Cities, MOOCs and Global Networks

The last several days of higher ed media coverage have been rich with discussions about the tangle of global networks being formed.  A case in point is this announcement, by Imperial College London and Zhejiang University, to collaborate on a new initiative in London’s White City. Much like the Amsterdam’s plans to establish a new university (‘On Amsterdam’s Plans to Establish a Third University‘), and the Cornell-Technion experiment in New York City, these global networks are quite tightly configured and very urban-centered: they are being harnessed to create new spaces of knowledge production to creatively unsettle and hopefully strengthen city-region innovation systems.

On the global/urban theme, today’s coverage also included news about the expansion of a Boston-based massive open online course (MOOC) platform – EdX – such that it will now double in size and serve universities from many more parts of the world. The EdX press release explains the nature of the expansion, while these two images from the EdX website – the first reflecting membership yesterday, and the second membership today – make it very clear EdX is now a much more global (if unevenly!) platform:

EdX (20 May 2013)

banner-edx copy

EdX (21 May 2013)

EdX 21 May 2013

See below for further information about the founding universities of the two big MOOC platforms – Coursera and EdX – as well as the non-US universities that have joined these platforms over time.  Please note that I have not included information about the inclusion of additional US universities after platform formation – this is only a list the non-US members that were added over time.

Coursera — Established Fall 2011 | Four founding US universities as of April 2012

  • Princeton University
  • Stanford University
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Pennsylvania
EdX — Established May 2012 | Two founding US universities
  • Harvard University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Coursera — Expansion on 17 July 2012 includes three non-US universities

  • École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland)
  • University of Edinburgh (UK)
  • University of Toronto (Canada)

Coursera — Expansion on 19 September 2012 includes five non-US universities

  • University of British Columbia (Canada)
  • Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel)
  • Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Hong Kong SAR)
  • University of London (UK)
  • University of Melbourne (Australia)

EdX —  Expansion on 20 February 2013 includes five non-US universities

  • The Australian National University (Australia)
  • Delft University of Technology (Netherlands)
  • École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland)
  • McGill University (Canada)
  • University of Toronto (Canada)

Coursera — Expansion on 21 February 2013 includes 16 non-US universities

Latin America

  • Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Mexico)
  • Tecnológico de Monterrey (Mexico)


  • Ecole Polytechnique (France)
  • IE Business School (Spain)
  • Leiden University (Netherlands)
  • Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Muenchen (Germany)
  • Sapienza, University of Rome (Italy)
  • Technical University Munich (Germany)
  • Technical University of Denmark (Denmark)
  • University of Copenhagen (Denmark)
  • University of Geneva (Switzerland)
  • Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona (Spain)


  • Chinese University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong SAR)
  • National Taiwan University (Taiwan)
  • National University of Singapore (Singapore)
  • University of Tokyo (Japan)

EdX — Expansion on 21 May 2013 includes 10 non-US universities


  • University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong SAR)
  • Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (Hong Kong SAR)
  • Kyoto University (Japan)
  • Peking University (China)
  • Seoul National University (South Korea)
  • Tsinghua University (China)


  • University of Queensland (Australia)


  • Karolinska Institutet (Sweden)
  • Université catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium)
  • Technische Universität München (Germany)

The expanding, albeit unevenly, global footprint of U.S. MOOC platforms is fascinating for a number of reasons.

First, debates about the governance of this phenomenon cannot help but become increasingly complicated.  It’s difficult enough governing higher education institutions within a single nation or sub-national region and yet here we have dynamics including accreditation, quality assurance, faculty and student rights and responsibilities, pedagogy, student confidentiality, intellectual property (IP), etc., becoming rapidly denationalized. What this development process does is profoundly unsettle all relevant discussions, debates and governance options. And while we see some fruitful debates in articles like ‘MOOC Professors Claim No Responsibility for How Courses Are Used‘ in today’s Chronicle, it is striking how underlain they are by what sociologists of education deem ‘methodological nationalism’ – the assumption that we’re still operating in, and thinking in, an era where the national is the key frame for debates, research, regulation, assumptions, and so on. A scan of the comments in the Chronicle article reflect a genuinely needed debate about relational responsibilities and ethics but it is as if the development process is primarily taking part in a container – a very US container. And yet MOOCs are open access and generate global footprints, by design — see this map posted today, for example, of the 45,000 students enrolled in Emory professor Steve Everett’s ‘Introduction to Digital Sound Design‘ MOOC if you want a sense of the reality of the student spread of many (not all) MOOCs.

Can we debate about MOOCs in post-national ways? If so, where should we be debating about MOOCs and the implications of their global expansion? Are MOOCs governable at a global scale? So many questions, so few answers.

