Massive open online courses (MOOCs)

In a report, UKÄ (Swedish Higher Education Authority) proposes that Swedish Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) should, like their counterparts in other countries, be given the possibility of arranging open online courses (MOOCs).

MOOCs represent a fundamentally positive development, making knowledge available to large groups of people. This new form of education can contribute to lifelong learning and raise the level of knowledge in society. It also gives Swedish universities the opportunity to profile themselves internationally, says University Chancellor Harriet Wallberg.

For a number of years HEIs in many countries have been offering open online courses that are freely available on the Internet, known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Anybody at all may take part in these courses, all that is needed is access to a computer connected to the Internet.

A few Swedish HEIs have begun to organise MOOCs but there are a number of uncertainties about this specific form of education within the Swedish higher education system. In the spring of 2015 the Government gave the Swedish Higher Education Authority the task of analysing the possibilities and potential obstacles to the introduction of open online education (MOOCs) in Swedish higher education. This task also included proposing whether, and if so how and to what extent, MOOCs could be included in Swedish higher education and what consequences this could have. This is a summary of the Authorities report to the Government.

Swedish higher education in an international context

In several countries, as in Sweden, higher education is provided free of charge and Internet-based distance teaching has been an established phenomenon for many years. In Sweden, however, higher education differs from its counterparts in other countries in being composed of courses and in the wide range of freestanding courses on offer that can be studied in the context of lifelong learning. Continual professional development and other forms of continuing education therefore form part of the normal higher education system in Sweden and are, according to the legislation, free of charge.

In many other countries it is customary for courses of this kind to be offered by what are often called open universities and payment of fees is required before any HE-credits can be awarded. Higher education in Sweden is therefore already relatively open and flexible, and from this perspective MOOCs are not very dissimilar to freestanding courses.

Possibilities and challenges with MOOCs

Swedish Higher Education Authorities definition of MOOCs in this study is that they are open online courses that are scalable, i.e. they are created for large numbers of participants.

In order to ascertain what interest there was in MOOCs in the HEIs and what they perceive to be unclear issues relating to courses of this kind, the authorities conducted a questionnaire survey. The HEIs see many possibilities in MOOCs, for instance as a means of increasing their visibility and enabling technological and methodological development that will have positive repercussions for their regular programmes. MOOCs also offer a way of providing continuous professional development and other forms of continuing education in a flexible manner.

The challenges posed by MOOCs listed by the HEIs mainly concern the consequences of their status as public authorities and the current regulations governing their operations. It is not clear how MOOCs may be funded and indeed unclear whether the HEIs are in fact allowed to offer courses of this kind at all.

MOOCs should be included in higher education in Sweden

We consider that Swedish HEIs should, like their counterparts in other countries, be given the possibility of arranging open online courses (MOOCs). It is our opinion that these courses would, among other things, offer new possibilities of providing knowledge to large groups in the community and that they can help to deal with major social challenges. At the same time the international visibility of the HEIs would be raised.

Swedish Higher Education Authority sees a number of ways in which the technology and methodology relating to MOOCs could also benefit regular educational programmes, in particular if they are combined with local seminars and local examinations. Investments in MOOCs would provide a boost for online courses. The authority considers, however, that support may be required for the development of digital teaching methods.

How MOOCs can be incorporated into higher education in Sweden

Our proposals to the Government authorities:

  • HEIs should be provided with an explicit possibility of arranging MOOCs as a specific form of education. UKÄ therefore proposes a new ordinance on open online courses.
  • The HEIs should be allowed to use their funding for the development and arrangement of open online courses up to a specified level.
  • In order to provide all HEIs with the possibility of developing open online courses earmarked direct funding should be allocated for the organisation of such courses as well as for development of digital methods for teaching and learning in higher education.
  • Although open online courses should be offered free of charge, the HEIs should be permitted to charge fees for certificates awarded for these courses. This would facilitate cooperation with the international platforms and the HEIs would be able to choose themselves the channels used to distribute their courses.

Our proposals to the HEIs:

UKÄ considers that advantage should be taken of experience gained by the HEIs of developing open online courses and that it should be disseminated, both within and between HEIs. UKÄ has identified three conceivable lines of development for online courses in Swedish HEIs if the proposals in this report are implemented:

  • The HEIs that want to develop open online courses (MOOCs) will be given the opportunity to do so.
  • At the same time, the HEIs will acquire the possibility of developing hybrid courses, i.e. courses offered both as MOOCs and as modules in their regular programmes.
  • Cooperation on joint online educational modules for similar courses in regular first and second-cycle programmes will be made easier. These modules can well be combined with local seminars and local examinations.

In UKÄ’s opinion developments along these lines can contribute both to improvements in quality and greater efficiency. It is, however, up to the HEIs themselves to decide to what extent they opt to follow these lines of development.

The extent of MOOCs

UKÄ considers the main task of the HEIs is to provide higher education and research. Open online courses should therefore account for a very limited proportion of their operations. In UKÄ’s opinion the extent of MOOC operations could reasonably be defined by introducing a cap for the proportion of direct government funding that may be allocated to courses of this kind. Imposing such a cap could be perceived as an infringement of the autonomy of the HEIs, for instance because they are relatively free to determine how their resources may be used for the tasks assigned to them. On the other hand it is important for direct government funding to be devoted mainly to the HEIs’ core activities. As one aspect of the task assigned to UKÄ was to propose to what extent MOOC operations can be incorporated into higher education, it is, however, difficult to identify a funding model without at the same time placing a limit on the use of direct government funding.

The authorities judgement is that the cap for the use of direct government funding could be 0.2 per cent of the allocations for first and second-cycle courses and programmes and the same percentage of allocations for research and third-cycle courses and programmes. For many smaller HEIs 0.2 per cent of their funding corresponds to a considerably smaller amount than the SEK 3 million that UKÄ estimates is required to arrange a limited number of MOOCs. For this reason incremental development funding is needed to support the smaller HEIs. UKÄ calculates that the amount of support funding will amount to around SEK 60 million per year. UKÄ considers that the increased interest in the HEIs in developing digital methods for teaching and learning in higher education, in part motivated by MOOCs, should be put to good effect. The smaller HEIs that decide not to develop MOOCs should be permitted the alternative of devoting this development funding to developing digital teaching and learning methods instead.

This proposal would provide all the public-sector HEIs and several independent education providers with the resources required to organise and develop open online courses.

If the proposal submitted in this report by the authority is adopted, the reform should be reviewed in a few years.