NOU 2014: 5

MOOCs for Norway— New digital learning methods in higher education

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6 The emergence of MOOCs

The term MOOC was first used in 2008 to describe an open online course at the University of Manitoba in Canada. The course was taken by 25 paying students from the university, in addition to 2 300 participants who took the course free of the charge over the Internet. The course yielded credits for the university students. All course content was available through RSS feeds, and the participants themselves had considerable freedom in choosing which platforms they wanted to use to participate, for example Facebook groups, wiki pages, blogs and forums. Over the following years, a number of others copied and modified this course structure, and several MOOCs were launched.1

These first courses have subsequently been named cMOOCs in order to distinguish them from so-called xMOOCs. The main difference between the two is in the educational approach to the courses. xMOOCs are largely an extension of the traditional campus education. The main component of such courses is videos of lecturers communicating their subject matters, but they may also include more student-active types of learning such as quizzes and different forms of testing. In short, cMOOCs are based on the idea that the best learning takes place within the networks created between active participants. The learning frameworks are, in other words, quite open. In such courses technology is used as an instrument to develop networks and learning processes suitable for the participants’ wishes and needs. The major attention in recent years surrounding MOOCs is primarily linked to the development and emergence of xMOOCs.

6.1 Learning theories and MOOCs

In a university education context, there are three main learning theories; behaviouristic, cognitive and sociocultural. A number of theories sort under each of these which extrapolate and develop key terms and perspectives. All three learning theories have been a part of the MOOC development.

Behaviouristic learning theory presumes that knowledge is transferred from the lecturer and a pre-determined curriculum to students, where assessment is primarily characterised by reproducing knowledge. As mentioned previously, the majority of xMOOCs with video lectures and communication of content share these characteristics: from one teacher to many students who receive and eventually reproduce knowledge in an exam.

Cognitive learning theory presumes that learning takes place inside the individual. As opposed to behaviourism, the individual is here participating more actively in his/her own learning, and is characterised by individual problem and task solving. As regards the development of MOOCs, this means that students are actively engaged in task solving facilitated by teachers.

Sociocultural learning theory presumes that learning takes place through interaction between lecturers and students, and between students, and where the assessment forms are characterised by group work, R&D projects and portfolio assessment.

In recent years, MOOCs have also increased their emphasis on collaborative learning through the use of social media, developing communities of practice and knowledge production. Technology and societal development change our perspectives of learning and challenge traditional work methods, assessment forms, new theoretical approaches and organisational practice. To a larger extent, learning takes place in a context characterised by complexity and social environments saturated with technology.

For the purpose of MOOCs, and in particular in relation to cMOOCs, we often talk of connectivism. Here the student is the centre of the learning process and digital services constitute vital resources in the learning basis. A central point in connectivism is that the persons learning will create their own personal learning network. As mentioned, cMOOCs are characterised to a larger extent by the participants contributing to find and develop content for the learning processes than what is the case with xMOOCs, which to a larger extent are based on behavioural theory and cognitive traditions.

6.2 MOOCs from 2008 to 2014: A three-stage development

Cathy Sandeen of the American Council on Education (ACE) has summarised the development of MOOCs since the initial courses in 2008, and believes she can identify three different stages.2 The stage Sandeen refers to as MOOC 1.0 appears with the first Canadian courses and evolves with similar courses being established in the US. MOOC 1.0 is synonymous with the emergence of cMOOCs: connectivistic, open courses where the participants themselves have a lot of responsibility for the learning process.

MOOC 2.0 describes the phase where MOOCs evolve into more standardised courses focusing on scalability. This is the phase where major platforms such as Coursera, Udacity and edX are established and collaboration is set up at elite institutions in the US. Courses developed under MOOC 2.0 often have no admission requirements, are often provided free of charge, course participants have little contact with academic employees at the institution providing the course and the courses normally yield no credits. The majority of course participants are in, or have completed, higher education, and primarily join out of curiosity or interest. In MOOC 2.0, the platforms also experiment with models for offering credits for completed courses.

Sandeen believes that, over the last year, the field has moved into a preliminary final phase, MOOC 3.0. One key characteristic of this phase is that MOOCs are increasingly imported into the institutions, normally not as complete courses, but as elements used in the institution’s own programmes of study. Such integration of external, digital resources in campus education is not a new phenomenon. Sandeen believes, however, that the distinctive characteristic of MOOC 3.0 is that MOOCs are used in the traditional campus education, for example integrated in various models of flipped classrooms. Flipped classroom may entail that students are watching online lectures from home and using their time at the institution to continue working on the subject matter together with a teacher and/or fellow students. The literature seems to be in relative agreement with Sandeen in the description of the two initial phases of the MOOC development. However, there is more disagreement associated with Sandeen’s third phase, i.e. the question of MOOCs’ status at present and where the development is headed in the near future.

