serious challenges via pushing down (by recognizing and better leveraging “our location” in the Greater Toronto region), pushing out (by strengthening our international partnerships,” especially in other world cities like New York, São Paulo, and Shanghai), and by pushing inwards (by “reinventing undergraduate education”). I’ve flagged his address as these three strategies reflect an attempt to both support and take advantage of Toronto’s now hyper-cosmopolitan context and associated multi-scalar networks. Gertler’s role in guiding the transformation of the University of Toronto will be worth watching for he is already voicing the need to link the university’s internationalization strategy to mission, context, and all other development strategies (versus functioning as an add-on, appendage style, or as PR rhetoric with respect to internationalization). Some interesting times ahead over the next five years in Toronto, I suspect.

THE EDUCATION APOCALYPSE, by Audrey Watters (7 November 2013).  Audrey Watters, an education writer and one of the more acerbic critics of the MOOC juggernaut, posted a very informative critique on the coming “education apocalypse:”

I want to talk to you today about narratives of the education apocalypse, about eschatology and mythology and MOOCs and millennialism, and I do so not just as a keen observer of education technology but as someone trained as a folklorist. As much as being an ed-tech writer compels me to pay attention to the latest products and policies and venture capital investment, I am fascinated by the stories we tell about all of this. I am fascinated by what I see as some of the dominant end-times myths of the business world, of the tech industry. I am fascinated by how these myths — these sacred stories —  are deployed to talk about the end of the world —or at least  “the end of the university as we know it,” as Techcrunch puts it with the fervor of a true believer.

Watters focuses on the tropes and narrative tricks that analyst-entrepreneurs like Clayton Christensen (Harvard) and Sebastian Thrun (Udacity) use to make a case that their narratives are relevant, worth paying attention to, and equally important worth paying for. Her wittily crafted argument reminded me, somewhat, of Nigel Thrift’s writings on the “cultural circuit of capital” in his book Knowing Capitalism in that both of them seek to understand how and why invented development concepts become “unassailably true,” or practices such as “blended learning” get taken up and get incorporated into new political-economic agenda (like austerity). As Watters aptly puts it:

The structure to this sort of narrative is certainly a well-known and oft-told one in folklore — in tales of both a religious and secular sort. Doom. Suffering. Armageddon. Then paradise.

But who’s paradise is it?

OCEAN SCIENCE IN CANADA: MEETING THE CHALLENGE, SEIZING THE OPPORTUNITY, by the Expert Panel on Canadian Ocean Science (Council of Canadian Academies, November 2013). While the title of this report conveys a very Canada-focused study, the 200-page text does a wonderful job of positioning Canada in global context with respect to other spaces of knowledge production about ocean sciences. The charge framing the report was:

What are Canada’s needs and capacities with regard to the major research questions in ocean science that would enable it to address Canadian ocean issues and issues relating to Canada’s coasts and enhance its leading role as an international partner in ocean science?

This charge was addressed via an analysis of Canada’s “capacity in ocean science” via an assessment of: human capacity; organizations, networks, and collaboration; physical and information infrastructure; funding; policy and governance.

From a global higher ed perspective, Chapter 3 (Canada’s Output and Impact in Ocean Science) is fascinating. This chapter’s key findings

  • Canada ranks 7th in the world by number of ocean science papers published, and 11th in scientific impact of its papers, as measured by average relative citations.
  • Ocean science in Canada grew at a slower pace compared with other fields of science in 2003–2011, meaning that its share of Canada’s total research output declined during this period.
  • Although national organizations such as DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and Environment Canada are highly connected hubs, collaborations in Canada are otherwise more decentralized, resembling a network of regional clusters.
  • Ocean science papers with international co-authors are cited more often than papers with authors from a single country, especially from Canada.

are bolstered by a variety of very well designed visualizations that identify the spaces and networks of Ocean Science knowledge production. Four of these images are pasted in below. Who knew that inland Alberta and Switzerland were key sites of knowledge production related to the world’s oceans!

This report reminded me of some other recent reports and documents:

that are also are attempting to understand, and visually represent, the uneven spaces of knowledge production and circulation. In many of these reports the associated visualizations play an integral role in conveying key analytic messages. Thus, even if you are not interested in the ocean sciences, Ocean Science in Canada is still worth a read and could provide a model of sorts for assessments of other forms of research output and impact.