Second, and on a related note, representatives of Coursera and EdX are becoming, for practical reasons, the most informed repositories of data and knowledge about inter-institutional and international patterns, processes, and politics, regarding MOOCs. As with the deterritorialization of academic freedom, which puts senior ministers and monarchs in the Gulf and Asia at the center of bilateral relations between state and university, the global expansion of MOOCs puts the leaders and senior officials of Coursera and EdX at the center of bilateral relations between platform and university. There is thus a power geometry to the MOOC development process that is strikingly similar to that universities also have with world university rankers. In short, there is no associational intermediary shaping how universities relate to the two big MOOC platforms – it is a bilateral one that is centered much like the London Eye dynamic I described here. Is this to be expected? Is this to be desired? What are associations of universities and disciplinary bodies (e.g., Geography, History, Computer Science, Physics) doing besides watching the development process unfold?

In closing, cities are functioning as the basing points, and target spots, for the globalization of higher education.  There is a complicated relationship between the emergence of EdX and Coursera and their respective home city-regions. And now we’re seeing universities from around the world seeking and/or being invited to forge relations with these two platforms, and then using their technological prowess, marketing savvy, and fiscal resources to amplify and extend their extra-institutional reach, including at a regional and global scale.

But what are the implications of a development process unfolding further along these lines? Will regional initiatives, like Europe’s OpenupEd platform, or national initiatives like the UK’s Futurelearn or Australia’s Open2Study, enable more effective and diverse experimentation with MOOCs? Or are they setting themselves up for failure by locking in at a national and/or regional scale, thereby precluding the openness to membership that EdX and Coursera are displaying? Are EdX and Coursera acting like exclusive clubs, leaving national and regional agencies to create their own platforms for universities unable to break in (assuming they wish to)?

One way or another, the Boston and San Francisco Bay Area city-regions have blended ideas born elsewhere (including in Canada) with their own experiences, drawn in substantial resources, and powered up a global MOOCs juggernaut. And yes there is far too much hype (especially in the austerity-rattled U.S.) regarding MOOCs, but this is no time to back off on sustained engagement with such a fast changing phenomenon.

Kris Olds

Globalizing MOOCs

Link here for an Inside Higher Ed version of the same article.


After nearly 12 years living in the United States, I continue to be perplexed by this country. As I noted when acting as a respondent to Anya Kamenetz at ED Talks Wisconsin last Friday night, the US is an amazing place when it it comes to unleashing and scaling up a multiplicity of innovations related to higher education. Kamenetz’s recent books capture many of these innovations; a veritable cacophony of experiments, some successful, some still with us, and some quickly dated (is anyone still talking about Second Life?!). This said, the US has a troubling history of seeking easy ‘silver bullet’ solutions to complex higher ed challenges that can only be addressed by the state and other stakeholders (including universities) in a strategic, systemic, and sustained way.

Back on the ed innovation topic, as an economic geographer it is mandatory of me to point out that all innovations are placed; they’re dreamt up, variably fueled, and then scaled up such that they can potentially leave their mark on multiple locales and/or larger numbers of people. The unruly process of innovation, being what it is, means that innovations are translated – the take-up/utilization process, the interpretation process, and the impact generation process, vary across space and time via the translation process.

A case in point is the phenomenon of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). While we can argue about important histories and practices, we do know that the first online MOOC was dreamt up and run in Canada (see ‘What is a MOOC? 100k people want to know‘ and ‘All about MOOCs‘) courtesy of some innovative scholars, state-run funding councils (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the National Research Council), and the facilitative work of two universities (the University of Manitoba and the University of Prince Edward Island).

It’s also worth noting that three of these scholars (Dave Cormier, George Siemens, and Bonnie Stewart) are co-authoring a book length manuscript about MOOCs. I’m thrilled that some reflective practitioners are crafting a book that uses MOOCs as a lens through which to make sense of the transformation of higher education. The narration of the early history of MOOCs is also an important activity as the scale of hype needs to be matched by quality analyses that factor in a wide array of developmental dynamics. See, for example, this informative talk in February 2013 by George Siemens:

Link here for a copy of his slides.

Keep an eye on the websites and Twitter feeds below, too, for insights and a range of reactions as the formative thinkers behind the MOOC phenomenon react with a mix of fascination and horror to what is unfolding right now.


Dave Cormier

Stephen Downes

George Siemens

Bonnie Stewart

While there is a lot of attention to the role of key disciplines (especially computer science), universities (Stanford, MIT, Harvard) and key city-regions (Silicon Valley, Boston) in the subsequent creation of the MOOC juggernaut we’re so intensively debating, it is also worth reflecting upon the way the idea of the MOOC has been taken up and interpreted outside of North America.

