• Love to Learn. Online.

    Love to Learn. Online.

By Anna Meixler

 

Access to classroom learning is far from universal, and even those enrolled in formal educational institutions may be hungering for greater, more convenient learning opportunities. In fact, the most heavily cited reason that students take MOOCs, according to a February 2013 Coursera report on their Bioelectricity MOOC from Duke University, is to satisfy intellectual hunger. The desire to extend existing knowledge on certain topics is cited as the second most likely cause for engagement, and professional development as the third.

This academic curiosity is universal. According to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, its MOOC with only 2,000 students encompassed 109 different countries. Students represent countries with vastly different political and socioeconomic conditions, interacting with individuals internationally through MOOC discussion forums as previous generations had not. The 687 participants from the United States had the opportunity to correspond with students from Egypt, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Educational discourse may eventually bridge conflict and unite citizens between states with historically tense relationships.

These are not only university students, but also adults and working professionals representing a variety of fields, contributing unique perspectives. Many courses consist of students who hold less than a four-year degree along with students who have Bachelors degrees, and students with even more advanced degrees.

MOOCs uniquely offer students a way to explore their interests and expand their knowledge at a university level, without having to apply to or meet the requirements for attending a standard university. In this way, MOOCs provide high-quality educational experiences, without hefty price tags, rigid time commitments, or exclusive acceptance rates. They also allow students to select the learning experience most productive and best suited to their abilities and preferences, which may surprise those who think MOOCs are impersonal. Students choose MOOCs based on their levels of difficulty, and can study class material at their own paces, based on their schedules and learning needs.

This new educational frontier requires flexibility in leadership and participation. Many MOOCs are still in trial-and-error stages, necessary for their eventual success. Like in any higher-learning construct, teachers, and students must interact dynamically to fully reap the unique benefits that MOOCs offer. Professors and students are testing the waters with MOOCs, partaking in the educational experiment of the twenty-first century. In so doing, participants promote innovation in teaching and learning, enhancing global knowledge and satisfying scholarly interests.

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Applications for the first MOOC Production Fellowship closed on April 30. The results are in: with over 250 qualified applicants, this was the most popular competition for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in Europe to date. Professors from over 20 countries applied, with 190 from Germany and 14 from both the United States and Italy. They’re competing for 250.000€ grants (about $320,000) from Stifterverband, a public trust for science in Germany, and us at iversity, to produce one of ten online courses. Furthermore, we as a European MOOCs provider, grant them technological and didactical support throughout course production.

The grants are comparatively high, given previous private initiatives in Germany. But, as our CEO Markus Riecke says, “This competition is not about money. Instead, our fellowship programme is all about advancing online education. And the inquiries show a demand for MOOCs among university instructors in Europe and across the world that is way beyond expectations. Together with Stifterverband, iversity is committed to produce exciting and inspiring courses that are open to everyone.”

This project isn't exclusive to Europe and the US. Professors from countries as varied as China, New Zealand and Columbia are competing for fellowships; many come from esteemed research universities such as the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia, Cambridge, LMU and TU Munich, Heidelberg, Tübingen, Freie and Humboldt Universität Berlin and RWTH Aachen.

"iversity is committed to prMarkus Riecke, CEO of iversityoduce exciting and
inspiring courses that are open to everyone.”

Markus Riecke, CEO of iversity

Submissions from American Ivy League universities, Britain’s most renowned colleges, and German “Eliteuniversitäten” were expected, as these universities often pioneer MOOC development. Surprisingly, some of the most intellectually stimulating courses, however, were submitted by professors and lecturers from less well-known institutions.

Hannes Klöpper, one of the fellowship programme’s initiators at iversity, explains, “MOOCs provide an excellent opportunity for outstanding scholars and enthusiastic teachers, who, for whatever reason, do not teach at one of the elite universities to reach a global audience.
MOOCs not only allow for students to participate in courses, no matter where they live, but also for instructors to teach independently of where they happen to be located.“ The proposed online courses are even more diverse than the academic backgrounds of potential fellows from which they stem. About a third of the applications focus on law, economics, business studies and social sciences, a third are interdisciplinary courses, and about one sixth teach STEM subjects.

English may be today's language of science. But among the applicants from Europe, German prooved to be still a very popular language for MOOCs: 115 of the applications for a MOOC Fellowship are in German, and 109 are in English. Roughly 10% of the the courses that are presented for a fellowship-grant by iversity and Stifterverband are bi-lingual. And two percent of the suggested MOOCs are even multi-lingual, meaning that they would be taught in more than two languages.

Ten of these courses will be chosen by online public votes and a jury of MOOC experts.

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Open Road

iversity has come long way since Jonas Liepmann took the first steps in 2008 and Hannes Klöpper and some friends won a student idea competition for an online learning platform. Soon after launching the blended learning course platform (“The collaboration network for academia”) in autumn of 2011 we first announced that we would create “Open Courses” on iversity. Back then we contended that:

“Up to this day .. [open educational] resources have only been posted on static websites, void of possibilities for interaction between instructors and 'students', or just between independent learners themselves. What so far has been missing was exactly what for many learners is the key part in the learning process: the exchange with others. This is what iversity's free 'Open Courses' seek to provide. By integrating open educational resources and public domain content into a social learning environment, iversity enables self-learners to engage with the content and exchange with their peers.”

As the first experimental open courses grew more and more popular, we realised that this was indeed the right direction to pursue. In January of 2012 Hannes wrote a piece in the Huffington Post on the emergent MOOC-phenomenon. Since then we have been working on bringing this idea to Europe. We wrote about it in our blog, talked to professors, investors, large companies and institutions of higher education, working tirelessly to popularise the idea on this side of the pond.

Deeply convinced of the transformative potential of the MOOC-phenomenon Marcus Riecke decided to join our team in December 2012. A long-time veteran of the European Internet industry Marcus did not only joined our team as full-time CEO. He also invested some of his own money in the company. Impressed by this level of commitment our existing investors Frühphasenfonds Brandenburg, BMP media investors and Masoud Kamali as well as T-Venture decided to join the round. At this point we would like to express our deep gratitude to them as well as the countless others who have supported us throughout.

Today is not only the culmination of our team’s work of the first two months of this year. It is also feels like we arrived at the destination of an expedition that started over a year ago. Surely our journey is far from over. Today just marks the beginning of an even more exciting trip that now lies ahead of us. Managing the MOOC Production Fellowship selection process and the subsequent course production will present us with many new challenges. But we extremely excited to have this opportunity to publicly and practically rethink what higher education should look like in the digital age.

We are taking the road less travelled and we are excited to see where it takes us.

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