NOU 2014: 5

MOOCs for Norway— New digital learning methods in higher education

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4 MOOCs in a social perspective

4.1 Prime movers behind the development of MOOCs

Many voices have claimed that new technology could radically change higher education. In recent years, new technology has enabled extensive evolution in web-based education. The emergence of MOOCs is the most evident example of this development. It is an innovation that introduces something entirely new in higher education: cheaper and more accessible services, both in time and space. Clayton M. Christensen, Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at Harvard, has studied why major, leading companies within an industry may fail in their encounter with new and ground-breaking innovations – so-called disruptive innovations.1 Christensen analysed several industries and discovered the same pattern: the established and largest companies in an industry failed as they encountered the disruptive innovation. New offers evolve, initially often with a lower quality than established offers, and gradually change the market over time. The previously dominant players adapt to the new market, but do not change their basic business model, and end up on the losing end of the competition. In 2008, Christensen and others felt that web-based education would reach a critical limit in 2012 and become a disruptive innovation with major consequences for higher education. 2

Another important driving force behind the emergence of MOOCs is the students’ own desires. In an article in the New York Times in November 2013, Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn argue that students will embrace these new offers.3 The growth in the number of participants in MOOCs may indicate that this is just the case.

Another driving force behind the development seems to be a desire to contribute to development and democratisation. Education is crucial for economic and sustainable development, and there is a rising global demand for access to higher education. Simpler and more reasonable access to knowledge would provide large, new groups with access to higher education.

Resource efficiency is another important driving force. Economic crises have put considerable strain on cost efficiency in welfare services. Higher education is no exception. There is an expectation that MOOCs may contribute both to increased quality and cost efficiency in higher education. Such expectations have perhaps been most notable in the US, but they also assert themselves in European countries, for example in Spain and France.4

MOOCs give higher education institutions excellent opportunities to market their educational programmes, not just to their traditional target groups, but also on a global scale. In that respect, positioning in a competitive market is also an important driving force behind the development. This is clear both in the US and in Europe. European initiatives may be seen as an answer to the MOOC development in the US.5 Many European institutions develop MOOCs as a strategic policy instrument in the international competition for students. Both the British FutureLearn and the French MOOC portal FUN have, for example, been presented as instruments for ensuring global visibility and competitiveness. In April 2014, the “European Multiple MOOC Aggregator” (EMMA) was launched. EMMA is funded by the EU, and the purpose is to stimulate innovative learning through MOOCs in multiple languages from different European universities. This will contribute to preserving Europe’s education, languages and cultural heritage, and support learning across cultures and languages.6

The European Commission’s “Opening Up Education Communication” shows that another important driving force in Europe is the desire for openness in higher education, including digital learning resources and research results. Use of technology in higher education is also seen as a policy instrument for more cooperation with trade and industry.7

When the above mentioned driving forces coincide with new and ground-breaking technological opportunities, the potential for change is considerable. According to Christensen and Horn, the consequence will be that a number of today’s education institutions, approx. 25 %, will not be able to adapt, and will consequently disappear or be forced to merge with others.8

However, many are sceptical to the idea that MOOCs will lead to such radical changes in higher education In particular, such scepticism seems to manifest itself in countries where there is a long tradition in offering web-based higher education. Examples include Germany and other Northern European countries. Here the discussions are mainly related to how web-based education in general, not just MOOCs, may strengthen higher education. This may be a contributing explanation to why so few MOOCs have been developed in Northern Europe so far.9

4.2 MOOCs in a global perspective

MOOCs provide a hope of covering the individual's need for lifelong learning, as well as society's needs for skills at a far lower cost than before. Even countries with weak economic development and limited access to digital equipment and broadband capacity, expect the development of a growing number of open learning resources to provide educational opportunities for individuals and groups that have not previously had such access.10 As such, the digital development represents a democratisation of education at a global level, in a totally different way than campus education has been able to.