As noted in an earlier entry (‘Are MOOCs becoming mechanisms for international competition in global higher ed?‘), MOOCs are generating some serious attention and concern in other parts of the world. This has led an increasingly large number of non-US universities to tie up with platforms like Coursera and edX as was evident when they expanded a few weeks ago (see ‘Twice as Many MOOCs‘). Meanwhile, the UK has launched its own MOOC (Futurelearn), the University of Amsterdam is experimenting with its own MOOC, and a Berlin-based platform known as iversity has “relaunched” as a MOOC platform with an eye to “becoming the Coursera Of Europe.” Thus while we see the UK’s Futurelearn driven by the state (and public universities), this nascent ‘European’ platform is being driven ideas and capital associated with a German think tank and investors including “BFB Frühphasenfonds Brandenburg, bmp media investors AG and the Business Angel Masoud Kamali.”

On the other side of the world, the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade), though largely via its Washington DC-based office, has been tracking this phenomenon and recently published a report (‘More than MOOCS: Opportunities arising from disruptive technologies in education’) on MOOCs from an Australian perspective. Unfortunately the Austrade report cannot be publicly circulated which is unfortunate given the ostensibly ‘open’ nature of the phenomenon. In contrast the European University Association (EUA) has been happy to encourage the circulation of its early views on MOOCs via this February 2013 report. It is is worth noting that the EUA has launched a taskforce to consider this phenomenon in a more strategic sense.

All of the above, and many things I have not flagged, act as food for fodder for the MOOC I am just starting to develop with my colleague and GlobalHigherEd co-editor, Susan Robertson. The course is titled Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the ‘Knowledge Economy’ and it starts in January 2014. As we note on the course site:

Universities, and higher education systems worldwide, are being transformed by new or changing practices, programs, policies, and agendas. From notions of ‘global competency’ and the ‘global engineer,’ through to ever more common perceptions that international collaborative research is a desirable objective, through to the phenomena of bibliometrics, rankings and benchmarking that work at a global scale, contexts are changing.

This course is designed to help students better understand the complex and rapidly changing nature of higher education and research in a globalizing era. A complementary objective is to experiment with the MOOC platform and assess how well it works to support international collaborative teaching and service.

While we have not yet developed a detailed syllabus, it is clear that we we’ll be including one class on the long history of distance education, in which we’ll assessing MOOCs and their developmental dynamics. With some effort, and creative thinking, we hope to stretch the Coursera platform along the way so that it incorporates some of the more connectivist agendas built into the first MOOCs. Indeed this already happened in small but important way. To cut a long story short, the launch process involved providing a variety of forms of information about the course and the instructors to the CA-based firm. Coursera, however, signs contracts with individual universities and courses are listed by university name or subject. On launch day (20 February 2013) the platform implied Susan was a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor. After several hours of work Coursera’s engineers were eventually able to reconfigure the platform to recognize multi-institutional affiliations: this was not a surface edit of their website for an element of the entire platform had to be redesigned. While our course is still badged as a UW-Madison one (the University of Bristol is not affiliated with Coursera), this is, perhaps, a tiny step on the path to creating more effective and open international collaborative platforms for teaching, advising, and public service.

Kris Olds

Memo to Board of Trustees re: Thomas Friedman’s ‘Revolution Hits the Universities’ in Sunday’s New York Times

Link here for the Inside Higher Ed version of this entry.


27 January 2013

Dear [hypothetical] colleagues,

I am sure you, or some of your fellow trustees, noticed Thomas Friedman’s op-ed (‘Revolution Hits the Universities’) in this weekend’s Sunday New York Times. Friedman, author of The World is Flat, did a characteristically effective job in raising attention about a phenomenon (Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs) worth thinking about.

If you have not already pushed your senior leadership to respond regarding the MOOCs idea, I’m sure this op-ed will become the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. The questions you might initially ask include, no doubt, are we in the MOOCs game? If so, what’s on offer, or in the pipeline? And if not, why not, or what’s the hold-up or valid counter-argument. This is, after all one of the issues that stirred up last summer’s brouhaha over governance at the University of Virginia.

To be sure, it is an opportune time to engender a broader debate about the MOOCs phenomenon. This is an era of significant change in the nature and futures of higher ed. Moody’s, for example, downgraded the entire US higher education sector on 16 January and released a report that included this striking time-series graph:


As Moody’s also pointed in the same report, MOOCs are partially an outcome of a:

fundamental shift in strategy by industry leaders to embrace technological changes that have threatened to destabilize the residential college and university’s business model over the long run.

Thus MOOCs can be perceived of as a threat; a private authority-enabled mechanism that may lead to the unbundling and separating out of the provision of some teaching services from the faculty base at your institution, as well as many aspects of the direct and indirect credentialing process.

