Brief Background and Context

Last summer a Norwegian delegation accompanying the Norwegian Crown Prince and his wife visited the SF Bay Area. I am not sure what triggered the visit and what its objective was—besides Crown Prince Haakon Magnus perhaps wanting to visit UC Berkeley, his Alma mater again…J--but the visit included a stop at Stanford University [the  US “hotbed for MOOCs”] where they heard from some of the leading lights around online learning and MOOCs, including my friends Mitchell Stevens (Director of Scancor as well as Director of Digital Research in the Office of the Provost for Online Learning) and Keith Devlin (Stanford’s “math guy” and MOOC developer and lecturer in “Mathematical Thinking”).

I presume most of the Norwegian visitors knew very little about MOOCs, even though Norway is no novice when it comes to online learning. I therefore suspect that the presentations and discussions at Stanford made it clear to the visitors that this was something Norway needed to take a deeper dive into and find out what Norway and Norwegian educational institutions should do to prepare for what MOOCs might bring in the future.

Commission Mandate

Here is my own (loose) translation of a couple of key paragraphs [on page 6 of the report] where it discusses the mandate of the Commission [appointed by the Ministry of Knowledge, i.e. Kunnskapsdepartementet (KD):

The Commission shall examine which opportunities and challenges may result from the growth of MOOCs and similar offerings. The Commission shall map out developments, prepare insights and recommendations about how the Norwegian government and institutions should position themselves vis-à-vis these MOOC developments, and take advantage of the opportunities that the technological developments bring. Developments happen fast and a two-step process is therefore planned:

  1. The Commission will publish its first report at the end of 2013. The report will contain a map of developments and some overarching recommendations with foundation in the following issues and challenges:
    • What is the scope, players and development of MOOCs, nationally and internationally
    • What are the driving forces behind the development, and which players and market offerings are likely to have success?
    • What are the academic/domain-specific support systems that are being built up around the offering
    • What may this development mean for Norway from a broad social perspective?
  2. The Commission will issue a more detailed report the summer of 2014 with recommendations for how Norway should position itself, to take advantage of these developments.

The Commission consists of 11 members, mostly academics from a variety of Norwegian educational institutions, and, of course, with strong university representation, but also a few members from (private) industry, including a software engineer from Google Norway!

Topics and Issues Addressed in the Report

Here are the main ones that the Commission focused on, with some of my own comments on each one:

  • Pedagogy and Quality Issues. These are of course issues that have gained considerable attention and debate in the US education press over the last year, including interesting perspectives from blogs like e-Literate (Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein) and eLearnSpace (George Siemens), for instance. How to best engage students online and ensure the most effective and efficient learning is a BIG topic, and one that goes far beyond MOOCs. Discussion and debate will continue as new technology enables new and better forms of engagement and new forms of interactive pedagogy. And how will “Big Data” in education affect online learning and emerging forms of online pedagogy? These are not questions the Norwegian MOOC Commission can hope to address in much depth, I am afraid. But many experts around the world will continue to actively debate these issues.
  • Technology Infrastructure. This starts with sufficient bandwidth to enable great online learning experience when using wireless networks, for instance, and Norway fortunately is probably better positioned here than many other countries as we have a relatively small country (in terms of area) and we have lots of money…J[BUT last time I checked, the Ministry of Finance was very concerned about how much of the oil revenue we should spend on areas of need, including health care and education, so as a consequence the vast bulk of the $5-600 Billion Sovereign Oil Fund is invested in financial rather than real assets!] As you will see below, I am not too impressed by the quite small investments the Commission suggests for some important areas of online learning.
  • Competency Needs of Industry. This is obviously an area of great interest to NHO [the Norwegian Employer Association] and its “sister organization” Abelia, which represents knowledge intensive industry in Norway [But which industry, these days, is not knowledge-Intensive?]. The Future of Corporate Learning is a topic of great interest to me, and I have organized a small “brainstorming group” that meets every couple of months to discuss issue relating to this, and I suspect that MOOC-like offerings will have significant impact on corporate education, learning and training in the future. I assume and hope Abelia and NHO is actively exploring related issues.
  • MOOC Offering as part of Norwegian Degree Programs. It will be interesting to see how Norwegian universities and even “university colleges” [i.e. høyskoler] decide about whether and how to use MOOCs. But I suspect many will find ways to make MOOCs a part—although probably a relatively small part—of an integrated learning experience that includes a variety of types of content and learning experiences, in a hybrid or “blended model” that uses more traditional, classroom-based as well as online learning.
  • Funding Issues around Norwegian Higher Education and MOOCs. Norway, like most European countries, provides free and universal education but competition for admittance is often fierce, especially in medical and engineering schools, for instance. And relatively new and small universities, like University of Agder, are not happy with the limited funds they often get from the Norwegian government and thus can’t grow and offer admittance to highly qualified students. This is where online offerings could be useful, especially if student fees are also allowed to increase to pay for costs that the Norwegian government does not want to cover.

