Rethinking Online Education

The following article is a guest post from our friends at the Guokr MOOC Academy. By translating online courses and offering them on their platform, they make free education more available to a Chinese audience.

Guokr MOOC Academy was launched in July 2013. Within half a year, we had more than 200,000 registered users in our community, covering about 50% of all Chinese MOOC users. We provide 4 principal services to our Chinese MOOC learners: share course reviews and notes, discuss and obtain the latest information about MOOCs from all over the world. Guokr MOOC Academy also has translation groups (more than 50 courses have been or are being translated) and many active study groups. In short, we wish to remove obstacles that stand in the way of online learning for Chinese-speaking students, and facilitate better study processes.

Guokr MOOC Academy website


Online Learning and Learners in China

The number of Chinese MOOC users began to skyrocket since the latter half of 2013, because the first two MOOCs taught in Chinese were released by National Taiwan University on Aug 31, 2013. After that, more Chinese courses and MOOC platforms were established by universities and organizations from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Guokr MOOC Academy surveyed more than 6,000 Chinese MOOC users. According to the report, half of Chinese MOOC users have full-time jobs, the other half are students. About 85% are undergraduate students or already have some college degrees. Compared to other worldwide research, we found "FREE" is not the most important reason for Chinese to learn MOOC. Instead, they look forward to gaining knowledge, making friends and improving foreign language skills.

We also organized a MOOC user conference last November, inviting hundreds of MOOC users and the most popular lecturers. Many users came from far away to have close communications with lecturers – even asking for their autographs! For the first time, the lecturers said that they "felt they are like rockstars". Alongside continuing our services and mission, we are currently cooperating with Vanke, the largest real estate company in China, in order to organize study groups in their residential communities.

The Future of MOOCs

As for Chinese MOOC users, there are some obstacles hindering their learning, such as language barriers and internet limitations (namely due to the Internet Censorship – Chinese users have problems visiting Youtube, for example). MOOCs are still not "Massive" in China. Among many possible reasons, a vital explanation could be that certificates are not accepted by universities or employers. But the demand for MOOCs is clear and Guokr MOOC Academy is trying to further promote MOOCs in China.

Thanks for all your great work promoting open access to education, Guokr MOOC Academy! We hope iversity can join forces with you and we work together to bring more MOOCs to Chinese learners!

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Nope, we’re not talking about exchange students. We’re talking about the Dutch scholar the gigantic European student exchange programme was named after. This week, we take you to Europe in the 15th Century. Think Northern Renaissance, think end of the Middle Ages, cobble stone streets, sturdy, dusty wooden desks and quills. Meet Desiderius Erasmus von Rotterdam, a man who personifies scholarship and who we are featuring this week in the series, Great Educators in History.

From the monastery to the classroomErasmus (1466/1469-1536). Engraved by E.Scriven

Born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1466, Erasmus soon found himself shipped off to private school by the age of 9. Losing both parents to the plague, he was an orphan before adulthood and his guardians signed him up for the life of a monk. It seems that scholarship was his path from the beginning.

But life in a monastery soon took its toll and he started to turn towards education, becoming interested in the responsibilities and relationship of the teacher and the student. He became a Catholic priest in 1492. He studied classical texts, toured Europe as a renowned tutor and lecturer. Thomas More and other humanists of the time influenced his growing educational philosophy and political thoughts. He had his qualms with the strenuous rules and strict practices within the Catholic Church and believed that education should focus on critical analysis of classical texts and deep knowledge rather than solely following religious dogmata. Despite his own criticisms of Catholic institutions and calls for reform at the time, he didn’t agree with Martin Luther’s Protestant revolution which shook Europe in 1517. This led to a deep debate and the eventual publication of his work, Discourse of the Free Will in 1524. In this book, he pushed the belief that destiny is not predetermined by God, but rather individuals have control, can take action and make choices that guide and determine their lives as it unfolds.

Self-improvement through education

"There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other."