For those in the MOOCs game, are there at least some benefits for universities? In the same report Moody’s notes that there are, for some types of universities at least (the types Friedman praises in his op-ed), and these could include:

  1. New revenue opportunities through fees for certificates, courses, degrees, licensing or advertisement
  2. Improved operating efficiencies due to the lower cost of course delivery on a per student basis
  3. Heightened global brand recognition, removing geographic campus-based barriers to attracting students and faculty
  4. Enhanced and protected core residential campus experience for students at traditional not-for-profit and public universities
  5. Longer term potential to create new networks of much greater scale across the sector, allowing more colleges and universities to specialize while also reducing operating costs
  6. New competitive pressure on for-profit, and some not-for-profit, universities that fail to align with emerging high-reputation networks to find a viable independent niche

There are some major caveats, though, to factor in when it comes to the Thomas Friedman/Moody’s/et al, argument; the one buzzing and humming through the system right now, propelled as it were by people, firms and organizations with vested yet often unstated interests in making you feel concerned, if not agitated.

The first caveat is that Friedman has seized upon the MOOCs platform as it serves as a defacto metaphor for his long held ‘world is flat’ argument. Friedman revels in the collapse of time and space brought on by MOOCs and notes, for example:

Yes, only a small percentage complete all the work, and even they still tend to be from the middle and upper classes of their societies, but I am convinced that within five years these platforms will reach a much broader demographic. Imagine how this might change U.S. foreign aid. For relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.

However, as pointed out by economic geographers, and well known social scientists like Richard Florida and Saskia Sassen, we actually live in a ‘spiky world.’ This spikiness is a pattern associated with most factors of production and consumption, including internet access and the production and circulation of knowledge. Moreover, forms of knowledge do not travel in an uncontextualized nor uncontested manner; they are built upon societally-specific assumptions, depend upon years of prior learning to make sense of, and sometimes rely upon geographically- and historically-specific case studies to ensure effective transmission and learning. So yes MOOCs can jump scale, but they face the same problems most of our other technologies and knowledge transmission systems have had for decades. It is arguably ineffective to legitimize MOOCs at your university by implying they’ll help you save the (non-Western) world like Friedman does.

Second, while Friedman’s article implies a relatively easy Yes or No decision re. going ahead (we are, after all, supposed to be in the middle of a “revolution”) the direct and indirect resource base required to establish and maintain MOOCs is nothing to be sneezed at. For example, it was good to see that he profiled Mitchell Duneier’s Coursera course. What Friedman failed to note was that Princeton is an extraordinarily wealthy private university that has the capacity to provide undoubtedly brilliant and hard working Duneier with sufficient support to run his MOOC, including via designated assistants. Online teaching can scale more easily than in-person teaching, but the creation of the institutional space and support infrastructure to produce a series of quality MOOCs takes time, attention, resources, TLC, and so on. The production process also has to be preceded by the creation of a formal or informal governance pathway, as well as an assessment if your university has the technological and organizational capabilities to coordinate a legitimate MOOCs initiative.

Third, Friedman is portraying a phenomenon that is being deliberately stirred up by more than just an interest in enhancing innovation and global access via a scale jumping technology — there is also a complicated and fast evolving political economy to MOOCs (and online education more generally). Narrowly, the phenomenon is well worth experimenting with, in my humble opinion. I would agree with Friedman that this is an amazing time to innovate and take advantage of the platforms and learning management and analytic processes engendered by the backers of platforms like Coursera, Udacity and edX. Yet some firms and political actors/advocates in the US have deemed online education and MOOCs, in particular, as an answer to fiscal constraints; a ‘silver bullet’ of sorts to ensure taxation levels do not budge, or indeed go down. But look again at the graph from the Moody’s report I pasted in above: this shift in financing is nothing short of a structural change that has moved beyond the notion that austerity is a response to a cyclical crisis.

We are now in a new (normalized) normal, at least in the US, where austerity is accepted and indeed viewed positively for it can be perceived as a mechanism to restructure higher education systems and institutions. In short, we are arguably (as noted by Dean Martin McQuillan in an article in Times Higher Education magazine) not in a state of ‘crisis’ as ‘crisis’ infers a cyclical dimension to the challenges facing the financing of higher ed. Austerity (the strategic and systematic reduction of state-financing levels), in combination with the contradictory/ironic desire to ramp up state governance power (including about online education and associated credentialing), is the new normal and this is what Friedman, amidst all his hype about MOOCs and online education, utterly fails to flag.

