Thu 5th June 2014 - 11:21

5 recommendations for EU policy in online education

A recent study entitled “MOOCs for Web Talent” examined how Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are currently being used to acquire skills needed in the web industry and explored their potential going forward. It provided significant evidence that students, entrepreneurs, and education providers regard MOOCs as a valuable opportunity when it comes to building web skills across Europe. A large majority of those familiar with MOOCs saw them as the #1 training opportunity for web skills.

 The study identifies the potential of MOOCs in delivering web skills, but also the challenges. For one, accredited certificates for skills acquiredthrough MOOCs are desired by many online learners. Also, MOOCs, according to the respondents, should focus more on hands-on skills. While universities are well-aware of these demands, they struggle to muster the resources necessary to produce high-quality online courses.

 The study is a good starting point for discussions about future political initiatives that help spread the production as well as use of MOOCs across Europe. So what does Europe need to do? Here are five policy recommendations:


Web skills

A quality assurance system for practical skill certification

Most importantly, the certificates that students acquire in their courses, be it in web-related courses or elsewhere, need official recognition. On-site education providers like General Assembly and online providers like iversity are helping students acquire job-related skills. When it comes to academic credit, there is already a certain degree of comparability. In spite of its many critics, the Bologna reform produced a system that defines academic credit throughout the entire continent: The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System or ECTS. It helped to define academic achievements in order to make them comparable across and transferable within the entire European Union and many other countries.

However, professionals need something else: The study clearly shows that MOOC students are not seeking additional academic credentials, but certificates or badges that are considered proof of concrete skills and capabilities. What is needed is a universal definition of job-related skills and how they may be tested and certified. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages may well provide a design model here that would provide transparency and comparability in a currently underdeveloped and fragmented market.

Encouraging MOOC development

MOOCs are still in an experimental stage and they are far from perfect. Yet, instructors and platforms – which means, not only the large US-American examples, but also European – are gaining more experience by the day, allowing them to improve their methods of online teaching. For instance, the availability of new courses and new technical features to manage online courses is growing. If the European Commission is serious about fostering web talent through MOOCs, it should encourage universities and platform providers to join forces in improving online learning through collaborative experiments.

More resources for MOOC producers

Digitalisation in higher education is here to stay, but it doesn’t come for free. Conceptualising and producing high quality open course materials requires academic staff, time and financial resources. Incentives matter if we would like to see more ambitious experiments in the MOOC space. Unfortunately, when it comes to teaching, university budget growth has not kept pace with the enormous growth in the number of students over the past decade. If Europe is to become a forerunner in digital education, it should invest in its digital infrastructure. One aspect of such investment could be financial support for MOOCs as a way of experimenting with new digital teaching formats.

Use MOOCs to improve university faculty conditions

A quick word about what the study calls “a lack of institutional culture”. iversity’s experience is that apart from some innovative pioneers in academia, teaching staff is often sceptical about digital offerings. In MOOCs, thousands of students can be taught with only one professor. Faculty are often concerned that education bureaucrats will use this as an argument to slash university budgets.

University administrators and MOOC platforms should join forces in advocating that resource savings obtained from introducing new teaching methods will be reallocated within the system, such as to raise the poor staff-student-ratio. Such a guarantee will be a prerequisite to avoid a defensiveness that could cripple innovation in higher education for decades. Educational policy from the EU and national states should give a clear commitment that digitalisation is not a euphemism for dismantling on-site higher education.

Greater value in teaching, not just research

Another problem that needs to be tackled is the recognition of good teachers and good teaching. This is not to belittle any scientists out there, but nowadays, being a scholar often means: publish or perish, regardless if there’s something new to reveal or not. At least to a certain degree, the problem lies in wrong incentives: Quantity is what counts in research. But where is the recognition for excellent teachers? New career paths for academics should be opened, enabling them to build their professional development of excellence in teaching.

The knowledge-based economy isn’t coming, it’s already here. It’s time to encourage the development of innovative digital teaching formats. The European Union can make a significant contribution here. Educational offerings that enable EU citizens to get a job is probably the best means against right-wing populism, as seen in the latest elections to the European Parliament.


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