6.3 Establishing the major platforms

In the autumn of 2011, Stanford University launched three new MOOCs. All contributed to really putting MOOCs on the agenda both in the world of education and in society at large. Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig were the first to decide to offer their course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” free of charge over the Internet. Their course was designed to mimic a traditional classroom setting. The objective was to provide high-quality teaching and academic content to those who so desire. More than 160 000 participants from more than 190 countries registered for the course, which made this the first course to actually reach out to a large audience. Just a few weeks later, two additional courses were launched from Stanford University, this time by Andrew Ng and Jennifer Widom. As a result of the overwhelming response to the courses, Thrun later established the company Udacity. Andrew Ng established Coursera in collaboration with Daphne Koller.3

In the autumn of 2011, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) established the platform MITx. The background was a concern that the emergence of MOOCs would contribute to a strong commercialisation of higher education on the Internet. Harvard University later joined the venture, and the platform was renamed edX. Later, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Texas System, Wellesley College and Georgetown University also joined. Udacity and Coursera are independent, commercial initiatives, while edX is a strategic, non-profit initiative from the institutions in order to exploit the opportunities offered by MOOCs.4

Several of the major American universities were quick to report that they would invest large sums of money on technology. For example, Harvard has established Harvardx, which is tasked with “… supporting faculty innovation in the use of technology in testing and research on campus, online and beyond”.5 Over the next five years, Harvard will invest close to NOK 30 billion in developing its programmes of study.

Figure 6.1 Characteristics of four key MOOC providers1

Figure 6.1 Characteristics of four key MOOC providers1

1 Based on Universities UK (2013) Massive Open Online Courses: Higher Education’s Digital Moment? Available from: (Retrieved: 11 December 2013).

December 2012 saw the establishment of FutureLearn, the fourth major MOOC platform. FutureLearn is the first British platform, and the controlling owner is UK’s Open University. Whereas the three other platforms have partnered with the university sector, FutureLearn has also entered into a partnership with other players such as British Museum, British Council and British Library. An important part of the company’s strategy is to build on experience and competence already in existence in the Open University; an institution which has long been a key player in the market for flexible education.

6.4 Other platforms and new types of collaboration

ALISON (Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online) was established in 2007, and some literature regards it as the first MOOC provider. ALISON's main focus is to offer free courses that will make it easy to acquire basic education and skills that are relevant for working life. ALISON distinguishes itself from the previously mentioned MOOC providers by not having a connection to university partners.6

In November 2012, the education technology company Instructure launched the Canvas Network platform. Canvas Network distinguishes itself from the majority of MOOC platforms by putting greater emphasis on the opportunity to experiment with the courses’ educational structure, and with new ways to use multimedia elements.7 Canvas is an example of what many people would consider to be “the next generation learning systems”. These are systems which are more similar to publication systems (Content Management System) than traditional LMSs, insofar as the content elements are mainly built around html pages rather than documents included in a digital classroom.

In June 2013, the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) launched the portal OpenupEd in cooperation with university partners in 11 countries. OpenupEd was launched with support from the European Commission, and has been characterised as a European response to the strong American dominance among major MOOC platforms. The platform was launched with a vision of helping to open up education to more people, and to contribute toward having the institutions use more innovative and flexible teaching methods. Certain courses available through OpenUpEd yield certificates or badges, but there is increasing focus on courses that yield credits (ECTS credits).8

The German MOOC provider iversity was launched in October 2013. iversity was initially in a partnership with five universities, four of which are European. Three of 24 schemes yielded credits (ECTS-credits). In these courses, the students sit for traditional campus exams at the institutions that are responsible for the MOOCs.9

In the autumn of 2013, edX announced that MIT, through its MITx sub-platform, would start offering course packages consisting of individual courses that collectively cover a larger subject. These packages can be viewed as an attempt to create MOOCs that mimic degree modules at the traditional institutions, and thus as an attempt to test a business model that provides a larger education module without depending on the courses yielding credits in the formal education system. The courses are free of charge, but students pay a fee of USD 100 per course to verify their identity. Many saw this business model as a response to Coursera’s announcement a few weeks earlier that they had made USD 1 million in 2013 by selling verified tests to course participants.10