You obviously will have your own views about the validity of my argument and please feel free to disagree. But regardless of your view, let me point our that there is a real risk in the US higher education context that MOOCs will become a politicized platform: if they start to be perceived as a Trojan horse to dismantle the public university, or as a ‘rope‘ to strangle ourselves, the ‘baby’ may get thrown out with the ‘bathwater’ and the positive features of MOOCs (and there are many!) will be lost amidst the associated conflict. In short, there are political and economic machinations associated with the stirring of interest in, and coverage of, MOOCs. Given this, and given the stakes at hand, it is important to address the MOOCs phenomenon is a serious, sustained, and reflective way, not in a knee jerk fashion, one way or the other.

My next memo will focus on the international dimensions of MOOCs, an issue also grappled with in two earlier entries in GlobalHigherEd.

Kris Olds

The MOOCs fad and bubble: please tell us another story!

photo réduiteIn the context of two recent GlobalHigherEd entries about the global geopolitics and geoeconomics of MOOCs (see ‘Are MOOCs becoming mechanisms for international competition in global higher ed?’ and ‘On the territorial dimensions of MOOCs’) we are pleased to post this guest entry by Dominique Boullier, Professor in Sociology, Sciences Po Paris. Professor Boullier has served as scientific coordinator of the médialab (with Bruno Latour) since 2009, and serves as executive director of the educational innovation program FORCCAST. He has studied information and communications technologies (ICT), digital innovation policies, and technical architecture policies since 1983. Our thanks to Professor Boullier for his very thought provoking guest entry, the first we hope, regarding MOOCs from a European perspective. Please let us know if you would also like to contribute to the debate!  Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

ps: 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).


The MOOCs fad and bubble: please tell us another story!

by Dominique Boullier

How can we escape this new buzz about MOOCs, since the launch of Coursera? Is there anything else than the bubble effect created by the media that is part of the strategy itself? This is how our financial economy works, nowadays, this ‘opinion economy’ as André Orléan labels it, where opinion and reputation are the main resources to be processed and produced in order to create attractiveness for investors without any thorough analysis of the properties of the goods or of the company which is assessed. The focus on figures that must be huge as usual was well documented by Kris Olds in ‘On the territorial dimensions of MOOCs.’ It should have attracted more comments since at the age of Web 2.0 and especially for matters of education, one does not really expect this focus on figures, on massive online courses that are exactly the same courses as the ones our parents used to attend. (yes, indeed, more slides but what else?).

This massive commercial war on education is now launched and everyone is supposed to adopt a strategy to counter it, especially in Europe, and this is what the Times Higher Education reports for England’s Futurelearn consortium, which seems to follow exactly the same path, because the opinion economy is mostly a matter of provoking imitation, contagion and standard for the benefit of the first to enter the market.  What are the features of this attack on education business? Let’s check them and the ones that are missing and the comparison with any other marketing strategy will become clear.

1/ Brands.  Who is in the field? The world famous universities, American ones first, and any other university that would try to replicate their model will have to think it twice because their reputation status will not challenge the big ones. Which means a business model and an attractiveness that will remain limited to the leaders, the ones who will monetize their reputation worldwide. Universities are supposed to act as brands, and this recent move is a major strategic one to consolidate this mood.  Did you hear of any quality assessment for a specific course? No: the only fact of being delivered by the big ones is enough to suspend all critical capacity from media or competitors as well.

2/ Scale and standards.  No standard for quality, for sure (just remember the content of courses of OpenCourseWare at the MIT available or the ones on iTunes that are often of a very poor quality, apart from the quality of the teacher as a scholar, but many of the Edx, Coursera or Udacity products are of the same didactic level, except for the video quality that has really improved!). But standard for the massive online process that MOOCs are supposed to disseminate. The effect of scale is absolutely critical for these platforms, and by entering the market with such a powerful offer, they will prevent any other challenger to invent new formats, methods or platforms. This is how Microsoft, iTunes (and in a different way, Facebook) managed to frame our everyday life architecture, and it has become very difficult to adopt software and platform better suited to specific activities.

3/ Free. This is one of the main features of what economists call two-sided markets and we are just at the first phase of this strategy. Delivering this supposedly high standard courses for free seems weird if one does not point out that all free offers tend to prepare a second phase (or sometimes in the same moment) where the public will be monetized (through advertising) or will have to pay (through premium services that will devaluate the quality of the basic offer). This is almost what we see now, because coaching and other added value services require a fee. This is the typical drug dealer method for addicts and this is obviously not a charity business offer but a very well designed strategy to capture the audience before others do it.

4/ Platforms.  The model of the platform is invading the web and it is much more than software: it means an integrated management of every feature of the consumer relationship through a private model of platform.  Doing so, the control is guaranteed and the dissemination of the innovation within the community gets restricted to the developments done and labeled by the big ones.