In line with his view of free will, as a humanist, Erasmus’ philosophy emphasised the value and agency of human individuals. His work displayed heavy traces of Aristotle, Descartes and other rationalist and enlightenment thinkers, but specifically, Erasmus sought to improve teaching methods and push the idea that the individual can be improved through education. As an expert in both Latin and Greek, he spent much of his career translating original texts and believed that scholarship should involve the deep and critical investigation into classical documents. Beyond this, he instructed his students on style – notably with his book, Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style, illustrating how to take old texts and present them in a enriched written and oral form using certain rhetorical strategies. He was a philosopher and challenged the very foundations of the dogmatic teaching methods of his time. Although Erasmus spent much of his life asking theological questions, he was a central figure in the schools of educational philosophy, skepticism and historical studies.

Never stop learning

Today in Europe, the Erasmus programme (European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) promotes the exchange of knowledge, and the search to discover and learn new things. But this goes beyond crossing national borders. Studies have even shown that participants of the Erasmus programme are more likely to identify as Europeans, not only according to their national identity. By fostering the cross-cultural exchange of young students, individuals from different countries and cultural backgrounds have a sense of a common European community. Erasmus spent a large portion of his life bouncing between France, the Netherlands and England, so in a sense, he was an Erasmus student himself. But most importantly, Erasmus promoted critical thought and continual learning – something that can resonate in all of us today. Next time you are learning, try out his methods and go back to the source and trace the original history of that particular subject. In the age of fast and easy (often unchecked) internet information, his style of scholarship may be as important as ever.


  • Desiderius Erasmus – Biography. 2014. The European Graduate School website. Available from: [Accessed 18 Mar 2014]
  • Erasmus. 2014. Biography Channel website. Available from: [Accessed 17 Mar 2014]
  • Huizinga, Johan. 2011. Erasmus and the Age of Reformation. Dover Publications, Incorporated.
  • Mitchell, Kristine. 2012. “Student mobility and European Identity: Erasmus Study as a civic experience?” Journal of Contemporary European Research: 8(4).
  • The Erasmus Reader: Erasmus von Desiderius. 2003 [1990]. Ed. Erika Rummel. University of Toronto Press: Toronto.
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by Cristina Paulon

Cristina Paulon joined iversity in the office for a few weeks through the European LLP Exchange Programme in order to learn more about the online learning platform. As a member of the IT staff at the Multimedia and E-Learning Centre, she works for one of the oldest universities in the world, the University of Padova (Padua). Here’s what she has to share:

It’s all my fault. Yeah, I must admit it. 

As you can imagine, an old big university is just like an elephant. Nothing changes much or, if it changes, it’s a slow process. More a genetic modification than an evolutionary leap. 

Padova, Italy, Prato della Valle Square:

Working for the Multimedia and E-Learning Centre at the University of Padova – which, in my opinion, should be the place where ideas come from – and, basically, getting bored of everyday activities, I was always looking around, reading blogs, journals and so on. So I started reading about MOOCs, even if my primary occupation is not e-learning. Open access to knowledge has always been one of my interests (when I graduated in chemistry, my final work was on academic communication and the Open Access Initiative).

At work, we started talking about MOOCs, but no one seemed much interested in them. The objection was always about legal matters. At that time, I didn’t know about the existence of iversity, so my focus was on Coursera, EdX, and FutureLearn. 

Time to move on

In 2013, I went to the BETT Show in London and, as you can imagine, the principal subject were MOOCs, flipped classrooms and gamification. Soon after that, La Sapienza (the biggest university in Rome) joined Coursera, so I decided it was time to move. Not many people were listening to me, neither my boss, but they let me go ahead (I can be so stubborn, sometimes). University of Padova was looking for ways to raise its reputation in the international landscape, attract students and look a bit more modern.

So, my colleagues and I wrote a project proposal and presented it to the delegate for distance learning.  After that he did some research and talked to the chancellor. They liked the idea (I don’t know much about this, we didn’t have a precise account), but we were asked to go on with the project.

My two cents

The main points of the proposal was:

  • MOOCs are international
  • MOOCs are new and innovative
  • MOOCS are changing the world of education: better govern the change, rather than be submerged
  • Of course you can fail, but it’s not as worrying as when a whole university course fails, so why worry?