In October 2013, edX announced that it had entered into an agreement with China and France for these countries to use Open edX for their own, national MOOC portals. Open edX was launched the month before as a collaboration between edX and Google, where the platform would be made publicly available through a joint open portal called This was also interpreted as another attempt to explore different business models. The countries pay a fee to edX for technical support and advice on how to best use the portal.11

In February 2014, edX entered into a partnership with Facebook and Rwandan authorities to launch SocialEDU, a pilot service to give students in Rwanda free access to a social learning platform via mobile phones.12

In late October 2013, Learning Hubs was launched by Coursera in cooperation with a number of partners, of which the US Department of State was the largest. Learning Hubs has 24 physical locations around the world, where users have access to the Internet, Coursera’s course catalogue and support from local facilitators. Coursera's ambition is to increase the number of new Learning Hubs.13 In March 2014, the company appointed Rick Levin as president. Levin has broad experience from the American university sector, including as President of Yale University in the US for more than 20 years. Coursera stated that the appointment was an important strategic move to develop the educational science on which the company's products are based, to strengthen its partnerships with the university sector, as well as their ability to analyse how the education sector will develop in the years to come.14

In April 2014, 12 European universities and companies in 8 European countries launched the EMMA project. EMMA will provide access to free, open courses in European languages from several European universities. An important objective for the project is to contribute to preserving European languages, cultures and educational traditions.15

Figure 6.2 shows important events and players in the emergence and development of MOOCs and the connection between them. This method of summarising the development of MOOCs is common in most literature: the strong connection toward OpenCourseWare (OCW) and Open Educational Resources (OER), the first courses with a connectivistic approach, before the major platforms are established and the xMOOC format becomes dominant.

Figure 6.2 Important milestones in the emergence of MOOCs

Figure 6.2 Important milestones in the emergence of MOOCs

6.5 Scope and propagation

Following the launch of the above-mentioned MOOCs in the autumn of 2011 and the establishment of Coursera, Udacity, edX and other providers, the scope of and interest in MOOCs grew very rapidly. Whereas in April 2012, four US institutions had partnered with one of the major MOOC providers, this number had grown exponentially by December of the same year. In August 2013, the number had again grown by leaps and bounds, and institutions across most of the globe had partnered with a MOOC supplier.

The growth of Coursera, the largest and most celebrated of the MOOC providers, aptly illustrates the development that has taken place over the last few years. When the company was established in April 2012, Coursera cooperated with four US universities. In July of the same year, it partnered with 12 additional institutions, and in September it added another 17. In a blog post on 9 August 2012, Coursera wrote that the company had reached a million course participants from 196 countries four months after the launch date.16 At this time, Coursera could offer 116 different courses. In October 2013, approximately one year later, Coursera offered 452 courses from 88 different institutions. The number of participants exceeded five million, which means that the company on an average gained almost 9 000 new course participants per day during this period.17 In February 2014, the number of participants reached seven million, it provided 600 courses and had 108 partnerships.

In the first quarter of 2014, global growth in the number of MOOCs exceeded 60 %, up from 1 369 courses in January to 2 230 courses in April.18

6.6 The crisis in American higher education

There are many driving forces behind the powerful emergence of MOOCs in recent years. One important driving force is the early signs of a crisis in higher education in the US.19 This is often highlighted as a partial explanation as to why US stakeholders have taken a particularly strong position in the MOOC development.

Many Americans who start higher education never finish a degree. There is a 57 % probability that an American student starting a four-year degree study completes within six years, which is considerably lower than for countries such as the UK and Australia.20 US authorities estimate that 36 million Americans have started higher education without completing a degree.21

Another warning sign is the significant cost growth in higher education. Since 1983, the individual student’s tuition expenses have grown nearly five times the rate of inflation, which has made higher education accessible to fewer people and has increased the burden of debt considerably for those who start higher education. Over the last 15 years, the average student loan debt per student has doubled, and the overall student loan debt in the US has been estimated at USD 1 000 billion. At the same time, the financial aid per student has dropped to the lowest level in 25 years.22

There have also been signs to indicate that people with higher education are faring worse in the labour market than before. In 2011, nearly 10 % of student loan recipients who graduated two years earlier have defaulted on their student loan. Lower wages for new graduates over the last ten years (16 % for women and 19 % for men), combined with a larger debt burden, cause many young people to reconsider enrolling in higher education, in spite of research showing that those with higher education fare better over the course of their lifetime than those without.23