Making Sense of Euro MOOCs

Note: please link here for the Inside Higher Ed version of this article should you with to print it or share it more broadly.


Our European MOOCs in Global Context Workshop (19-20 June 2013 @ UW-Madison) went very well, in my biased opinion.  The event was kicked off by a provocative and well-crafted keynote lecture by George Siemens of Athabasca University. As I noted in the workshop webpage:

Siemens developed and taught (with Stephen Downes) the first ever ‘MOOC’ in 2008, and is one of the world’s leading experts on MOOCs. Siemens is an educator and researcher on learning, networks, analytics and visualization, openness, and organizational effectiveness in digital environments. He is the author of Knowing Knowledge, an exploration of how the context and characteristics of knowledge have changed and what it means to organizations today, and the Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning. Knowing Knowledge has been translated into Mandarin, Spanish, Persian, and Hungarian. Siemens is the Associate Director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University, leading the learning analytics research team. Previously, he was the Associate Director, Research and Development, with the Learning Technologies Centre at University of Manitoba. Siemens is also the co-founder of the newly established MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) which is being funded by the Gates Foundation.

An integrated slide/video (with captions) of Siemens’ keynote is available here for your viewing pleasure:


See below for those of you interested in Siemens’ slides, minus the audio/video element:


Siemens is a very informed analyst/practitioner/interlocutor regarding MOOCs, and it is a pleasure to engage with a person who clearly sees the pros and cons of the fast evolving MOOCs phenomenon, and especially the importance of viewing them from multiple perspectives (from the pedagogical through to the political-economic). I also recommend that you take a look at his reflections on his talk (‘Neoliberalism and MOOCs: Amplifying nonsense’) via the elearnspace blog, which includes this statement:

In recent presentations, I’ve been positioning MOOCs in terms of the complexification of higher education…. The argument is simple: Much of today’s economy is knowledge-based. In a knowledge economy, we need to be learning constantly. Universities have failed to recognize the pent-up demand for learning as the economy has diversified and society has become more complex and interconnected. As a consequence, the internet has contributed by creating a shadow education system where learners learn on their own and through social networks. MOOCs reflect society’s transition to a knowledge economy and reveal the inadequacy of existing university models to meet learner’s needs.

Following a perfectly timed (weather-wise) reception on the rooftop of our Education Building, we spent a full day engaging with the MOOCs phenomenon from a range of perspectives.  Michael Gaebel of the European University Association (EUA) and I laid some context for the day’s discussions. Michael’s slides are available here:


It’s worth noting that Gaebel is in charge of the EUA’s task force on MOOCs.

We then heard from representatives of EdX (Howard Lurie) and Coursera (Pang Wei Koh) about the ‘Place of Europe’ in their emerging global strategies. While there was a lot of information conveyed in these two informative talks and Q&A sessions, it is clear that Europe plays a very important part in the global strategies of EdX and Coursera. European universities are increasingly interested in engaging with these two platforms, and in so engaging with the platforms European universities are simultaneously altering the DNA of said platforms.  European universities bring with them particular understandings and approaches to online education, lifelong learning, credit transfer, inter-institutional cooperation, outreach/public service, governance, and capacity building. The linguistic dimensions of the MOOCs on offer have helped these two platforms grapple with multiple language matters both in Europe, but also in the vast post-colonial worlds Europe has footprints in. Indeed there is a structural logic for engaging with European universities in the early phase of truly global platform development as US universities are unilingual.

DillenbourgJune2013We then dug deep into the Euro MOOCs theme via a fascinating talk by Pierre Dillenbourg who spoke about the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Experience with MOOCs (Situated in the European Context). While we never recorded his talk, see below for his informative slides, as well as another of his presentations from an early June Euro MOOCs summit:



Linda Jorn (UW-Madison) and Pang Wei Koh (Coursera) ably responded to Dillenbourg’s informative presentation. Dillenbourg and others at EPFL are active and critically engaged practitioners regarding MOOCs. Their work with MOOCs seems to be situated in historic perspective, and taken very seriously regarding course vetting and development and learning analytics. It is no surprise, then, that EPFL is an emerging centre of dialogue and debate regarding European MOOCs. As noted in the photo of Dillenbourg above, their philosophy regarding MOOCs is it is “Better be an actor than a spectator.

