NOU 2014: 5

MOOCs for Norway— New digital learning methods in higher education

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5 From flexible education to MOOCs

5.1 Development of flexible education in Norway

In the early 1990s, the higher education institutions started using information and communication technology (ICT) in earnest in their ordinary distance education programmes. The most important education models during this period were models where distance education was included as a smaller or larger part of a comprehensive scheme (blended learning). The programmes often entailed self-tuition using, for example, specially developed electronic or paper-based course materials, as well as physical meetings. The independent distance education institutions have broad experience with these types of teaching models.

The term distance education did not adequately include the diversity of methods and organisational structures that external and decentralised education would eventually consist of. The term flexible learning was introduced as a unifying term, signifying the types of education or parts of the education where there is a distance in time and/or space between the teacher and the student, and where two-way communication and use of technology had been established.1

There were two vital factors in the 1990s that contributed to the development of flexible education. One was the breakthrough of the Internet, and the other was the resurgent interest in skills development for the adult population, well stimulated by the Competence Reform.2 With the Internet came the purely web-based education programmes, which initially were almost like electronic correspondence courses.

The web-based education programmes contributed to increased flexibility, and further strengthened the accessibility of higher education.

The Competence Reform demonstrated the opportunities to adapt the flexible education to the needs of working life, and to develop educational models where for example practice in the workplace could be included as part of the mixed and flexible education models.

In 1997, the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO) proposed the establishment of a separate open university with focus on distance education and flexible education.3 As opposed to countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, an open university was never established in Norway. The initiative was regarded as somewhat unrealistic, both from a financial and competence point of view. The alternative to an open university in Norway was to encourage the existing education institutions to include the development and communication of flexible education in their areas of responsibility. Another initiative was the realisation of an electronic knowledge web through the establishment of Sentralorganet for fleksibel læring i høyere utdanning (National agency for flexible education in higher education) (SOFF) in 1990. SOFF aimed to stimulate the development of more flexible education programmes at the education institutions. Norway Opening Universities was also established later. It was intended as a meeting place between the education institutions and the social partners with a view toward developing flexible education programmes for relevant skills development for working life. This meeting place gradually developed into a database of flexible courses and studies.

In 2004, SOFF and Norway Opening Universities were merged to the new Norway Opening Universities. Today, Norway Opening Universities has the following task:4

Norway Opening Universities shall stimulate development and use of technology for learning and flexible education in higher education, and promote education-related cooperation between higher education institutions and working life through the use of learning technology.

Norway Opening Universities allocates funds each year for development projects for flexible and web-based education in higher education. They contribute to knowledge development through their monitor survey Digital tilstand (Digital status), as well as to communication of knowledge to promote the use of learning technology in higher education. This is e.g. done through the web-based copyright counselling service, DelRett, in cooperation with the Norwegian Centre for ICT in Education, and through development and communication of knowledge relating to quality and quality criteria in flexible and web-based education.

In the late 1990s, the development of learning technology in the educational sector took a new turn with the development of digital learning platforms (LMSs) which assembled various learning tools through integrated and uniform user interfaces. The introduction of LMS has had a major impact on the digitisation of higher education and the opportunities of universities and university colleges to make their education flexible and available off-campus, in whole or in part.5

A prerequisite for the introduction of the LMSs was, among other things, the development of basic ICT infrastructure. All students and teachers in higher education had access to the Internet and they were proficient in using the web and sending and receiving e-mails. The LMSs gave students and teachers access to tools for content distribution, debate groups and parts of student administration. This happened without the educational institutions having to restructure or change the way they organised their teaching. The LMS model was and still is based on the model of courses, lectures, distribution of syllabi and assignments. The use of LMS is still deeply rooted in higher education in Norway. The functionality of the LMSs has been expanded over the years. The use at the institutions is, however, still highly traditional.6

Over the last few years, the volume has increased considerably as regards the use of solutions that e.g. facilitate admission, communication and storing of lectures/podcasts. These are also some of the most important technologies that UNINETT and eCampus have pursued during the 2010–2013 period. Educational science, educational resources and teaching methods are challenged through the new use of technology. Even if the purely web-based programmes increase in volume, it is still a fact that the institutions to a large extent choose mixed solutions in their flexible educational schemes.

