Monday, February 1, 2016

Swedish MOOC report is published

Slightly revised version 2 Feb 2016.
Sweden has been rather late in reacting to the MOOC boom and only in the last two years have a handful of universities started offering courses both on the major MOOC platforms Coursera and EdX but also more home grown channels. Last spring the government commissioned the Swedish Higher Education Authority the task of writing a report with recommendations on how MOOCs could be promoted within the framework of Swedish higher education, outlining opportunities as well as barriers. I was invited to join the reference group for this report and on 27 January it was time to publish the report with an accompanying seminar for invited guests in Stockholm. The report is at present only available in Swedish so I will provide here a summary of the main findings as well as adding my own comments and conclusions.
Download the report here (in Swedish).


The report was based on a survey that was sent to every state-funded higher education institution in the country during autumn 2015 asking about experience with MOOCs so far, plans to launch MOOCs, motives for investing in MOOCs (or not) as well as potential benefits and drawbacks. Six institutions have so far officially offered MOOCs but there are several others who have offered massive open courses without actually labeling them as MOOCs. There is still considerable uncertainty as to what exactly a MOOC is. Swedish universities have for the last 20 years offered a wide range of short online for-credit courses (usually 7-15 credits) as part of the higher education system. There are no fees but you have to apply for admission and fulfil the prerequisites for admission. Many understandably see MOOCs as simply massive versions of what we have been doing for years and wonder what the fuss is all about.

The question to be answered in the report is really about whether MOOC development should be financed by tax-payers' money, how they can be incorporated into the educational system and if so how much funding should go to this new area. The report offers the following recommendations to the government (my own abridged translated summary).

The report is positive to the development of MOOCs within the state-funded education system and Swedish institutions should be encouraged to develop open courses in line with international development. The main reasons for this are to showcase and raise the international profile of Swedish universities and higher education, reach out to new student categories and contribute to lifelong learning. Furthermore, it is hoped that MOOC development can lead to improvements in universities' regular online courses, both technically and pedagogically. The report also recommends a greater focus on pedagogical development in e-learning.

Proposals to the government

  • Institutions should be free to develop MOOCs and other open courses and therefore new regulations concerning this form of higher education should be drawn up. However MOOC participants cannot be considered as students in the legal sense of the term and there is no question of participants gaining credits from Swedish MOOCs.
  • Institutions are allowed to use a certain amount of their state financing to develop and run MOOCs. It is up to each institution how much of this should go towards MOOC development. 
  • All institutions should be able to develop open online courses and to achieve this funding should also be available to cover professional development in digital pedagogy.
  • Although MOOCs are free it should be possible for institutions to charge fees for certificates, as often required in many international MOOC consortia.

Proposals to higher education institutions

Existing experience of developing and running MOOCs should be shared between institutions. The report identifies three possible lines of development for open online education:
  • Institutions who wish to develop and offer MOOCs should be free to do so.
  • Institutions may also develop hybrid courses which are available both as part of regular for-credit courses and as open non-credit courses (MOOCs).
  • Institutions should be encouraged to collaborate to produce open, national versions of introductory courses and skills courses that today are duplicated by many institutions. The common online course material can then be complemented at each institution by on-site seminars and support.
The authority believes that these recommendations will lead to higher quality and increased efficiency however it will be up to each institution to decide the extent to which they will follow the guidelines.

Discussion points

This report offers universities the opportunity to develop MOOCs and join international consortia but does not dictate exactly what they should do or how they should do it. The authority simply wants to remove potential barriers to MOOC development in Sweden but leave the strategic decisions up to the institutions. Many are wary of entering the MOOC arena due to uncertainty about legal aspects such as where course material and student information are stored and how that information can be used by third parties. These issues are still unresolved but maybe the coming debate around the report will result in some new initiatives.

The report finally gives MOOCs official recognition in Swedish higher education and that the further development of such courses can benefit regular degree programmes, reach out to new groups of learners and showcase Swedish education on a global level. I suspect however that the report will loosen the lock on Pandora's box and that there will then be a number of important issues to resolve such as openness, sharing, recognition of prior learning, competence-based degrees etc. The report does not offer any new guidance in terms of copyright issues (that was not within the scope of the commission) but points out some of the areas that need further investigation and urges universities to work together to find a common praxis. This, I think, is a pity because I don't think that type of collaboration will happen without a catalyst from above. I believe we need a national policy on openness recommending that educational resources financed by the state should be available to all under a Creative Commons license. Without that we will continue to produce hundreds of variations on the same theme and reinvent the wheel at the taxpayers' expense. However, the report opens the door to universities collaborating to produce national MOOCs in subject areas that are common to all students, eg study skills, academic writing, scientific methodology.

One of the trickier points in the report is allowing universities to charge fees for MOOC certificates. This breaks a central principle of Swedish higher education, that it should be free from tuition and examination fees. Many will feel that this move could set a dangerous precedent but the reason for the change is to allow universities who are part of the major consortia like Coursera, EdX and FutureLearn to follow consortium policy. Most MOOC consortia today charge for certification and allowing learners with Swedish universities to get free certificates would create conflict within those consortia. This issue is likely to become even more complicated with Coursera's recent moves to make many of its courses fee-paying by default with free participants only entitled to view a restricted amount of the course content (see article in Inside Higher Ed, Limits of open).

In addition many institutions are worried about the implications of awarding certificates in their name to MOOC participants where it is almost impossible to verify that the participant has actually done the coursework themselves. Secure forms of online examination are still an issue and as a consequence the recognition of MOOC certificates for students applying for regular university courses presents challenges that require national and international coordination.

Finally many of the unresolved issues here boil down to a crucial issue; quality. If we can agree to implement existing quality assurance guidelines on all open online courses we can establish criteria by which to assess the validity of courses and set requirements for recognising certificates.

An English summary of the report will be available in the near future but otherwise you'll need to run the present version through Google Translate to get the gist of it. I hope my summary here has at least given you the main points.

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