A large panel discussions was then held regarding Emerging European Institutional Perspectives on MOOCs. Minister Antonio de Lecea (European Union), Michael Gaebel (European University Association), and Fernando Galán Palomares (European Students’ Union) spoke about the MOOCs phenomenon from their particular standpoints, and then Roger Dale (University of Bristol), Susan Robertson (University of Bristol), and Barbara McFadden Allen (Committee on Institutional Cooperation) responded with insight from equally diverse perspectives.

The final session involved Revisiting ‘Disruptor, Saviour, or Distractor: MOOCs and their role in higher education.’ Some time to digest Siemens’ keynote talk the night before, to get to know each other a little more, and to learn along the way, generated a variety of fascinating (I’m biased, I know, but they were!) reflections on the theme of European MOOCs in Global Context.  Amongst the many important points raised, three stand out in my mind a few weeks later while writing this summary up.

The first is that there is genuine interest in the MOOCs phenomenon in Europe. MOOCs have captured the imaginations, for good and for bad, of key European higher education stakeholders. This interest is partly driven by the US-led MOOCs juggernaut which is generating some angst and concerns in Europe. So yes, there is some concern about an initial U.S. domination of the MOOCs landscape, and the discourse about MOOCs. This said, there are many other reasons the MOOCs juggernaut is generating interest in European quarters. There is, for example, a long history of online/distance education in Europe and the MOOCs phenomenon both supports and destabilizes this movement and these historic players. European institutions of higher education also have advanced digitalization (for lack of a better word) and open education resource agendas underway on a number of levels and the MOOCs agenda has potential to sync in well with these. And European HEIs are being asked to do more and more to enhance opportunities for lifelong learning, and to build ties with alumni, and MOOCs have some potential uses on these two fronts.

Second, the global dimensions of the MOOCs phenomenon articulates in fascinating ways with the both the intra- and extra-dimensions of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). MOOCs have some potential to encourage virtual mobility across European space, to build understandings of how different European universities approach teaching and learning, and to share research expertise and strengths via open online courses. MOOCs, be they offered via European or non-European platforms, also enable European universities to reach into other world regions, often in languages other than English. In other words, MOOCs have some untested potential to enhance the building of interregionalisms – an agenda that has been underway since the global dimensions of the formalization of an external dimension to the Bologna Process was spurred on, in May 2005, when the Bergen Communiqué was issued. The Communiqué included the following statement:

The European Higher Education Area must be open and should be attractive to other parts of the world. Our contribution to achieving education for all should be based on the principle of sustainable development and be in accordance with the ongoing international work on developing guidelines for quality provision of crossborder higher education. We reiterate that in international academic cooperation, academic values should prevail.

We see the European Higher Education Area as a partner of higher education systems in other regions of the world, stimulating balanced student and staff exchange and cooperation between higher education institutions. We underline the importance of intercultural understanding and respect. We look forward to enhancing the understanding of the Bologna Process in other continents by sharing our experiences of reform processes with neighbouring regions. We stress the need for dialogue on issues of mutual interest. We see the need to identify partner regions and intensify the exchange of ideas and experiences with those regions.

The Bergen Communiqué then led to the development of a more formal 2007 strategy document titled Looking Out: The Bologna Process in Global Setting: On the External Dimension of the Bologna Process, from which the above quote is taken. And while this statement was issued before George Siemens and Stephen Downes taught the first MOOC in 2008, a read of the Bergen Communiqué and Looking Out will help you see how and why MOOCs might matter to select European higher ed stakeholders. Indeed, just last week the European Commission released a Communication titled ‘European higher education in the world.‘ [For the non-European readers of this entry, a Communication is a paper produced by the European Commission (EC), most often to the key institutions (e.g., Council of the European Union or the European Parliament). It is generally the outcome of a series of initiatives that might follow this sequence: the production of (i) a staff working paper, (ii) the development of a consultation paper that asks for wider inputs and views, and then, if it keeps proceeding it is in the form of (iii) a Communication. The decision to move to this stage is generally if the EC thinks it can get some traction on an issue to be discussed by these other agencies. This is not the only pattern or route, but it does register that issue has wider internal EC backing (that is in the nerve centres of power), and a sense that it might get traction with the Member States.]

As the EUA put it in their summary of ‘European higher education in the world‘, the new Communication:

places emphasis on the broad range of issues that are important for the internationalisation of European higher education. The document, which references the EC’s recent Communications “Modernising Europe’s Higher Education Systems” and “Rethinking Education”, places specific emphasis on how member states and higher education institutions can develop strategic international partnerships to tackle global challenges more effectively.