5/ Cheap resources. The great trick of the so-called ‘contributive’ economy is to capture the value produced by the ordinary activity of users and consumers themselves when they click, like or recommend some paper, product or service.  Same for the academic whose work is available for free for the scientific editors who make huge profits in selling them to the proper universities that pay the academic for the free work in the journals. Of course, as it works for the SDK of various platforms, the big ones will create incentives so that academics do not feel abused for the only profit of their boards. But the idea here is that the production costs are kept at a low level because teachers are asked to work as they used to do, without any innovation in their mode of education. Extending these outdated and boring models of massive classrooms does not cost a lot but does not offer any new chance for the learning process to be enhanced or triggered.

When described in these terms, any other sector of our financialized capitalism would almost fit the model. Education brands are investing in digital platforms for maintaining the traditional way of learning for the benefit of the same big ones, this. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” as Lampedusa told us in his famous novel The Leopard. This is how digital technology is perversely used and how we miss their powerful enticement for innovation in education processes.

Two aspects of this change that does not change anything will be emphasized here: the geopolitical side of education and the cognitive and political one.

1/ These announcements are not unusual in various sector of digital innovation. I was an analyst of what happened in the first years of digital imaging systems in health sector. At the beginning of the ‘90’s one Norwegian innovator decided to sell a digital imaging system to Saudi Arabia (which could afford it!) based on the expertise of highly skilled radiologists based…in Norway. This was a radical move for preventing local radiologists to get trained and to become a resource for the country. At the same time, other health organizations tried to reduce their costs regarding the process of routine analysis of huge amounts of digital X-ray: they outsourced it to Moroccan low-level technicians in radiology working in Morocco. All these innovations attracted attention in the media as “the wonderful world of international cooperation allowed by digital networks”. This was clearly a two-sided process of deprivation of development opportunities for countries from the south, the exact contrary of what we are supposed to expect from an empowerment process and a clearly designed unequal development model. This is exactly what we can expect from the propagation of this marketing strategy in favor of developed countries resources in education. Since the quality is associated with the big education brands and become available online, how can local teachers still obtain some recognition for their work? How does this process help them to improve their own skills and more important to create the right balance between the core part of knowledge and the one which requires contextualization, which means, diversity and proximity? (and when carefully studied, this is what occurs for any training process). Governments as well as the public cannot encourage such a predator behavior against the skills of countries from the South. To sum up this point, let’s say that all MOOCs model is more about predation than cooperation, more about reproduction than innovation, more about standardization than diversification.

2/ The second way of preserving the old model will be on the cognitive side of these offers (and we’ll see that it is a major political stake). The courses that are proposed for online diffusion are considered as basic resources of universal knowledge. And this kind of knowledge is supposed to be learned almost by heart, or at least with a cognitive activity where memory is the most important feature as well as the discipline required for hours of listening attitude without almost any opportunity to react, to contribute, to discuss, to explore and so on. The traditional lament from teachers complaining about the lack of attention of students is tamed just by removing them out of sight of the teacher. This does not account for the general feeling of boredom that students experience during these courses. This massive online tactics does not solve any of the training issue of our times. Students will not be more active, they will not leave the tracks of guaranteed knowledge divided in fields, they will not combine them with the huge amount of information they crawl during their connected and mediated lives, they will not learn any of the contextualization expertise which is required for a relevant use of their knowledge, they will not have the opportunity to use their tremendous immersion in visual information, and so on. They will be addressed as an audience, as we used to do for mass media. The problem is that this time has gone!! First, this is old sixties and modernist view of knowledge, where science has no doubt to display to the public, provided that it fuels the continuous trend of innovation in technologies always for the good of human beings. Second, the skills in exploring the data that invade everyday life and that are produced by students themselves cannot be dismissed. This is a good way to “produce” students with a very low awareness of the world they will enter and to maintain the strong cognitive separation between the various opportunities of learning and the school (which does not mean that all of them should be similar).

In order to stop criticism that may outrage promoters of these MOOCs systems and let them believe that I am only a blatant incompetent, I will just say some words about some of my experiences during my career. The idea of a general online course is not new: at the end of the ‘90’s, platforms like Learning Space were famous in trying to invent business models to sell training sessions online. In 1997, the University of Technology of Compiègne created the first (in France) degree fully delivered on line using Learning Space. But we decided not to comply with the educational and business policies embedded in the software (code is law as Lessig puts it, as long as you let it run your life without discussing any choice). We required one week a month of presence which was the best way to get in touch with the students in order to coach them better on line. We organized a full review of all courses that were redesigned and assessed to fit our educational goals, with a large part of exercises, a strong cooperation process among the students, a frequent collective and individual coaching from the teachers, and documents especially designed in Information Mapping format to favor a structured approach and exploration of resources. We did not sell the degree by chunks as the design of the software would have encouraged us to do with superficial online automated quiz to assess the skills. The educational goals must make the technologies as well as the business model give in.

