Article published on Feb. 27, 2014
Article published on Feb. 27, 2014

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Nearly two years ago, universities and European schools started to follow the example of large American universities. Now the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) Revolution has well and truly arrived on the Old Continent. What are the stakes of this new form of learning and where do we replace it within "traditional" higher education?

MOOCs, online courses accessible to the masses, have recently shaken up the world of education. A lecturer in front of his webcam, the student connected from the other side of the world; an "MOOC evolution" may already have invaded Europe. Some countries, like Spain, already offer 150 different courses; that's three times more than in  France. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (shortened to EPFL in French), which has been one of the first European schools to embark on this adventure, the level of success has been closely and carefully measured. In just a year and a half, 400 000 students have registered for the 14 online courses that the school offers.


While the courses aren't financially profitable for universities (with the majority of MOOCs being free), there is still a different advantage, that of bringing renown to the school or university. The registration process is a small victory in its own right. While Stanford and Yale don't need to launch online courses to gain worldwide recognition, a lot of European universities deserve to benefit from their training. These courses reinforce their prominent position and prove that they know how to adapt to new technologies.

In the opinion of Matthieu Cisel, the first MOOC PhD student in France, the lecturer also has a strong hand to play in this "revolution": "The MOOC is going to change the role of a teacher, giving it more value". Because as real players in these pedagogical videos, they are no longer just addressing a lecture theatre of 300 people, but an audience of 30 000 students. Pierre Dillenbourg is a lecturer in New Technologies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. He insists on the role of the lecturer in this new approach and explains that the quality of teaching is a crucial condition for a successful MOOC. "Even without the label of a prestigious university, some online courses stand out because they are taught by big names in the field."


Could online education replace classroom education? Professionals in the field are to the point; MOOCs will never be a substitute for traditional courses.

Firstly because they don't allow you to get a degree. Only a certificate is given at the the end of the course followed, which shows that the student has sat the tests and acquired the knowledge delivered. Secondly, because students registered on MOOCs are generally registered on traditional courses in parallel. The lecturers who have adopted this new system consider it complementary to, but in no case an alternative for, traditional education. Pierre sees these online courses as the opportunity to improve the quality of university courses, to consolidate them. In this way, they really support traditional education.

Other lecturers see in these courses the opportunity to encourage reflection on a subject and deepen knowledge acquired in the classroom. That's the case forAlberto Alemanno, who teaches European Politics at HEC Paris. He is behind a MOOC called "Understanding Europe", the first MOOC on Europe in Europe. He suggests re-evaluating some ideas generated on the European Union and showing his students how the citizen can play a real part in it. "It's a human, bottom-up approach to put the citizen back at the heart of the European project." The aim is to give them the tools to assert their ideas and show them that "Europe is a space for opportunities".

"Understanding Europe", the first MOOC on Europe in Europe proposed by lecturer in European Law, Alberto Alemanno


The challenge for universities and European schools is not to allow the MOOCs "to fall into the hands of American hegemony", explains Matthieu Cisel. He has also participated in the French public platform initiative for MOOCs, France Université Numérique, FUN (France Digital University).. Since January 2014, 21 courses have been offered by around 10 institutions. Using the same model but using private funds, the United Kingdom developed its Futurelearn platform in October 2013, which brings together  26 universities. However the most prestigious institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge remain distant from the project, snubbing it. "We already offer online courses and the MOOCs will not make us change our model", declared  Sally Mapstone, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. These initiatives are being developed in Europe but on a national level and on uneven ground.

Might it be necessary for Europe to collaborate and create a single European platform to counter the American dominance? That is not the opinion of Pierre Dillenbourg, who has contributed, along with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, to the organisation of this month's Great European MOOC Summit"The European Commission is too absent from this debate, which is a shame. But I don't think that it is necessary to combine projects, we just need a greater interoperability and synergy amongst national platforms."

Generally, European universities don't expect the support of the institutions on the matter of MOOCs, but the European summit has brought about a positive note; discourse between players has reached a certain majority. "We no longer talk of MOOCs as a miracle, we are on solid ground", Pierre Dillenbourg rejoices. Matthieu Cisel, who also attended the conference, has also written on his blog of "a lot of very interesting feedback from MOOC creators". Incidentally, he has developed an MOOC for the French platform FUN called "How to create a MOOC". What is more concrete than that?