Among the key priorities outlined is the development of comprehensive internationalisation strategies at national and institutional level. The Commission states that such strategies should cover the following areas:

  • The promotion of international mobility of students and staff (for example through enhanced services for mobility, tools for recognition of studies, better visa procedures for foreign students and emphasis on two-way mobility – into and out of Europe).
  • The promotion of “internationalisation at home” and digital learning (including language learning, using ICT to internationalise curricula).
  • The strengthening of strategic cooperation, partnerships and capacity building (with emphasis on joint and double degrees, partnerships with business and also international development cooperation partnerships).

The EC aims to contribute to the realisation of this strategy through stronger policy support and financial incentives for internationalisation strategies in particular through the future EU programme for education that will be called Erasmus+ (formerly called Erasmus for All). It said the programme, which still needs to be formally approved at the EU level, would integrate external funding instruments and put an end to the fragmentation of the various existing external higher education programmes. It would also link these closer to intra-European cooperation, as the EC said it would provide increased support for mobility to and from non-EU countries through Erasmus+ and the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (under Horizon 2020). The Commission also outlines measures in the areas of quality/transparency, cooperation and policy dialogue.

It is worth taking note of what is stated on page 7 of ‘European higher education in the world:

While online courses and degrees are not a new phenomenon, the exponential increase in the supply of online education and digital material, as well as the increase in the provision of assessment, validation and academic credit by selected MOOCs (an emerging trend particularly with many HEIs in countries such as the US and Australia) has the potential of transforming higher education radically. New trends in digital education and the emergence of MOOCs should be an incentive for HEIs to rethink their cost structures and possibly also their missions, and engage in worldwide partnerships to increase the quality of content and of the learning experience through blended learning.

Europe must take the lead in the global efforts to exploit the potential of digital education – including the availability of ICT, the use of OER and the provision of MOOCs – and to overcome the systemic obstacles that still exist in quality assurance, student assessment and recognition, as well as funding. This potential and obstacles will be addressed in a future Commission initiative. [emphasis in original]

Third, it is clear that while in some ways MOOCs are a post-national phenomenon given their multiple identities and citizenships of their visionaries, albeit propelled by well resourced U.S. MOOC platforms, the institutionalization and governance dimensions of MOOCs in Europe are only just unfolding in a complex and different (in comparison to the U.S.) state-society-economy context.

For example, we were pleased that Antonio de Lecea, Minister and Principal Advisor for Economic and Financial Affairs Delegation of the European Union to the United States, was able to join us for the entire workshop. Minister de Lecea provided some fascinating insights on the EU’s emerging views regarding MOOCs and broader contextual factors regarding politics, regulatory systems, and debates about important issues like data privacy (a rather topical issue right now!). As de Lecea, Michael Gaebel, Mark Johnson, Fernando Galán Palomares, Roger Dale, and Susan Robertson all pointed out, Europe is inevitably going to take a broader and more strategic approach to MOOCs than what we see unfolding in the U.S. Given this it is important to critically deliberate about the nature of the MOOCs phenomenon so wise decisions can be made by key European institutions.

Indeed it is clear that the message that MOOCs are no silver bullet for revolutionizing higher education, and resolving all sorts of crises and tensions, is being recognized. In short, proselytizing and the hype factor is evident in Europe, as it is here in the U.S., but given what I witnessed with respect those representing the EU, the EUA, and the ESU, not to mention specific European universities (Bristol and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), the MOOCs phenomenon is being grappled with in a relatively informed and critically engaged manner. And in doing so, we here in North America, and at UW-Madison, are learning much about MOOCs, as well as Europe, at the same time.

My thanks to all of the participants for their many inputs, and to the many UW-Madison units (the European Union Center of Excellence with additional support via Education Innovation, Division of Continuing Studies, Division of Information Technology, L&S Learning Support Services, Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, Department of Geography) that made this Euro MOOCs event possible.

Kris Olds

European MOOCs in Global Context Workshop (19-20 June 2013 @ UW-Madison)


Schedule Summary


Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were ‘invented’ in Canada in 2008, and then became transformed, institutionalized and scaled up via the efforts of people, universities, and firms, in the Boston and San Francisco Bay Area city-regions. In the process debates about MOOCs have blossomed, entangled as they are in discussions about online pedagogy through to longer-standing debates about lifelong learning, internationalization, austerity, ‘disruptive innovation,’ public service, deterritorialization, education reform, and many (many) other issues.

