MOOCs, massive open online courses, are currently offered in a multitude of subjects and languages. They’re created by collaborations between universities, individual professors and instructors, and production platforms (like iversity, Coursera, edX, etc.). While most courses stem from US universities and platforms, forward-thinking members of Europe’s educational sphere are increasingly planning and producing MOOCs. The MOOC phenomenon exists in more of Europe than one may have thought.

Where were MOOCs first created?

It may come as a surprise that MOOCs did not originate in Europe or the USA, but were invented in Canada in 2008. The past five years have brought tremendous growth and institutionalization for MOOCs, which first spread to partner universities in Massachusetts and California, including MIT, Harvard, and Stanford. MOOCs then took root across the US and Europe, representing an important development since computer-assisted instruction originated in 1960. Today, there are MOOCs offered in many languages, including Russian, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, with most of these courses coming from European countries.

Where in Europe are MOOCs made?

Netherlands, Italy, Spain

Many major European countries have launched MOOCs, or are considering doing so. In the Benelux region, Netherlands’ Leiden University, Delft University, University of Amsterdam, and Open Universiteit have MOOCs in collaboration with Coursera, edX, OpenUpEd, and Sakai respectively. Italy has also launched MOOCs with OpenUpEd, and its Universita degli Studi di Napoli Federico II has its own MOOC platform. Other Italian universities have Coursera MOOCs, and one applied for the iversity MOOC Fellowship Competition. Its Bocconi University has a lab dedicated to MOOC research. Spain also houses the production platform Miriada X, launched January 2013.

The UK and Ireland

The United Kingdom also has a new MOOC platform, FutureLearn. Founded by The Open University in December 2012, it has partnered with 21 universities in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, including King’s College London and Trinity College Dublin, and prominent British cultural institutions. The University of London and the University of Edinburgh have Coursera MOOCs; the University of Edinburgh is the platform’s first non-US partner. UK Universities also have MOOCs in collaboration with BlackBoard CourseSites and other platforms, and interest in launching MOOCs has recently emerged in Wales.


In Germany, iversity was founded in 2008 as an academic collaboration platform and was incorporated in 2011. The company changed their focus to become a MOOC provider in 2012 and is the first MOOC platform to hold a European MOOC Fellowship Competition, a milestone in European MOOC involvement. iversity, headed by CEO Marcus Riecke and CMO Hannes Klöpper, will launch courses taught by specialists from German, Italian, and Spanish universities, including Professor Christian Spannagel from the University of Education Heidelberg. Jorn Loviscach is an e-learning pioneer in Germany with his YouTube series; he also served on iversity’s jury to determine its winners of the MOOC Fellowship Competition. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat München has a partnership with Coursera, and the University of Frankfurt is also involved in online learning initiatives. The Fernuniversität Hagen, Germany’s only university with a focus on distance learning, started experimenting with MOOCs in early 2013. Universities other than the FernUni Hagen also independently run their own MOOCs, such as the Virtual Linguistics Campus at the University of Marburg. Other platforms have also taken root in Germany, such as Open HPI, Open.SAP, and Open Course World.

Pan-European Initiatives, and Elsewhere in Europe

Interest in MOOCs and participation in their planning and design is spreading in Europe. The Bologna declaration, signed by European education ministers in 1999, was conceived to make national higher education systems compatible with one another and increase pan-European student mobility. The process also lead to more streamlined and assessment-heavy curricula, rendering MOOCs appealing opportunities for additional and interdisciplinary education for European students.

OpenUpEd, mentioned above, is a pan-European MOOC initiative. Launched in April 2013 and supported by the European Commission, it has 60 free web courses in 10 languages with universities in France, the UK, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and southern European countries including Portugal, Spain, and Italy. It also partners with universities outside of the European Union, including those in Russia, Turkey, and Israel, and plans to work with institutions in Cyprus, Scandinavia (Denmark specifically), Estonia, Greece, Poland, and Slovenia. There are other multinational initiatives to promote MOOCs in Europe forming, with collaboration between EuroTech universities.

There is MOOC participation elsewhere in the DACH-region, in Austria and Switzerland, notably with the Vienna University of Technology and ETH Zurich respectively. Universities and institutions in Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, Finland, France, and Belgium are also involved in MOOC production. Universities from these countries either applied to the iversity MOOC fellowship, have partnerships with large platforms like edX, Coursera, or Udacity, have their own MOOC platforms (like the University of Amsterdam), or work with other platforms like Moodle.