The US and Europe have been the largest and first to offer MOOCs. The new opportunities for mass education have gradually been adopted by countries all over the world. This happens both by applying available online education resources from providers in other countries, and by the country’s own education institutions developing their own MOOCs. MOOCs are not necessarily seen as a solution per se. The vast majority envisions web-based education resources as primarily being integrated with classroom education, or integrated in organised or voluntary learning in groups. The potential for mass education increases with the development of new software, and by tailoring the educational programmes for technology which is more easily available. The development of educational programmes via mobile phones has opened access to education for new groups, which is particularly popular in many areas in Africa and Asia with expensive and poor-quality broadband and lack of computers.11

One example of this development is Kepler – a university programme designed for developing countries. In 2013, Kepler opened its first campus in Rwanda. This pilot project combines MOOCs supplied by international platforms such as edX and Coursera with local campus education. The objective is to develop a global network of universities that can provide high-quality education and career opportunities at a price everyone can afford – about USD 1000 per year.12

Another example is the partnership between the intergovernmental organisation Commonwealth of Learning (COL) and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (IIT Kanpur) in India. IIT Kanpur is e.g. known as a pioneer in the use of mobile technology for development in rural areas in India. In the autumn of 2013, COL and IIT Kampur launched a six-week MOOC in “Mobiles for Development”. The programme had 2 255 participants from 115 countries, of which 25 % were women. Countries with the most attendees included India, Mauritius, Nepal, South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania and Nigeria. All learning resources were open and free of charge, and those completing the course received a certificate proving the level of competence achieved.13

The demand for access to higher education is increasing all over the world. In India alone, 40 million additional students are expected to enrol by 2025.14 Whether or not MOOCs can be the solution to this increasing demand, is an ongoing and complex discussion.15 However, it seems clear that MOOCs have the potential to help make higher education more accessible for new groups.

4.3 MOOCs in a Norwegian context

Education is crucial for ensuring a knowledge-based working life. The education and research sector must satisfy the needs of working and social life for knowledge and skills. Working life is becoming increasingly knowledge-intensive and the extensive interaction with other countries requires different types of knowledge and skills than before. A high-quality education sector is therefore one of the most important preconditions for further growth and for taking on global and national challenges.

A well-developed higher education sector, free higher education and good schemes for educational support contribute to extensive access to higher education in Norway. At the same time, it is important to have opportunities for learning throughout life. An important part of the societal role of universities and university colleges is therefore to facilitate lifelong learning, regardless of age, place of residence and life situation. Similar to many other Northern European countries, Norway has a long tradition for web-based higher education. In 2013, approximately 16 500 students utilised various forms of flexible education, an increase of 38 % from 2006.16 In 2013, this amounted to about seven per cent of students in Norway.

The ways in which MOOCs will change higher education in Norway is an open question. The development in Norway will probably take place based on other preconditions than what the case has been in the US. Norwegian higher education distinguishes itself from many other countries, insofar as it is mainly funded by the government and is free of charge for the students. A desire on the part of the students for lower prices on higher education will therefore not be a driving force for cost effectiveness in Norway. However, demands from the authorities for cost effectiveness could also be applicable in Norway.

Equally relevant for Norway is the development in Europe as regards the focus on MOOCs. In Europe, large countries such as France and Germany are establishing national MOOC portals. The European Commission funds the portal “OpenupEd”, a MOOC portal for higher education institutions in the EU, and EMMA has been launched as a pilot. The emphasis on MOOCs in Europe is driven, e.g., by the desire to utilise technology for educational purposes, the need for better accessibility to higher education programmes, better quality of higher education and an increased level of education for EU citizens. These important objectives are shared by the Norwegian education authorities as well.

MOOCs provide access to a variety of programmes that are openly available, also from internationally recognised universities. The Commission is of the opinion that Norwegian institutions will encounter increased competition for students from international institutions. At the same time, Norwegian institutions offering MOOCs would be able to reach a greater share of the population throughout the country. The competition for students will therefore also increase among the Norwegian education institutions. Simpler access to both Norwegian and international programmes could therefore have an impact on the Norwegian students’ preferences when choosing a place of study.

The Commission feels that increased competition from abroad and more competition amongst Norwegian institutions could lead to quality development in Norwegian higher education. At the same time, internationally recognised Norwegian institutions would be able to provide MOOCs for the international education market. Thus, MOOCs could be a policy instrument for Norwegian institutions as regards international image-building and collaboration.

If Norwegian institutions are to stand out in the increased competition, they must have the innovative ability and capacity to utilise the opportunities provided by MOOCs. The Commission believes that MOOCs could lead to changes in how the institutions are organising their own education. National and international MOOCs could, e.g., be used in dedicated programmes and teaching plans. The Commission feels that MOOCs should lead to better utilisation of resources between the institutions, by dividing the offers amongst themselves. The leading national fields of expertise in an area may provide specialised study schemes for several institutions. This will allow the institutions to free up academic resources for specialisation and in-depth studies. Mutual exchange of expertise would serve as specialisation and efficiency improvement, as each individual institution could then concentrate their own efforts within areas where they have special advantages. MOOCs should also lead to more internal academic cooperation in the institutions. The technology used to deliver MOOCs enables a more collaborative organisation of education and counselling. The Commission therefore believes that the MOOC development requires a strengthening of instruments for increased cooperation, sharing of work and specialisation in the higher education sector.