EUBldgThe European MOOCs in Global Context Workshop, a free and open access (i.e. no RSVP) event will be held in the Wisconsin Idea Room, Education Building, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 19-20 June 2013, This workshop is designed to engender discussion and debate about the MOOCs phenomenon from a European perspective, as well as about the implications of the MOOCs juggernaut for European universities and students. We seek to learn about MOOCs by contextualizing them, speaking about their histories and geographies, their technologies and aspirational futures, as well as their uneven geographies and power geometries. In doing so we hope that participants will become more astute thinkers about potentials and limits of MOOCs, not to mention how to situate the fast changing MOOCs phenomenon. Given this workshop attendees need not be Europeanists; you simply need to be interested in MOOCs, online learning, and the transformation of higher education more generally.

gsiemens_unesco-1The workshop kicks off with a 5:00 pm keynote talk on Wednesday 19 June by George Siemens (Athabasca University, Canada). George Siemens developed and taught (with Stephen Downes) the first ever ‘MOOC’ in 2008, and is one of the world’s leading experts on MOOCs. Siemens is an educator and researcher on learning, networks, analytics and visualization, openness, and organizational effectiveness in digital environments. He is the author of Knowing Knowledge, an exploration of how the context and characteristics of knowledge have changed and what it means to organizations today, and the Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning. Knowing Knowledge has been translated into Mandarin, Spanish, Persian, and Hungarian. Siemens is the Associate Director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University, leading the learning analytics research team. Previously, he was the Associate Director, Research and Development, with the Learning Technologies Centre at University of Manitoba. Siemens is also the co-founder of the newly established MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) which is being funded by the Gates Foundation.

The title of Siemens’ keynote talk at UW-Madison is ‘Disruptor, Saviour, or Distractor: MOOCs and their role in higher education.’ An open reception on the Education Building’s rooftop terrace will follow.

The remainder of the workshop will be held on 20 June from approximately 9:00 am to ~2:00 pm. A detailed schedule is under development and will be posted here in early June. Additional visiting speakers and panelists include:

