11 How to provide MOOCs?
It is important to distinguish between the terms portal and platform. A web portal, in this context a MOOC portal, is a website pointing to information and resources on various MOOCs. A platform is the framework in which the applications are run, in this case MOOCs. In essence, a MOOC portal functions as a gateway to the courses, while the actual course is run on a platform.
Looking at the existing MOOCs, it is, however, difficult to distinguish portals and platforms from each other. In practice, the major MOOC providers, e.g. Coursera, edX, FutureLearn and Udacity, function as both portals and platforms. These providers’ websites list and promote their own courses, and refer the users to the providers’ course platforms.
There are a number of players that provide pure portal functions, e.g. mooc-list.com, or national portals such as the German mooc.de and the Spanish mooc.es. The portals function as free-standing services providing a comprehensive overview of courses from multiple platforms. The most important function of a portal is to provide the users with an overview of relevant offers without having to access different platforms or individual institutions. In Norway, BIBSYS has taken the initiative to establish a Norwegian pilot portal for MOOCs, mooc.no. At the moment, the number of offers is very modest, which is logical since the number of Norwegian MOOCs is very low.
Most Norwegian universities and university colleges have websites promoting their own study programmes. There are also national portals such as utdanning.no, which provide an overview of education programmes in Norway. Commercial portals such as kursguiden.no provide the same service.
11.1 Portal for Norwegian MOOCs
MOOC portals provide important links to existing courses, and are therefore important marketing tools for the institutions. The growing interest in MOOCs in recent years has resulted in heavy competition between different providers and institutions. Several international providers and institutions have been prominent on the MOOC arena, and their position in the market place also makes it more challenging for smaller players to promote their courses.
As mentioned, several countries have established national MOOC portals to gather and demonstrate courses in their own language from the countries’ different institutions. In addition to the portals in Germany and Spain, the French OCÉAN is also an example of such a national portal. The objective is to help French-speaking course participants navigate among the many offers in existence, and to give potential participants an indication of the quality of the various services.
A national portal in Norway could be important in order to showcase the existing Norwegian provisions, and to increase the number of Norwegian courses and participants. A portal can have different objectives. It could be a simple list that aggregates and systemises Norwegian MOOCs. The portal could also promote the courses to potential participants. However, in light of the competition with international providers and institutions, this is contingent upon finding a way to position oneself in the marketplace. Promotion is particularly important to the institutions. Surveys have shown that brand building is a key motivation factor for institutions in developing MOOCs. Many state that they develop and offer MOOCs in order to recruit students for their campus programmes.1
Another vital consideration in the portal discussion is which target groups one wants to reach. If a Norwegian portal is primarily aimed at potential participants in Norway, the design will be different than if the purpose was also to recruit foreign participants to Norwegian courses.
A consideration must be made as to which programmes the portal will link to. A portal can gather courses that only satisfy the criteria in a strict definition of MOOCs, but may also include courses that adhere to the Commission’s broader definition of the term MOOC. Similarly, it is also a question of whether a portal shall only include courses from higher education institutions, or whether courses from other players can be included. A portal can also include MOOCs from foreign providers that can yield credits in the Norwegian education system.
11.1.1 The Commission’s considerations
The Commission believes that there is a need for a portal aggregating Norwegian MOOCs. There are several arguments in favour of this. Firstly, the Commission believes that a portal would be well-suited to demonstrate the available Norwegian MOOCs. In light of the large number of players and MOOCs on the international market, there is need for a service that can easily link to the Norwegian resources, including MOOCs in the Norwegian language. Secondly, the Commission believes that a portal that gathers the Norwegian courses will make it easy for potential participants and players in working life. In addition, a portal would be a major resource in the institutions' desire to build their brands.
The Commission understands that certain Norwegian institutions may prefer to associate themselves with an established international MOOC provider. One important argument for doing so, could be the potential for brand building by being represented on well-known international portals. Several of the pure portal services in today's marketplace gather and systemise all available MOOCs. The major players that function both as portals and platforms only promote their own courses. The Commission believes there is a basis for questioning whether the majority of participants in these courses are aware of which institution is behind the course. The Commission is therefore uncertain of what promotional value these services have for the institutions that have developed the courses.
In line with the understanding of MOOCs that the Commission has used as a basis, the Commission believes that a Norwegian portal should not apply too strict criteria for which courses can be included in the portal. The portal must both gather the current MOOCs and make them visible, while at the same time being suitable for including future MOOCs that may differ from the courses dominating the current market.