Furthermore, the Commission feels that the use of MOOCs should lead to increased cooperation between universities and university colleges and working life. New technology opens up new opportunities for cooperation, and increased cooperation could contribute to educational programmes that are more relevant for trade and industry.

The Commission is of the opinion that MOOCs will contribute to evolution in the Norwegian knowledge society. MOOCs will contribute to strengthening the access to and quality of higher education, and could be a good instrument for developing skills in working life, as well as for lifelong learning. The Commission believes that Norwegian authorities and higher education institutions must seize the opportunity resulting from the MOOC development. This requires a capacity for strategic management both on the part of the authorities and institutions, and requires a will to adapt and commit. If these opportunities are seized, the Commission believes that MOOCs would help Norway meet the competence requirements faced by Norwegian working life both now and in the future.

4.4 Inclusion, accessibility and universal design

MOOCs may be of interest to various groups, e.g. campus students, people who are curious and interested in learning something new, as well as people who want continuing and further education.

MOOCs could become particularly important for persons who do not have the opportunity or desire to take traditional campus studies. This e.g. applies to applicants who, for various reasons, do not have the opportunity to travel to an education institution, as well as persons who are already working and need basic education or a refill of new and more specialised skills.

In its input to the MOOC Commission, Universell17 points out that persons with impaired functional ability could benefit significantly from digitised education and learning. MOOCs have the potential to strengthen both the access to and quality of higher education for persons with impaired functional ability, thus making it possible for them to choose higher education. This assumes, however, that the potential inherent in MOOCs is utilised in the right way, and that student diversity is taken into account in the further development of the programmes. A prerequisite for the ability of MOOCs to make education more accessible to everybody, is, according to Universell, high-quality technology and contents and adherence to the principles of universal design:

Universal design means designing products, surroundings, programmes and services in such a way that they can be used by all people, to the extent possible, without the need for adaptation and special design. Universal design shall not preclude aids for certain groups of people with impaired functional ability when required.

Universell points out that universal design will result in better quality for all students.



Christensen, Clayton M. (1997) The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Harvard Business Press.


Christensen, Clayton M. et al. (2008) Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. McGraw-Hill, 1. edition.


Christensen, Clayton M. & Horn, Michael B. (2013) Innovative Imperative: Change Everything. Online Education as an Agent of Transformation. Available from: online-education-as-an-agent-of-transformation.html? (Retrieved: 10 December 2013).


European University Association (2014) MOOOCs. Massive Open Online Courses. An update on EUA’s first paper (January 2013). EUA Occasional Papers.




European Multiple MOOC Aggregator (2014). Available from: (Retrieved: 5 May 2014).


European Commission (2013) Opening Up Education: Innovative teaching and learning for all through new Technologies and Open Educational Resources. Communication from the Commission.


Christensen, Clayton M. & Horn, Michael B. (2013) Innovative Imperative: Change Everything. Online Education as an Agent of Transformation. Available from: online-education-as-an-agent-of-transformation.html? (Retrieved: 10 December 2013).


European University Association (2014) MOOOCs. Massive Open Online Courses. An update on EUA’s first paper (January 2013). EUA Occasional Papers.


Børsheim, Astrid (2013) MOOCs – sett fra Kina (MOOCs – as seen from China). Article written in connection with ICDE's world conference in Rianjin, China, in October 2013.




Kepler (2013). Available from: (Retrieved: 10 December 2013).


Commonwealth of Learning (2013) Connections, Learning for Development, Vol. 18, no. 3.


Everitt, Richard (2013) The new education laboratory: 10 things you need to know about MOOC. Available from: (Retrieved: 10 December 2013).


Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2013) The Maturing of the MOOC. BIS Research Paper number 130. Available from: uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/240193/ 13-1173-maturing-of-the-mooc.pdf (Retrieved: 10 December 2013).


Database for statistics on higher education (DBH). Available from: 13 May 2014).


Universell is a national coordinator for an inclusive learning environment, universal design and the education institutions’ learning environment. Universell’s (2014) website. Available from: (Retrieved: 28 April 2014).

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