In Sciences Po, four years ago, we began video recording the main courses (more than 800 students in the same amphitheater) and we put them online. The success was one of reputation for the institution, of opportunity for the students who could not attend the class and of relief for the teachers who did not have to change anything to their traditional methods! In fact, the only opportunity to watch oneself as well as colleagues created an interesting emulation. But when we thought about selling this kind of content online out of the institution, we considered that the added value was too low and would not address the need of a fully digitized distance learning approach.

In September 2012, in Sciences Po, we launched an innovative educational program, funded by the French government, called FORCCAST for training regarding the sciences and technologies that uses ‘controversy mapping.’ Controversy mapping is a method that Bruno Latour invented 15 years ago to train his students in his approach to the sociology of science (that is famous worldwide). This method is now used in more than 20 universities all over the world (including MIT) and emphasizes his powerful vision of the educational requirements of our times, the same way John Dewey did it in the ‘30’s (Bruno Latour often refers to Dewey as a great inspiration for multiple reasons).

Where is the Dewey of the MOOCs systems? A Dewey does not seem to exist because MOOCs are a technical and business affair without any serious vision of the educational stakes. Our Forccast project, quite the opposite, will address technical and business issues as well, but only when subordinated to our educational goals. We consider that students today need to get trained using other skills if they are supposed to tackle the complex and uncertain issues of the financial, ecological, political and social crisis that we experience and that is certain to be our future for many years from now. These challenges require a three-fold educational model where the existing skills of the students are favored and not discarded:

  1. Their ability to explore by surfing on the web must be channeled towards a more systematic and critical way of exploring issues, using the method of controversy mapping.
  2. Their immersion in the web and in images and their ordinary experience of writing on the web and of publishing images and videos must become a resource for a digital literacy based on content production (read and write web), new ways of writing and publishing websites as well as short videos.
  3. Their experience in contributing and commenting on websites, watching TV shows with poor debates on any kind of issues, should be used as a basis to put them in realistic situations where they will have to simulate debates or negotiations. This case-based method is of course something business schools are familiar with but here it will be designed so that it encourages the exchange of various views of the same issue and the skills of debate.

These three methods (explore, publish, debate) represent the core of a new philosophy of training which was developed in many institutions and are known as active learning methods. We shall try to adapt them to the high school environment, and to equip them with a large scope of digital resources and tools. This is how we shall answer to the challenge of MOOCs systems: emphasizing the need for educational innovation, adapted to the new skills of the students and to the requirements of our times. Watching, listening, obeying, memorizing were the key methods of old times education: putting them on line will not change anything to the tremendous weakness of responsibility skills that today leaders are demonstrating and that we, as educators, are supposed to enhance. Of course, it will take us time to develop and test these methods but we need to be sure that they are really improving the learning process before we extend them and deliver them.

Of course, we shall miss the rush for MOOCs fame, but since the same fad occurred at the end of the ‘90’s, we know that there is time and room, especially in Europe, to invent another model, a responsible and relevant one for the challenges of our time.

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).


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

On the territorial dimensions of MOOCs

To what degree have the territorial dimensions of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) been made visible? Remarkably little, I would argue.

This point came has been in the back of my mind for some time on the basis of following coverage about MOOCs including the three high profile leaders of the pack (Coursera, edX, Udacity), other MOOCs (Udemy and WeduboX), and complementary online learning platforms (e.g., Course Hero, iTunesU, Kahn Academy, OpenClass, Open Learning Initiative). Of course there is a long history to the development of these MOOCs (see ‘Adjacent possible: MOOCs, Udacity, edX, Coursera‘ by the MOOC pioneer George Siemens), not to mention the impact of openly accessible courses in the 1970s and 1980s via ‘open university’ platforms that once used public television stations (e.g. British Columbia’s Knowledge Network), but we’ll leave the usually neglected historic foundations story to the side for now.

The lack of attention to the territorial dimensions of MOOCs came to the front of my mind when I attended a talk by Scott Page last week at UW-Madison during which I heard little about the geographies of MOOCs. As with much of the literature on MOOCs, Page’s talk included multiple references to enrollment numbers that generated ‘Ooos’ and ‘Wows’ from the crowd. Advocates, even reflective ones like Page, seem fixated on how many students sign up to take their MOOC courses. We’re now at a stage where tens of thousands of students is viewed as the desirable target. This drive to larger and larger numbers, much like the drive to build taller and taller skyscrapers (cf Dubai’s Burj Khalifa) is somewhat fetishistic but let’s give the MOOC people the benefit of the doubt in this exciting lift-off phase. Interestingly Page noted that maximizing volume is the defacto business model — an N-1 business model of sorts where scaling up numbers is the core objective, one that precedes an actual workable business model (that will eventually come, to be sure).