  • Roger Dale (University of Bristol, UK). Roger Dale is Professor of Education. Until 2002, he was Professor of Education at the University of Auckland. Prior to moving to Auckland, he had been involved in producing courses in sociology of education and education policy at the UK’s Open University for almost 20 years. He conducts research on the EU and education policy, complementing and extending qualitatively his earlier work on the state and education policy. He was Scientific Coordinator of the EU’s Network of Experts on Social Science and Education (NESSE), and Academic Coordinator of the EU Erasmus Thematic Network, GENIE (Globalisation and Europeanisation in Education) which was based in the University of Bristol’s Centre for Research on Globalisation, Education and Societies.
  • Pierre Dillenbourg (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, EPFL, Switzerland). Pierre Dillenbourg is academic director of EPFL’s Center for Digital Education and head of the Computer-Human Interaction for Learning & Instruction Lab. He is lead organizer of EPFL’s European MOOC Summit (6-7 June 2013; see slides below), and one of the world’s leading thinkers about the nature of MOOCs and learning analytics. He started his research on learning technologies in 1984, and conducts research on MOOCs, computer-supported collaborative learning & work, learning technologies, and human-computer interaction.
  • Michael Gaebel (European University Association, EUA, Belgium). Michael Gaebel is the Head of the Higher Education Policy Unit, which focuses on the Bologna Process, lifelong learning, internationalisation and global dialogue. When he first joined the EUA in 2006, he was in charge of developing EUA’s international strategy and global exchange and cooperation. Mr. Gaebel is in charge of the EUA’s task force on MOOCs. The EUA represents and supports over 860 higher education institutions in 47 countries, providing them with a unique forum to cooperate and keep abreast of the latest trends in higher education and research policies.
  • Fernando M Galán Palomares (European Students’ Union, ESU, Belgium). Mr. Galán Palomares is incoming Vice-Chair of the ESU Executive Committee with responsibilities including quality assurance. The European Students’ Union (ESU) is the umbrella organisation of 47 National Unions of Students (NUS) from 39 countries. The aim of ESU is to represent and promote the educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students at the European level towards all relevant bodies and in particular the European Union, Bologna Follow Up Group, Council of Europe and UNESCO. Through its members, ESU represents over 15 million students in Europe. It is also worth noting that the ESU adopted a new policy about MOOCs in their last General Assembly.
  • Mark Johnson (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA). Mark S. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was previously associate professor of history and education at Colorado College. His research and teaching interests focus on education in Russia and Central Eurasia, especially post-Soviet higher education; and comparative studies of soft power and public diplomacy programs. He has worked as a consultant and evaluator for organizations including the U.S. Department of State, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Bureau of Asian Research, the Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Civilian Research and Development Foundation, the World Bank, the National Research University HigherSchool of Economics in Russia, and Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan.
  • Linda Jorn (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA). Linda Jorn serves as Associate Vice Provost of Learning Technologies and Division of Information Technology (DoIT) Director of Academic Technology (AT) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently leads a team of 80 academic technology professionals that provide a suite of 22 services to campus; several AT team members co-lead, with other campus partners, the campus-wide MOOC pilot. She is passionate about designing academic technology services and developing key partnerships that take a scholarly approach to advancing learning and research through the innovative and thoughtful use of technology. In her day-to-day work, she draws on her academic and work background in curriculum and instruction, rhetoric, communication, nursing, qualitative research, and leadership. Linda regularly serves on review committees for national learning technology grants and advisory boards for national and regional organizations.
  • Pang Wei Koh (Coursera, USA). Pang Wei Koh is Head of Course Operations at Coursera, where he oversees the design, implementation, and support of all online classes on the Coursera platform, and works with faculty and staff from nearly 80 partner institutions to push the envelope in digital pedagogy. Before joining Coursera, Pang Wei worked on computational biology and machine learning in the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab with Professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, Coursera’s co-founders; his work on computational cancer morphology was recently recognized by several awards, including the Ernest Walton Medal for Computer Science, awarded by the President of Ireland.
  • Antonio de Lecea (Delegation of the European Union to the United States). Antonio de Lecea is Minister and Principal Advisor for Economic and Financial Affairs Delegation of the European Union to the United States. Prior to joining the Delegation, Dr. de Lecea served as the Director for International Affairs in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs, steering analytical and policy support for the Commission’s economic relations with non-EU countries and multilateral and regional economic institutions including the IMF, the World Bank, the G-20, the G7/G8, and the OECD. From 1999 to 2004, Dr. de Lecea was the economic advisor to then-European Commission President Romano Prodi. Before joining the European Commission, Dr. de Lecea served in the private office of the Spanish Secretary of State for Finance in Madrid and in academia (at Basque Country University (UPV), in Bilbao, Spain).
  • Barbara McFadden Allen (Committee on Institutional Cooperation, USA). Barbara McFadden Allen is Executive Director of the CIC (a consortium made up of members of the Big Ten Athletic Conference and the University of Chicago). She is responsible for the overall conduct of the CIC headquarters’ staff and programs, and works with the Members (chief academic officers) to define and implement the consortium’s mission and agenda. CIC universities co-own and operate a multi-million dollar fiber optic network; have partnered with Google to digitize our university libraries; and develop and coordinate innovative academic & research collaborations.
  • Howard Lurie (EdX, USA). Howard Lurie is Vice President of External Affairs, EdX. He has taught and designed online courses and managed digital content collections for internationally known educational non-profits, including Facing History and Ourselves. These experiences leveraged a 15-year teaching career, during which Howard taught history and digital humanities. Prior to joining edX, Howard served as the Managing Director for PBS LearningMedia, a nationally recognized digital learning platform produced by the Public Broadcasting System, and also served as the Associate Director for Education at the WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston, Mass. Mr. Lurie will be speaking via Skype on Thursday morning.
  • Kris Olds (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA). Kris Olds is Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Geography, UW-Madison. Olds’ research focuses on the globalization of the services industries (including higher education, architecture, property) and their relationship to urban and regional change. He has played a variety of strategic service roles for UW-Madison, as well as for organizations including the OECD, NAFSA, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the International Association of Universities, and the Association of Commonwealth Universities. He is currently developing a MOOC (Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the ‘Knowledge Economy’) with Susan Robertson (University of Bristol).
  • Susan L. Robertson (University of Bristol, UK). Susan Robertson is Professor, Sociology of Education, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. She is also Director of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Globalisation, Education and Societies, and co-editor of the journal Globalisation, Societies and Education. Robertson’s research focuses on the political economy of the education sector, and how education is the object and outcome of converging and diverging policies and practices around the globe. These include creating education as a services sector, the commercialisation of education, and the increased role of for-profit actors in the sector. An important aspect of this transformation has been the growth of international agencies and transnational firms in shaping these processes. She is currently developing a MOOC (Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the ‘Knowledge Economy’) with Kris Olds of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

UW-Madison Sponsors: European Union Center of Excellence with additional support via Education Innovation, Division of Continuing Studies, Division of Information Technology, Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, Department of Geography.