Furthermore, the Commission believes that the target group for a Norwegian MOOC portal should not be limited to Norwegian participants, but rather that the goal must be to distribute information on the courses to potential participants from other countries. In order to realise this, it is crucial to find a way to promote the distinctive characteristics of Norwegian MOOCs.
The Commission also believes it could be useful to establish a Nordic cooperation with a view toward finding a suitable way of promoting Nordic MOOCs on the international market. The establishment of a joint Nordic MOOC portal could be considered over the longer term, but the Commission believes that this will require more long-term strategies and clarifications both in terms of administration and finances.
In order to reach out internationally with information on Norwegian MOOCs, the Commission believes that a Norwegian portal service should establish strategic agreements to transfer data to already existing portals, such as mooc-list.com and utdanning.no.
In the Commissions view, the cost aspect of the portal will be tripartite:
technical solution, establishment, and further development and maintenance
technical operations that ensure high availability, safeguard the exchange of information with other portals, etc.
content management that contributes to uniform course presentation, categorisation and interaction with the content producer.
The Commission does not believe that the establishment of a portal will require major resources. The Commission is, however, aware that resources for the ongoing work of gathering and maintaining information will be dependent on the number of courses and the ambitions for brand building.
The Commission believes that the realisation of a Norwegian portal could be considered in conjunction with an existing portal service, such as utdanning.no or mooc.no. However, the Commission also strongly feels that a MOOC portal should be clearly visible, and be designed according to the needs of the different users. Consequently, if the MOOC portal is linked to an existing portal service, the opportunities for prominent promotion of the MOOCs must be clearly emphasised.
11.2 Platform for Norwegian MOOCs
As initially defined, a MOOC platform is the application on which the actual course is run. Most MOOC platforms share certain primary functions. Firstly, a platform will structure the learning resources in the course in an educationally appropriate way. How this is done will depend on the educational orientation of the course, e.g. illustrated by the differences between so-called cMOOCs and xMOOCs (cf. Chapter 6). Secondly, the platform will offer an interface and support tools for the participants' course completion, and an interface and support tools for course development. The platforms will also provide various support systems for test evaluation and statistics; the latter in combination with different types of analytical instruments.
Most platforms’ secondary function will be as a portal for the courses offered on the platform. Many of the platforms have functionality for communicating with registered interested parties and course participants, in addition to issuing course certificates/diplomas.
11.2.1 What characterises today’s platforms?
Today's platforms are a mixture of evolved learning support systems and solutions developed as MOOC platforms. They are owned and operated by commercial players, as well as non-profit organisations. Examples of commercial players include Coursera, Udacity and Canvas.net.
edX is a platform operated and developed by a consortium (xConsortium) consisting of more than 30 participating universities. Their technical solution is also available as open source code. As previously mentioned, both edX and Google are planning a collaboration based on the edX platform and several of Google's services during the first half of 2014. The Canvas learning platform, provided by the commercial company Instructure, is the core of the platform and portal concept canvas.net. As a point of departure, it is freely available to use for MOOCs. Canvas as a pure platform is available as open source code. As of today, none of the international players have the Norwegian language as an option. However, work is under way to facilitate the use of the Norwegian language on Canvas and edX in the open source code version.
The least accessible platform for Norwegian institutions appears to be Coursera, which markets itself to the top-ranking global institutions. edX provided by the xConsortium seems to have a high price tag, in addition to its exclusivity, while it is more unclear to what extent the European platforms are available to Norwegian institutions. The major US universities appear to be present on various platforms, both open-source platforms with their own branding, as well as platforms with other available solutions.
Most existing platforms are provided as hosted, cloud-based solutions. This often includes a form of support, depending on how much one is willing to pay. For example, Canvas.net offers counselling on course design for classic MOOCs at a limited cost, while edX offers to produce courses with a subject co-ordinator as an advisor. Support is primarily aimed at those who are developing the course, rather than those taking the course, although the course participant may receive web-based support in some fashion.
11.2.2 Selecting a platform for Norwegian MOOCs
One essential question is whether it is more practical to make each institution consider and decide which platform solution they want to use, or whether national authorities should facilitate a shared national solution.
The choice of platform solution also raises several other issues. One important question is which target group one wants to reach. Other key issues are associated with copyrights, educational development opportunities, language, where data will be stored, data ownership and how it will be used by the platform owner. Questions related to the institutions' promotion of courses are also relevant when selecting a platform solution.
Platform access for MOOCs can be obtained by becoming part of existing solutions. Access to technical solutions operated and partly supported by a third party can be purchased, or it is possible to use open source code operated and maintained by the institutions themselves or through shared solutions with multiple partners, such as national solutions. An example of the latter is France, where the government has funded and made the open-source version of edX available through the French, digital university.