Some Selected Commission Recommendations

As noted above, the “final report” due this coming summer will likely contain more detailed policy recommendations but here are some of the recommendations the Commission outlines in this first report:

  • Pedagogy and Quality:
    • It is recommended that an ‘environment’/’miljø’ be created for research-based knowledge development and transfer connected to analysis of learning.”
    • It is also recommended an annual budget for this to be NOK 15 million. [$2.45 million at current exchange rates—so very little money, really!]
    • Another recommendation in this area is that the Ministry allocates NOK 10 million [$1.62 million] per year for “development of digital competence” in Norwegian universities and university colleges (strengthening and building on what already is in place and is being done).
  • Infrastructure for MOOCs and Other Online Learning.
    • It is recommended that general online education infrastructure get an additional NOK 10 million per year
    • It also recommends that another NOK 10 million be allocated annually to infrastructure investment specifically for MOOCs
  • Competency Needs of Industry.
    • The commission recommends that Norwegian industry take advantage of MOOCs and online learning in similar ways to that of universities and university colleges. I suspect NHO and Abelia specifically has already come to the same conclusion and probably is way ahead of the Commission in thinking about what to do on this front.


Some Final Observations and Comments

I applaud the Norwegian government and the Ministry of Knowledge for taking a proactive step in the area of online learning and MOOCs—and, as far as I know, no other Nordic government has done anything similar—as the Commission’s work will hopefully generate additional interest in these topics among everyone in Norway who is concerned about the future of education and learning. And it will also hopefully give additional support in universities and university colleges to keep developing new capabilities and offerings in this area.

Personally, I also found the report useful as I learned some things about what has been done in the past, and is currently going on, in the area of online learning in Norway. For instance, I did not know that the Norwegian eCampus program will “…build infrastructure with a common, overarching architecture which will enable various organizational formats, learning modalities, and collaborative solutions.” I also did not know that a “new Scandinavian MOOC platform, Lifelong Learning Web, has been created an involves the Lillehammer university college, among others.

I know the Commission recommendations are preliminary so we will need to be patient and wait for the final recommendations. I must admit, however, that I am curious how the Commission came to the “NOK 10-15 million” number that seems to be a “consensus figure” for what should be allocated for specific programs. Are these driven or constrained by an upper maximum that the Commission felt they could allocate across all new investment areas, and in typical Nordic manner, give more or less the same amount to each area, rather than prioritize some with more money?

Finally, these sums are really small, and it leads me to wonder whether they are really sufficient to enable the kinds of changes the Commission wants to see. Does the Commission feel that additional money will come from elsewhere, and that universities and university colleges need to find the bulk of money needed on their own and not depend on the national government? I don’t know, but I hope to see some good debate around these and other issues as a result of this report and more when the final report comes out.

If you have any comments and observations on any of this, I would of course be very interested in hearing from you, either in writing—send me comments to etrondsen@s or send me a note an suggest we have a Skype conversation. I look forward to hearing from you.

Eilif Trondsen