The development of flexible education methods at universities and university colleges is about to become more closely integrated with the development of a more extensive use of technology in campus education. Gradually, it will be difficult to separate the various education programmes from each other. Findings from Norwegian Opening Universities’ monitor study “Digital status 2011”, indicate that students see advantages in flexibility and use of digital tools and media in a larger context, and not just in those studies which are defined as more traditionally flexible or distance education.7 The students appreciate the general flexibility provided by the technology to vary education methods and place of study.

Furthermore, the study shows that both students and academic employees use digital tools and media in increasingly varied ways compared with the results from the same type of study carried out in 2008–2009.8 Still, the use supports the traditional education to a large extent. The potential for utilising the opportunities offered by technology is still vast. There are significant variations between the institutions’ and the academic communities' use of technological tools in education.

The study shows that the students expect more flexible facilitation of the education and more variety. The students themselves take the initiative to use technology that promotes collaboration and interaction. The expectations and wishes of the students are only partly obliged. Nearly all students participating in the study use LMS in their education in 2011. Functionality related to communication of information, publication of subject matter from the academic employees and downloading subject matter for students are the most commonly used. The learning platforms’ potential for interaction, collaboration and student-active learning methods are only minimally exploited.

5.2 Technological infrastructure development in the Norwegian higher education sector

Norwegian universities were early adopters as regards using the Internet. The first joint tests of technology and solutions were initiated as early as 1976. Starting in 1987, there was a larger, more systematic effort through the UNINETT project. The Norwegian Universities and Colleges Admission Service was digitised in 1992. The digitisation entailed that all state university colleges in the country were connected to the Internet.9 Since 1993, UNINETT has been the national research network working for joint solutions. Through NORDUnet (Nordic Infrastructure for Research & Education), the higher education sector has secured good network capacity vis-à-vis the US and Europe, and eventually to the rest of the world.

The eCampus programme

The eCampus programme is the Ministry of Education and Research’s national signature programme that combines national services within video and collaboration with digital skills for flexible education. The programme aims to help ensure that state university colleges and universities establish good practices and apply solutions for flexible education.

The purpose of eCampus is to build infrastructure with a joint overall architecture that facilitates different kinds of organisations, learning methods and collaborative solutions. Another objective for eCampus is to implement simple, good ICT solutions that support large-scale learning. It is also an objective to promote user-driven innovation through good examples, and by making education available on the Internet on a large scale. During the project phase, (2012–2016), UNINETT has overall responsibility for the technical development, while the institutions have the academic and educational responsibility.

Local eCampus projects at university colleges and universities are important partners in this effort. Several pilot projects have been implemented, and a considerable amount of knowledge has been gathered about how web-based flexible education should be carried out. The challenge is to go from small pilot projects to the use of web-based tools both for campus education and purely web-based education on a large scale. It is important for eCampus to contribute toward making ICT ubiquitous in learning. The objective is to use the programme to promote the use of tools, putting them in a context and have them interact with educational and organisational processes. It is therefore important to contribute to the development of digital proficiency in management and in professional circles, as well as contribute to good practice for the use of ICT in education and research. ICT skills must be linked to ICT architecture throughout. Consequently, having a connection between national solutions and local ICT support is a focus area for eCampus. The eCampus initiative has e.g. resulted in the development of cloud services and joint purchasing on behalf of the higher education sector in accordance with Norwegian regulations.

5.3 New technology, new opportunities

A culture for sharing and social interaction

The Internet’s transition from a research network to a mass medium took place in the mid-1990s with free browsers supporting hyperlinks and pictures in the text. Examples of such browsers include Mosaic from 1993 and Netscape from 1994. The World Wide Web enabled users to read websites and click on to websites on other servers unhindered by different IT equipment. E-mail, and later chat, made the exchange of messages from person to person quick and easy.

The creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, had a vision that scientists should be able to exchange information regardless of what kind of computer equipment and types of computers they used.10 He wanted the Internet to be a medium where users were able to read and write on websites, allowing for word processing to take place directly on the websites. However, in 1994, the first browsers dropped the support for word processing, hence the name browser. For a period of 5–10 years, it was considerably more difficult to publish than to read online. This led to the Internet being dominated by one-way communication modelled after the traditional mass media, where a message is sent from one to many. This phase and form of communication has later been defined by the retronym web 1.0.

In the next phase, improvements in user friendliness and technology made it easier to publish content online, thus finally fulfilling the original intention of the web as a medium for sharing, group collaboration and two-way communication. The period between the dotcom boom in 2001 and the financial crisis in 2008 saw the breakthrough of websites and technology for sharing and co-writing: wikis and Wikipedia from 2001, photo sharing (Flickr from 2005), blogging became a mass phenomenon and Facebook reached Norway in earnest in 2007. This lowered the threshold for sharing content online. In 2009–2010, websites that facilitated discussion and personal communication were given the moniker social media. Examples of such online resources include Facebook, Twitter, Google+, blogs, wikis, video sharing services such as YouTube and Vimeo and mashups.11 Websites that utilised technology beyond the capabilities of static websites have been called web 2.0.

New opportunities for use of technology in learning

MOOCs use web 2.0 elements to a great extent, which enables a partial shift of the social dimension from campus to the web. A number of important technology trends have bolstered this. The technology required for production of course materials of good quality has become significantly more available. Good-quality video cameras, and PCs and mobile phones with video cameras and HD quality are commonly available at a far lower price than before. The necessary online resources have gone from being very costly to easily available and reasonably priced. The development in online video distribution in particular has caused massive development of networks, including mobile networks, at a speed where each individual now has the capacity to run media-heavy services such as MOOCs. Today, sufficient network resources are ubiquitous.

Norwegian students gained access to the Internet in the 1990s, but at first only from PC rooms at higher education institutions. Later, the Internet also became available in student housing. The transition to laptops made the Internet more accessible to the students. Today, broadband coverage in Norway exceeds 99 %.12 Tablet computers lower the user threshold, and the price of PCs has been considerably reduced. Smartphones use the same infrastructure that was developed for portable equipment, in addition to benefiting from Norway’s extensive cellular network coverage. Consequently, Norwegian students today have access to a wide selection of technological equipment which they can apply in their studies.

The new technological development trends and the availability of technology make it possible to apply technology in learning situations in other forms and at a different scale than before. One opportunity is in the scaling of the schemes, both national and global, and how the access to technology and number of users in digital networks have increased considerably in recent years. Another opportunity is in the integration of various types of technology, such as video formats, social media and new learning platforms. MOOCs are a phenomenon that has intercepted these opportunities, and which is instrumental in illustrating the opportunities available for evolution of the use of technology for the purpose of education.



Grepperud, G. (2005) Fleksibel utdanning på universitets-og høgskolenivå; forventninger, praksis og utfordringer (Flexible education at university and university college level; expectations, practice and challenges). Part 1; Bakgrunn, begrep og utviklingstrekk. (Background, Terms and Development Trends.) Ph.D. thesis. The University of Tromsø 2005.


The Ministry of Education and Research (1998), Report No. 42 to the Storting (1997–1998) Kompetansereformen (The competence reform).


NHO (1997) Åpent universitet – norsk kompetanse i grenseløs konkurranse (Open university – Norwegian skills in borderless competition). Nærlingslivets forlag A/S.


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Wilhelmsen et al. (2009) Digitale utfordringer i høyere utdanning. Norgesuniversitetet IT-monitor (Digital challenges in higher education. Norway Opening Universities' IT monitor). Norgesuniversitetet skriftserie 1/2009 (Norway Opening Universities' publications 1/2009).


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Web application integrating data from different sources and presenting them on a joint site. Wikipedia (2013) Mashup (web application hybrid). Available from: hybrid) (Retrieved: 10 December 2013).


Nexia (2013) Dekningsundersøkelsen 2012 (Coverage survey 2012). Available from: FAD/Vedlegg/IKT-politikk/Bredbandsdekning_2012.pdf (Retrieved: 29 November 2013).

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