The main argument for affiliating with an existing platform, such as Coursera, edX or FutureLearn, is the access to global target groups provided by these platforms. The high number of participants available to the established international suppliers will be particularly attractive to Norwegian institutions that have academic communities with a global target group. This will typically be internationally oriented research communities. Courses offered by such communities could most likely be provided via one of the large internationally renowned MOOC platforms. As mentioned above, the established platforms will most likely not be an alternative for all Norwegian institutions, as they primarily enter into collaboration with internationally familiar institutions. Moreover, choosing an established international player will make it more difficult to offer courses in Norwegian or the Sámi language.
By entering into a partnership with an established player, there is a risk of having to relinquish sole control of personal data and course data. There are also copyright challenges related to the established players. Coursera e.g. requires co-ownership to content posted on their platform. This makes it more difficult to move content to other platforms at a later date (lock-in). Another consequence is that the content may be subject to US legislation. In January 2014, this resulted in Coursera having to block users from Cuba, Iran and Sudan from their services, since commercial players cannot operate in these countries.2 US-based providers are subject to extensive export regulations for countries, organisations and individuals.3
It is possible to choose free, openly available international solutions such as Canvas.net or the upcoming mooc.org. The uncertainty associated with these solutions appears to revolve around how data is stored, data ownership and how the data can potentially be used and exploited by the platform owner. When a business outsources its handling of personal information in whole or in part to other companies, so-called data processing agreements must be established.4 These framework agreements are extensive. The Norwegian Centre for ICT in Education has prepared a guide on cloud services and external IT services.5
By using the open-source versions of edX and Canvas, an institution will have full import and export opportunities for courses between each of these solutions, as well as the corresponding commercial variants of the platforms. If an institution is operating a platform based on open source code, course material can be posted on it without having to sign an agreement with external suppliers. Thus, the use of materials on such a platform would not create new restrictions as regards copyright or reuse of the materials.
It would also be possible for an institution to choose whether to use its own platform or be part of a shared national solution. The one does not preclude the other. One aspect of this is cost. When establishing a shared platform solution for Norwegian institutions, the costs would primarily be related to establishing the solution, and would only marginally increase along with the number of courses until a relatively high number is reached. The financial benefit of establishing shared solutions appears to be significant, given that initial costs would accrue for one rather than multiple installations. As mentioned, national solutions will ensure control of personal data and course data, in addition to providing more prominent branding of each individual institution offering MOOCs. A shared national solution would facilitate the establishment of user support with associated assistance in developing MOOCs. The largest institutions would most likely be able to establish such support services internally, but it is likely that the number of courses relevant to MOOC platforms will be fairly low in the foreseeable future. This means that many institutions will find it too expensive to establish their own operational solutions and the necessary support services for developing MOOCs.
BIBSYS has established and provides a limited Canvas platform for providing MOOCs. So far, this has been a free service developed within the Ministry of Education and Research’s appropriation to BIBSYS. As of the summer of 2014, BIBSYS will invoice for such services. BIBSYS also launched edX for testing in March 2014. During the test period this was free of charge for the educational institutions, but when they use it for regular MOOCs, the institutions will have to pay for the service.
11.2.3 The Commission’s considerations
The Commission believes that arrangements should be made to help Norwegian institutions’ develop MOOCs to a larger degree than today. In the Commission’s opinion, it is currently challenging for many Norwegian institutions to develop and provide MOOCs. The reasons for this may be the lack of educational, organisational and/or technological expertise in developing and operating such services. In order to gain access to international platforms, the institutions must also go through a process that can be very time and resource consuming.
In the opinion of the Commission, easy access to platform services is an important precondition for increasing the pace of MOOC development in Norwegian institutions. The Commission believes this indicates that all Norwegian institutions should have access to one or more platforms through a national initiative.
The Commission is concerned with the brand building opportunities that a national platform for MOOCs can provide. The institutions that develop courses are often overshadowed by platform providers on the large, established platforms. The Commission believes that the establishment of a national platform is an important measure toward enabling Norwegian institutions to manage their brands appropriately, both on a national and international level.
When selecting a national platform, the Commission believes that particular emphasis should be placed on the opportunities for educational development work on the platform. In its work, the Commission has presumed that MOOCs will continue to develop and change. It is through testing of how digital technology can provide more educational opportunities, that technology can contribute to better education quality.
In the Commission’s opinion, many of the dominant players in today’s market provide services that only marginally facilitate such educational development. A player like Coursera primarily builds its product around pedagogy tailored to the xMOOC format. What is important in such an educational approach is the opportunity to scale the course to the number of participants at very low cost. At this stage in the MOOC development, the Commission believes that it will be inappropriate to connect to platforms that are too stringent as regards which educational approaches MOOCs should use.