Further Information: Please note that this is an open and free event – all are welcome, regardless of your affiliation, and there is no need to sign up as an attendee.  All sessions, apart from the 19 June reception, will happen in the Wisconsin Idea Room, Education Building, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Contact: Kris Olds, Professor and Department Chair, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Email:

Note: The slides below were presented at EPFL’s European MOOC Summit (6-7 June 2013) and are worth perusing before our workshop.



Also see these entries on related themes in Inside Higher Ed:


Madison, WI June 7th, 2013 (pic taken by Katie Hermsen)

Can Canada Attract American Students?

Alex Usher posted a pithy entry this morning titled ‘The Latest Bandwagon – American Students‘ that is worth a read.  In fact, it is a short one so I’m going to reprint the whole thing below, and then reflect back on his discussion of the emerging view that Canadian universities could/should recruit more American undergraduate students. I’m basing my comments below via reflections of my Gr. 12 son’s experience this year applying to five Canadian and five US universities, as well as a discussion I coincidentally coordinated with approximately 140 UW-Madison students a few days ago in my summer version of Geog 340 (World Regions in Global Context). This discussion involved engendering comparative thinking about regional similarities and differences and centered on a hypothetical study abroad year split in half between l’Auberge Espagnole (in Barcelona) and l’Auberge Canadian (in the Canadian city of their choice). The exercise ended in a hypothetical forced decision about having to choose between a future life in Spain or Canada should they be forced out of the country of their citizenship.  The objective of this discussion was to get them to begin reflecting on how student mobility and placement in new contexts contributes to the transformation of personal identities and subjectivities.

Now I don’t want to embarrass my teenage son, so I’ll leave out the details of which specific universities he applied to, but let’s just say they were relatively strong universities and liberal arts colleges, some in the big cities and some in small-to-medium sized cities.  My son is a Canadian citizen and US Permanent Resident so is treated as Canadian when it comes to tuition in Canada (which puts them, I would estimate, 25-50% below the average tuition for a US public university). And my ~ 140 UW-Madison students are predominantly juniors and seniors from the Midwest, the US coasts, and then Malaysia, South Korea, and China.

So what does Alex Usher have to say:

Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a lot of talk about US students coming to Canada.  NBC ran a segment on Americans at McGill, and the Globe and Mail ran a piece on the same.  This seems to have led many institutions to start thinking “hot damn, another market! How can we grab us some of these Americans?”

But for most institutions, this would be the wrong reaction.  Before venturing into a market, every school needs to ask itself two questions.  Why would Americans want to go to your school?  And why does your school want Americans?

Before a school starts recruiting in the US (any new market, really), some self-reflection is in order.  What, exactly, does my school offer an American that they can’t get at home?  “Cheap” isn’t good enough; Mexican universities are cheap but you don’t see American undergraduates flocking there (they weren’t flocking over our border when the dollar was at 62 cents, either).  There has to be a value proposition.

In fact, there are maybe a dozen schools in Canada that offer a mix of price and quality that make them attractive to parts of the US student population.  Students wishing to go to out-of-state flagship schools – say, Illinois or Virginia – can get similar product at a lower price in a better venue by going to McGill, Toronto or UBC (Queen’s would have a shot here, too; at a stretch, so would Alberta).  Students with their hearts set on a liberal arts education but who can’t get into any of the Tier I Liberal Arts Colleges in the US would consider St. FX, Acadia, Mount Allison or Bishop’s.  Windsor has a shot due to proximity.  For everybody else, it’s going to be a much harder sell.

Which brings us to that second question about “why Americans”: to the extent that international students are revenue sources, it’s important that they be cheap to recruit, so as to maximize net revenue.  If you’re not one of the above-mentioned institutions with a clear-cut value proposition, chances are that American students will be difficult and expensive to recruit. So why spend money chasing after them instead of, say, Korean students, when they all bring in the same amount of revenue?  You might of course just want American students because of the mix of experiences they bring to campus.  That’s fine – but you need to put a price tag on what that’s worth and limit your recruitment efforts accordingly.