The Future

There are benefits for international platforms working with European universities. For example, the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne of Switzerland has a course in French with Coursera, which widens Coursera’s market in the French-speaking world, attracting students in Europe, Africa, and Canada. There is the potential that European universities will partner with international platforms that aren’t based in America, like Australia’s Open2Study, launched March 2013, India’s EducateMe360, and Latin America’s unX.

There are many countries and universities in Europe involved in MOOC production, planning, and research, but most MOOCs come from American universities. There is less discourse in Europe about MOOCs, which are often the focus of op-eds and educational conferences in the US. While MOOCs are expanding in Europe, this educational change is concentrated in Western Europe, and many countries, such as Greece, the Ukraine (and most of Eastern Europe), and Balkan states are yet to make headlines in MOOC production. Interestingly, some prestigious European Universities, like Cambridge and Oxford have not yet partnered to make MOOCs. But the European University Association (EUA) has dedicated a taskforce to studying Euro-MOOCs and strategizing their impact on Europe, which will only grow in the coming years.

by Anna Meixler, Hans Stiegler and Holger Dewitz

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Though MOOCs are offered in a wide range of disciplines, satisfying curious intellectuals and skill-seekers, most online courses exist in science, math, and technology. But organisations like iversity and institutions like Wesleyan University (the first liberal arts institution to launch MOOCs) are producing courses in the humanities as well. iversity spoke to Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, Wesleyan’s first Distinguished Teaching Fellow, Jane A. Seney Professor of Greek and Professor of Classical Studies, whose MOOC “The Ancient Greeks” ran this fall and spring.

iversity: What was your personal approach to teaching a MOOC, and how might it differ from those instructing in science or math?

Szegedy-Maszak: With courses like organic chemistry or subatomic physics, what one needs to teach may be clear. But in a humanities course, there is greater flexibility in selecting topics, determining their depth, and assigning readings.

“I worked to allow for complexity, ambiguity, and ignorance”

Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak

(Courtesy of Olivia Drake)

I received advice for my course from Professor Peter T. Struck, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, who taught a successful 10-week MOOC on Classic Mythology. He said he wished his course was shorter; I therefore made mine 7 weeks long. I did so for two reasons. The first constricted the effort involved in making the MOOC, which was hundreds of hours of prep. I also shortened my course to retain student interest. There is a downward slope in engagement from the first to last weeks of courses.

I gave 6 lectures per week, which cover the earliest Greek civilization to the death of Socrates. Deciding on these topics was, in some ways, arbitrary. I chose to teach a survey-style class. The Archaic Age, for example, receives scholarly attention. I could’ve done a course on just that period, or concentrated entirely on the Athenians. But I thought it’d be more useful to give students a broader historical perspective and introduce the sense of a wider Greek world. I taught what students are likely looking for, working in allusions to today’s research, because Greek history keeps changing. I wanted to suggest to my audience that I wasn’t teaching your grandfather’s Greek history class.

The origins of Greece: golden “Mask of Agamemnon”. Bronze Age.

National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Courtesy PD

iversity: Your MOOC assigns no papers, grades, or final assessment. How do you keep students engaged and focused? Is passion alone enough, and is it specific to humanities courses?

Szegedy-Maszak: For most students, Greek history is a subject they’re interested in and wanted to learn more about. I assign blunt, evaluative weekly questions to ensure they stay on track. These quizzes enable people who want them to get statements of accomplishment. Some students requested a tougher final examination, and a statement of accomplishment with distinction for those who do well on it. When the course is offered again on September 2, I may include a final to up the ante.

iversity: In your lectures, you don’t read from a script, as many MOOC instructors do.

Szegedy-Maszak: That’s similar to how I teach my classes at Wesleyan. I’ve been teaching this material for a long time, and know it well. I instead make a list of key topics to cover during each lecture. My MOOC doesn’t use textbook readings, also like my Wesleyan courses. All readings are primary sources in translation. The value of this particular subject [Greek history] lies in hearing the voices of long ago. It gives students a sense of what we, modern historians, deal with when reconstructing past narratives.

An unavoidable factor in teaching online is the amount of compression required, hitting only the subject’s high points. A friend said to “leave a lot out to get it all in,” my operating principle. My lectures at Wesleyan are 80 minutes, and these were from 12-20. Though I left a lot out, I felt a responsibility to the material and students not to dumb it down. I worked to allow for complexity, ambiguity, and ignorance, as there’s a lot we still don’t know about Greek history.  

Bust of Socrates. His death concludes the MOOC.

Rome, Vatican Museum

Courtesy of Wilson Delgado

Interview for iversity by Anna Meixler

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