The market for MOOCs is developing rapidly. The Commission therefore believes that it will not be advisable to commit to a platform with strict copyright guidelines. This would result in an increased risk of lock-in. The Commission believes that it is desirable to choose a platform where the content can be stored outside the respective platform, and merely be linked to or streamed from the platform. This makes it easier to move content to another platform at a later stage.
The Commission has noted the considerable interest in learning analytics, and shares the view that learning analytics may have a significant impact on both quality development in education, as well as research relating to education. In the Commission’s opinion, there are many unanswered questions related to data ownership, access to data and personal data protection. The Commission believes that when choosing a platform, focus should be on maintaining sound control of the institutions’ own data.
The Commission believes that the opportunity to choose Norwegian, Sámi or Nordic languages is of vital importance. The Commission has noted that France and Spain have chosen strategies for developing and providing MOOCs which are in line with their own language and context. The Commission believes that this is a good strategy for Norway. The Commission also believes that development and use of MOOCs outside of the higher education sector, e.g. in working life, will further increase the need for services adapted to the Norwegian society. In line with the considerations of portal services above, the Commission believes that it may be valuable to have a joint Nordic collaboration to promote and organise Nordic MOOCs, both toward international and Nordic users. This may also be relevant for smaller groups of languages used across borders, e.g. Sámi. The Commission believes that the consideration for universal design must be a fundamental principle in the production of content and when selecting and designing technological solutions in MOOCs, e.g. when choosing a platform.
The Commission believes that, overall, this speaks in favour of a national shared initiative that uses open-source versions adapted to Norwegian and Sámi languages, the Norwegian context and the profile of Norwegian institutions. The Commission believes that such access is necessary in order to lower the threshold for producing MOOCs, developing expertise and thereby participating in the educational development work represented by MOOCs.
The Commission wants to emphasise that the institutions themselves should be free to enter into agreements with available platform and portals. The Committee’s recommendation for a shared national initiative does not prevent institutions from signing their own agreements with platform providers. The Commission recommends that institutions that wish to develop MOOCs with wide and global target groups, consider the possibility of entering into such agreements. Such a consideration should e.g. include a process for mapping the institution’s own needs and different platform providers. In the Commissions opinion, the choice of platform provider will require thorough study.
It is the Commission’s opinion that a number of Norwegian education institutions require access to expertise in order to develop MOOCs, and in order to participate in the development work associated with the production of digital learning resources. The Commission also believes that MOOC development requires cross-disciplinary cooperation at the institutions, and that broad-based cooperation across areas of expertise is a prerequisite for success. The Commission is of the opinion that the effect of this expertise will be maximised if it is located in the institutions. The Commission believes, however, that the institutions are in great need of, and may benefit from, support services offered on the national level in developing MOOCs. This is particularly relevant in a development phase. The objective of this national support function must be to assist in building up relevant educational and technological expertise in the institutions. The goal must be for the education institutions themselves to eventually be able to assume this responsibility. The Commission believes that such a national support function should be located in conjunction with the nationally available platform resource.
11.3 The Commission’s recommendations
The Commission recommends that Norwegian MOOCs be aggregated and promoted through a dedicated national portal.
The Commission recommends that Norway take the initiative for a Nordic partnership aimed at a joint effort to promote Nordic MOOCs internationally.
The Commission recommends that preparations be made to give Norwegian institutions access to one or more MOOC platforms adapted to Norwegian and Sámi languages, as well as to the profile of Norwegian institutions.
The Commission recommends that preparations be made to allow the institutions to use a central support function in the development of MOOCs. A primary objective for this support function is to assist in the development of relevant educational and technological skills at higher education institutions.
The Commission recommends that the consideration for universal design be safeguarded in the choice of platform.
European University Association (2014) MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses. EUA Occasional Papers.
Coursera Blog (2014) Update on Course Accessibility for Students in Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. Available from: http://blog.coursera.org/post/74891215298/ update-on-course-accessibility-for-students-in-cuba (Retrieved: 25 March 2014).
Export.gov (2014) Consolidated Screening List. Available from: http://export.gov/ecr/eg_main_023148.asp (Retrieved: 30 April 2014).
Norwegian Data Protection Authority (2011) Databehandleravtale om behandling av personopplysninger (Data processor agreement for processing personal information). Guide.
Norwegian Centre for ICT in Education (2011) Skytjenester og eksterne IT-tjenester i grunnopplæringen (Cloud services and external IT services in primary and secondary education). Guide.