In recruitment, every dollar is precious.  Institutions need to know their strengths and value propositions, and not chase every new market just because it’s new.

I agree with the broad tenor of Alex’s argument, but have some things to add.

The first thing to add is that Canadian universities (and Canada more generally) are terra incognita institutions (apart from McGill University, and then sometimes the University of Toronto and University of British Columbia) in a terra incognita country from a US high schooler’s perspective. This awareness factor is in no way correlated to the quality of the undergraduate education a student will acquire – it relates, in my personal opinion (as an academic living in a college town in the US for 12 years) to word of mouth via educated parents, many of whom value cosmopolitan urban contexts. In other words, Alex’s “maybe a dozen schools” is very optimistic in my view. Knowledge (or lack thereof) about Canadian universities reflects the remarkable lack of knowledge about Canada. School curriculum ignores Canada, as does the US media.  A few blips occur — most recently about the Keystone Pipeline and Toronto’s Mayor (cough cough…further comments from me censored) — but Canada is hockey, fishing, and for the elites Whistler-Blackcomb and Montréal. I’m generalizing, of course, via my perch here dealing with university-fixated parents in College Town WI/USA, but I’ve facilitated discussions about Canada with 500-800 students over the last several years and am confident in stating that Canada is terra incognita no question about it. I am no longer shocked about what US students don’t know, and just pleasantly surprised if they know something, anything (and is not their fault; blame the education system here and Canada’s unwillingness or inability to beam the CBC down south).

OUACThe second thing to note is that the timelines for applying to universities in Canada are significantly out of alignment with those in the United States.  US high school students, bound for college, often take tours of campuses in Gr. 10 and Gr. 11 and have decided, by the summer before Gr. 12, where they will apply to in the early fall. University application deadlines (Early Decision, Early Action, Regular Decision) via the Common Application, are earlier than in Canada (especially Ontario).  Most importantly, decisions about admission are made much earlier in the U.S. than in Canadian universities. And on a related note, U.S. universities are much better at stipulating the date decisions will be made, and at providing feedback on how (e.g., email, or downloaded PDF of letter, or letter in the mail) the decision will be communicated. They stick to the exact stated dates so you feel a sense of enhanced certainty during uncertain times. Rejections come with clear and well written letters that provides data on application volumes and admissions percentages, often situated in historic context. [And don’t forget these are not difficult to produce, or costly to disseminate – they are simple form letters made available, for the most part, via email or download sites. But they at least recognize that a student put a lot of effort into applying and was willing to alter life course to attend their university.] In contrast, many (not all) Canadian universities provided vague rolling windows about target decision deadlines. And I won’t start discussing how ineffective the Ontario Universities Application Center OUAC) website is – I mean, why imply decision outcomes will be communicated via it when they are not? The image above is a screenshot, taken today, of the OUAC page meant to communicate to my son about admissions decisions that were made by three Ontario universities some 1-1.5 months ago…perhaps the OUAC site is run by Mayor Ford’s office! [sorry]

The third reason Canada has an uphill climb to attract students is that the cost to attend a Canadian university is relatively high. Canadian universities have less scholarships to distribute unless you are a stellar student and once you add up the costs of international tuition fees and books, housing/food, and living (including air travel to and from Canadian cities), the costs are substantial, putting Canadian universities practically and psychologically (for parents) out of reach.  I’m not implying Canada needs to ramp up scholarship support for non-Canadians, but it is not as cheap as is often conveyed, especially with a broader, deeper, and more heterogeneous scholarship and tuition support (including via discounted rates) ecosystem in the US.

If Canada ever wants to attract more US students, I would agree with Alex Usher that institutions “need to know their strengths and value propositions.” But at the same time some not insignificant systemic changes need to be made regarding:

  • How US students (and their parents) are engaged with in Gr. 10-12.
  • How the application process is timed, structured and handled.
  • How communications with applicants (at the application stage, the review stage, and the admissions or waitlist or rejection stages) are structured and handled.
  • How college financing is structured and communicated (to students, and especially parents).

Alas there is not much Canada can do to improve how it is represented in the media down here, though I did note George Stroumboulopoulos (and CNN) flew the Canadian flag high last night…Strombo for Mayor?!

Kris Olds