Now, as a geographer, three territorial silences initially come to my mind regarding the MOOCs discussion to date.

The first territorial silence is a basic presentation of the geographies of enrollment and completion. It is usually inferred that the high enrollment numbers mean small and bordered territorial geographies (i.e. the traditional campus) have been punctured by the MOOCs platform. Numerous comments have been made about the enrolment of students “both on-campus and worldwide” leading to the collapse of time and space.




Thus we see two simple categories of students – existing students associated with the universities backing MOOCs like edX, and new students who are located across the globe, all brought together via the MOOCs platform. While this binary is true, there are all sorts of problems with the notion of a singular ‘global’ or ‘international’ category. First, internet access continues to be limited across the globe as International Telecommunication Union data from 2011 clearly highlights.


Even if we hear about students from X number of countries who are enrolled in MOOC courses, where they come from inside said countries matters. We urgently need far more data, and visualizations, that shed light on the geographies of MOOC student enrollment and completion trends and patterns (both national and intra-national). After all, if real-time heat maps can be provided about Twitter users, surely the tech savvy backers of MOOCs platforms like edX, Coursera and Udacity can provide more information about their operations. Arguably the organizers of these MOOC platforms also have an obligation to present such data in an open and timely matter to enhance collective learning about this phenomenon. In short, what are the evolving geographies of enrollment and completion regarding each MOOC platform, and each MOOC?

The second territorial silence in the MOOCs discussion/debate regards the relevance of these primarily US university-provided courses for the world’s internet-accessible population. It is worth discussing how scalable, across national boundaries, the content of each course is. Some courses reflect the production of knowledge about phenomena or issues that are perhaps equally relevant to people in the US and Pakistan, for example. Other content, however, is deeply reflective of variations in state-society-economy relations, as well as the identity and positionality of course professors. Over time this will become even more of a factor as courses other than computer science and physics get posted. Surely, with open-access courses that are designed to reach across global space there should more visible information that flags how appropriate or relevant the content might be to students outside of the nations the course professor(s) are situated in. Of course this is not a simple thing to do but one way or another those working with MOOCs need to grapple with the myriad of challenges associated with teaching students from contexts very different than the ones their regular students are embedded in. This fact always hits you in the face when you teach a traditional class with students from around the world in it, as I did last term in my Cities and Development graduate seminar. And I am sure this comes out in discussion forums in many MOOCs and MOOC professors think about the issue a lot. But given the numbers dynamic, professors teaching MOOCs will never see the subtle looks of confusion hinting at the need for more explanation and attention to context. Given this it is even more important for MOOC sponsors and professors to be clear about the limitations of their course content.

The third territorial silence in the MOOCs discussion/debate is related to the mission issue. I find it interesting that so little attempt has been made, yet, to integrate courses, and create programs, to help students progressively acquire knowledge about territorially-specific issues or needs. There is huge unexploited potential with the MOOC platform to offer single and integrative courses and programs that grapple with issues at the city-region scale, the province/state scale, the national scale, the supra-national regional scale, and the bilateral (city to city; nation to nation; region to region) scale. MOOC courses like edX’s CS184.1x: Foundations of Computer Graphics cut across global geographies providing you have adequate internet access, which is wonderful, but maximizing enrollment numbers and global reach should not be the core objective or foundation of a platform ‘business model.’ We are educators, after all!

As an urbanist, for example, I think it would be wonderful to see a series of courses strung together that educate people about metropolitan scale politics in specific city regions, or unpack the ‘innovation’ agendas currently shaping development policies in Western cities. Likewise, universities in many continents are grappling with revenue challenges and some (especially in Europe and Asia) are pursuing technology transfer as a vehicle to diversify revenue streams and enhance ‘impact’ – in such a context a MOOC course on the long history and complex dynamics of technology transfer and innovation systems, with abundant case studies, would be very useful.

Or, at a completely different scale, imagine the value of creating territorially- and temporally-specific MOOCs to shed genuine light on the dynamics associated with specific crises in Bahrain or Syria, or tangible geographies of the ‘global’ financial system. Where are the MOOCs on politics and empirics of austerity in Europe, for example? At the moment MOOCs tend to be sectorally- and disciplinary-specific, not territory-specific.

There is a danger that MOOC content will be established in as generic and timeless a fashion as possible to maximize shelf life and ramp up enrollment numbers. But is this a positive outcome from a learning and societal development perspective? I think not. Such a model fails to take advantage of all the forms of knowledge contained in our universities and in doing so we are at risk of missing the abundant potential associated with the emerging MOOCs platform.

Kris Olds