And my subtext was, but I didn’t write it down: “Oh, c’mon guys! It’s time to move from the historiographical analytic approach and to start of DOING things, rather than study what others do! Hurry up! Time is running out, as sung by someone”.

I should say that our first focus was on Coursera, because it seemed easier: it didn’t have much connection to the traditional organisation of the university, no problems of course substitution, no ECTS credits, nothing of that sort. Then iversity entered the picture and everything sped up. 

What’s next

After our first contact with iversity, we thought it would be a great opportunity to use the LLP Erasmus Exchange programme to join the team and see – hands-on – what making MOOCs looks like. So, I applied for the exchange programme and moved to Berlin, to stay there for three weeks and to pick up all I could learn. 

My experience at iversity has been… I don’t know. It’s been strange to be the oldest person in the room :); it’s been challenging, as I learnt a different way of working; it’s been sometimes intense, as I worked a lot trying to make the most out of it. But, most of all it has been an experience in itself. I must say it, guys: iversity is a great team.

Now, I’m back in Padova. I’m going to debrief my colleagues on what I learnt. We already have two MOOCs in mind, and I’m already working on one of them. And last but not least, during the Academic year opening ceremony on Monday, the chancellor announced that an agreement between Padova and iversity will be signed soon.

From our part, it’s a real challenge: we (the University of Padova, the Multimedia and E-learning Centre, me) never did anything like a MOOC. It will be challenging, tiring, and difficult but I'm sure it will be fun! And interesting. And everything else.

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by Francisco Manuel da Costa

Out of Africa is not a romantic drama film, but a short story based loosely on my autobiographical experience in Africa’s e-learning world. It’s a long walk through the lands of Africa, where e-learning begins to bear fruits.

The journey begins

My story begins in South Africa, and continues on northward through Angola, Kenya and finally Ethiopia. 18 years ago, I started to deeply research Africa Distance Education, especially the University of South Africa (UNISA), the largest distance learning university in Africa with more than 300,000 students, most of them from Africa. This institution started its work in distance learning in the middle of the last century. Presently, they offer many courses, from foundational degrees to Ph.Ds in many different subjects out of the humanities, social sciences, management, law, etc.

Born in Johannesburg, the African Management Initiative is an ambitious pan-African MOOC project that offers free management education using MOOC logistics. Angola is the next stop. Over the past few years, I’ve been collaborating as a consultant with Angolalearning. This is one of the first African startups dedicated to e-learning and other ICTs in education. Education is growing tremendously in this country. Angola is a Lusophone country, a lovely and amazing country with fantastic people and where nature is majestic.

The African Virtual University

From southwest to northeast Kenya, my next stop is Nairobi. Last year, I was invited to work with the Lusophone program at the African Virtual University (AVU). The AVU is a pan-African and intergovernmental organization created by the African Union and has its headquarters in Nairobi. This distance learning university offers courses in its three official languages: English, French and Portuguese.

This project is part of the overall objective of the AVU Multinational Project II to strengthen the capacity of the AVU and a network of 27 institutions in order to to deliver and manage quality ICT integrated education and training opportunities in 21 African countries. The project has the following activities: (1) establishment of new open distance and e-learning (ODEL) centers and/or upgrading of existing AVU learning centers as well as internet connectivity provisions at AVU partner institutions; (2) development and/or improvement, and delivery of ICT integrated programs: AVU capacity enhancement program (ACEP).

Africa Now and One Tablet per Child

E-learning Africa Now in its ninth year and is organized this year in Kampala (Uganda). It is an opportunity to learn about the latest challenges and initiatives in education and training. This forum is the largest meeting of e-learning and ICT supported education and training professionals in Africa, as education and training practitioners, experts, researchers, etc.

