As noted in my earlier blog posts, the MOOC phenomenon has created a lot of hype, especially in the popular press, but has also generated a healthy, vigorous debate among academics and others about the future of education and learning, especially in higher education but also in K12, but to a smaller extent. And it is good to see this now spreading to other parts of the world, including the Nordics. Norway, apparently partly resulting from discussions at a seminar at Stanford in May this year, where Mitchell Stevens of the Vice-Provost Office for Online Learning at Stanford spoke, has now established a commission for online learning to evaluate MOOCs and other online technologies and developments to help guide education policy makers and practitioners in Norway. A conference on MOOCs will also be held at the University of Oslo in September to discuss various issues around MOOCs. Similar examinations—whether or not in the form of formal government commissions like in Norway and/or in conferences and seminars that focus on these issues—will also likely take place in the other Nordic countries as everyone tries to figure out what action steps should be taken to avoid being left behind.

MOOCs: Another element in the Open Education Resource (OER) trend

Although I have not (yet) seen any statistics on how many people in the Nordic region have taken, or are taking, MOOCs from the growing number of US and European providers, I assume the numbers are rising steadily. Much of this might be driven by curiosity and the growing publicity about MOOCs but many participants are probably also interested in learning and taking free courses from well-respected professors and interacting with fellow students from around the world. So, even if no credit will be earned that can be applied towards any formal degree program, this will probably not keep many from taking advantage of the growing number of courses in a variety of subjects that are now available from a growing number of universities around the world.

As available MOOCs continue to grow one obvious question is what role, if any, Nordic universities see for these courses designed and delivered by academic institutions outside the country. Professors may want to encourage students to take certain MOOCs as useful preparation for their own courses that they are teaching, and some professors might themselves benefit from taking courses to gain new perspectives on issues pertaining to courses they teach.

We can also expect to see a growing number of courses being designed and delivered by Nordic professors, whether or not their own academic institution has taken specific steps to encourage or enable such courses. One example of this is the course on “Technology development and social change” that Professor Arne Krokan at NTNU will teach starting in September, 2013.  Krokan has been one of the most outspoken supporters of MOOCs in Norway, and he is one of the 11 members of the government commission recently created to explore MOOCs and online learning in Norway. Krokan will also speak at the September conference in Oslo.

But given the considerable time and effort that goes into creating a high quality MOOC, and the ability to make this available to people anywhere—students as well as anyone else interested in the subject—should the Ministry of Education step up and provide resources and encourage other Norwegian universities to take advantage of Krokan’s new course? Or does the Ministry see Norgesuniversitet playing some type of role as a coordinating agent for Norwegian MOOCs, or even as a provider of MOOC platforms (see more on this issue below)? And should other Nordic universities also take advantage of the new OER? And if we see growing interest across the Nordic region, and perhaps other countries, in such courses, should professors be encouraged and incentivized to give the course in English to increase the appeal of the course to students anywhere?

MOOC Platform Issues

Much of the early discussion of MOOCs has focused on courses given on the Coursera platform, as it is currently the dominant platforms in terms of participating universities and number of courses offered (Coursera also just gained significant new resources--$43 million, to be exact—in vengture funding to continue to build courses and improve its platform) . Two other MOOC platforms that also originated from Stanford are Udacity and NovoEd [formerly Stanford Venture Lab]. But the EdX consortium, led by Harvard and MIT (and with a growing number of other prominent universities), has also been a leading provider. But others, including FutureLearn of Open University in the UK have also been adding courses and gaining visibility in the growing MOOC landscape. 

One of the most interesting recent developments, however, was the decision by Stanford to team up with EdX and merge its Class2Go platform with EdX to create what is now OpenEdX, as an open source platform whose code base became available for any other university on June 1, 2013. According to a Stanford press release, John Mitchell, Stanford’s Vice Provost for Online Learning notes that “…We will continue to use multiple online learning platforms and determine which platform and approach best serves the educational goals put forward by our faculty and what best matches their interests, … but we will focus our development efforts on a single, open source platform which makes the most efficient use of our time and resources.”

According to Wired Academic (“A ‘Linux of Learning’?: A West Coast, East Coast MOOC Players’ Pact”),  “Open source online learning platforms such as edX will allow universities to develop their own delivery methods, partner with other universities and institutions as they choose, collect data, and control branding of their educational material. Further developing online opportunities through open source technology is a key objective of the partnership between edX and Stanford.” And, “…developers everywhere will be able to freely access the source code of the edX learning platform, including code for its Learning Management System Studio, a course authoring tool; xBlock, an application programming interface (API) for integrating third-party learning objects; and machine grading API’s.”  Another Wired Academic article notes that “Stanford developers contributed functionality such as real-time chat, bulk email, new installation scripts, operations tools and integration with external survey tools to the edX platform for its open-source release.”. 

So far, relatively little has been said publicly about the details of the OpenEdX platform development process, but one can assume that as new members join the EdX consortium (known as the X Consortium), additional members will be bring technical resources and interest in contributing to advancing the capabilities of the platform. In May 2013 the consortium added 15 prominent universities from around the world (including a number from Asia) to raise the number of X Consortium members to 27.

Although time will tell how the OpenEdX platform evolves, one press report noted that “…EdX asked specifically for contributions for the EdX Open Response Assessor and grading application programming interfaces, its XBlock architecture, and for internationalization.” According to James Tauber, EdX’s open source community manager, "We're trying to make this as pluggable as we can, to make a new ecosystem around [the platform]." The report also noted that edX has not worked out how it will protect against code drift, or whether someone will serve a "benevolent dictator for life" role that Linus Torvalds has played for Linux. But partners in the consortium are joint owners in the code they develop and contribute.

Nordic Implications

So far, Karolinska Institutet is the only Nordic member of the X Consortium, and it unclear whether other Nordic universities have an interest in, or tried to join, OpenEdX. If interest in MOOCs continue to grow in the Nordic region, will we see universities developing their own platforms? If so, is this a positive development that will result in greater diversity of platforms and perhaps more innovation, and then, hopefully, better learner experiences? Or will it result in unnecessary resource waste when a collaborative, Nordic approach could yield a better result?

It was interesting to see university provosts of a “Big 10 Group” known as Committee on Institutional Cooperation (plus University of Chicago) raise the possibility of creating an online education network across their campuses, at least partly as a way to gain more control over future MOOCs or MOOC-like courses from their universities, and avoiding giving private companies, like Coursera, too much control over things that universities feel they need to have greater control over (for more information on this, see MOOC-Skeptical Provosts). Is this something that Nordic universities should consider as a potential model for future Nordic coordination and collaboration in this area?

Clearly, there are a host of issues and questions that Nordic academics and policy makers need to give thought to in the next year or so, as they consider what steps they may want to take to improve online course offerings and ensure satisfactory learning experiences of Nordic students. Right now, it is unclear whether Nordic collaboration and coordination will indeed happen, or whether each country will go its own way. But the next 6-12 months will probably give us a good idea where Nordic MOOCs are heading. Hopefully whatever direction they go, the net result will be positive for both students and academic institutions in the region.

Eilif Trondsen