Our travel is close to a happy ending in Ethiopia. One Tablet per Child is a successful pilot project, supported by an Italian NGO which handed out 40 tablet computers in two remote Ethiopian villages to see if children can learn by themselves. They simply dropped off tablet computers with preloaded programs and to see what would happens: the children were so enthusiastic as they found the power button, a click that expanded their education with technology. I was so inspired by this story that I started working with a friend to reproduce this fantastic experience in a southwest Asian country.

Shaping the future along with it, e-learning arrived in Africa. So during this year, Africa's annual growth rate for self-paced e-Learning will be 15.4%, and their revenues are expected to reach $512.8 million by the year 2016 (Ref). So for many years, I thought that selling e-learning courses in Africa was the same that selling land on the moon – luckily, I was proved to be wrong.

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07 Tanuj Kalia_largeby Tanuj Kalia

As part of our Great Educators in History series, we invited Tanuj Kalia to share with us one of the most inspiring historical teachers from India. It was Swami Vivekananda’s charismatic, spiritual personality, logical, reformist attitude and ideals, as well as his powerful oratory and writing skills and profound knowledge that made him a teacher par excellence.

Early life

Siddhartha was born into a family of kings and became the Buddha! Narendra was born into an aristocratic family and became Swami Vivekananda!

“Vivekananda” comes from two Hindi words, Viveka meaning wisdom/knowledge/intelligence and Ananda meaning joy/bliss. Vivekananda was an excellent student, scoring a first-division in the Presidency College (Calcutta). He was an avid and an eclectic reader and was interested in the Hindu scriptures, Western logic and European history.

Ramakrishna Paramhansa was Vivekananda’s teacher and the two differed as much as they agreed in their ideals and beliefs. In honour of his teacher, Vivekananda founded the the Ramakrishna Mission in 1897. The project was for social service with its ideals rooted in Karma Yoga.

Karma Yoga (Karma: action, Yoga: union) means the path of union through perfection in action.

A teacher for India and the world

In the early 1890s, Vivekananda travelled throughout India delivering addresses and discourses and engaging in deep study and meditation. His ideas, writings, speeches and discourses made for the revival of the Hinduism religion in India. Many stalwarts of the India’s independence movement too were influenced by him. These included the likes as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Aurobindo Ghose, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.

Vivekananda also popularised Yoga and the philosophy of Vedanta in the West. His tryst with the West is marked by the event mentioned below:

Vivekananda went abroad on 31 May 1893. On 11 September 1893, the day when the Parliament of the World's Religions happened in Chicago,  Swamiji gave a brief but a stirring and highly appreciated speech on India, secularism and Hinduism. His famous speech which began with the words “Sisters and brothers of America” received a standing ovation and world wide acclaim.

Vedanta  is the study of the Hindu philosophy mentioned in the sacred texts like the Bhagvad Gita, the Brahma Sutras and the Upanishads. The various schools of Vedanta strive to understand the relationship between the Atman (self, soul), the Brahman (the infinite, God) and the world. For more information, please see the Wikipedia link here.

His impact

  • In one of his lectures, he said: "Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success, that is way great spiritual giants are produced”.
  • His most famous and the most cited quote goes: “Arise, Awake and Stop Not till the Goal is Reached.” You can find this on the walls of the rooms of many a young Indian!
  • Swamiji frequently urged the youth to be physically strong. He once said, “First of all, our young men must be strong. Religion will come afterwards. Be strong, my young friends; that is my advice to you. You will be nearer to Heaven through football than through the study of the Gita.”
  • It is not for no reason that 12 January, the birthday of Swami Vivekananda, is also celebrated as the National Youth Day in India! 

His death: Mahasamadhi

The events of the day of the death of Swami Vivekananda will sound incredulous to most minds. Vivekananda had already proclaimed that he’d die before the age of 40 (he died when he was 39). On the day of his death, he woke up early, meditated and taught as per the usual routine. At 7:00 in the evening he went to his chamber to meditate. He died at 9:10 pm, after attaining mahasamadhi.

Mahasamadhi (great samadhi) is the act of willingly discarding one’s body at the time of enlightenment.

Samadhi is the 8th and the final stage in Yoga where in concentrated meditation the consciousness of the experiencing subject becomes one with the experienced object.

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