A survey showed that half of the academic employees at American universities felt that higher education was moving in the wrong direction, and that higher education in the US will be considerably worse in ten years than today.24

The emergence of MOOCs in the US, and particularly xMOOCs with video-based courses that can easily be scaled up, is often mentioned as a response to this development. First and foremost as a way of providing higher education to more people at lower cost, but also to create innovation in the university sector. The crisis in US higher education has piqued the interest of companies and investors that see opportunities in a new market. The market for higher education in the US is vast. In total, approx. USD 400 billion is spent annually on US universities, more than the annual income of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter combined.25 The trend is now to invest in new education models and new technology to improve higher education. In 2011, investments in education technology reached one billion dollars, nearly seven times the level five years before. During the 2010–2012 period alone, venture investments in education technology increased from USD 82 million to 189 million.

6.7 The emergence of MOOCs outside North America

In the spring of 2013, Enterasys, an international network provider, conducted a global survey of MOOC trends in higher education. The survey found that 13 % of the polled institutions offer MOOCs, 43 % are planning to offer MOOCs within three years, while 44 % have no such plans.26

In October 2013, the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) conducted a survey aimed at the administrations of their member institutions in order to gain an overview of MOOCs. They found that 37 % of the respondents claimed to have one or more MOOCs, 44 % planned to launch one over the next six to twelve months, while 18.6 % had no plans. The survey also shows that, in a three-to-five-year perspective, 20.5 % of the respondents believe that MOOCs will have a transformative effect on higher education, 75 % believe MOOCs will find their place as part of online education and 4.6 % believe MOOCs will not be viable in education.

6.7.1 Asia

The Chinese authorities have developed a proactive strategy for the use of ICT in its country’s further development, and the education authorities have also put ICT at the top of their agenda. Internet access will be provided via broadband to all schools, digital course materials in all classes and web-based learning for all. Education will be facilitated through a national public platform for digital education resources and a platform for management of education information. Higher education institutions, along with the Ministry, will organise a MOOC initiative. The education institutions will be given financial support for this, and courses will be made available free of charge to all citizens.

A group of Chinese universities have, in cooperation with the authorities, partnered with edX. Several universities are launching courses through Coursera. It seems, however, as if the development is temporarily at a standstill, while the authorities are clarifying their policy regarding MOOCs. The Open University of China, which is the headquarters of 47 autonomous universities, has also started working on MOOCs.

In the rest of Asia, several individual institutions have started producing MOOCs. Australia was an early adopter, and Open Universities Australia has launched its own portal, Open2Study, which offers both free and accredited courses. Schoo, a platform dubbed the Japanese version of Coursera, was launched in Japan. Several MOOC initiatives have been launched in India, for example and Educart.27

6.7.2 South America and Africa

The Veduca portal has been launched in Brazil. Veduca offers courses in Portuguese from a number of universities around the world. The African Management Initiative (AMI) has been established as a joint venture between the Association of African Business Schools and several collaborating parties. AMI offers business-related courses on a platform that is available for free.

Kepler, the university programme for developing countries, opened its first campus in Rwanda in 2013. This pilot project combines MOOCs provided by international platforms such as edX and Coursera with local campus education. Its objective is to be able to offer high-quality education at a low price.28

As mentioned previously, edX entered into a partnership with Facebook and Rwandan authorities to launch SocialEDU, a pilot service to give students in Rwanda free access to a social learning platform via mobile phones.29

6.7.3 Europe

Apart from North America, MOOC developments appear to be most mature in Europe. The propagation of MOOCs in Europe is aptly illustrated by the European MOOCs Scoreboard. The overview shows European MOOCs by country and by subject and as a ratio of all registered MOOCs, regardless of MOOC platform.

As previously mentioned, several European MOOC platforms have been established. The UK’s FutureLearn, the EU initiative OpenUpEd and German iversity are the most familiar. Other platforms include the Spanish Miranda X, as well as OpenHPI and Opencourseworld in Germany.

In the autumn 2013, France received considerable attention when the country presented an 18-point plan for digitising learning and education. The plan aims to motivate more higher education institutions to develop more web-based services for students and teaching personnel. The plan will also help French universities and colleges assert themselves in the international competition for the students. The goal is for all French students to have access to web-based courses within the next few years, and to be able to receive a diploma or a type of certification through a MOOC within five years. Increased use of web-based education shall result in more students completing their university education, particularly at the bachelor level, and to more people taking higher education. One of the most important measures in the plan is the establishment of a joint web portal for universities that provide web-based services or MOOCs. The new web portal, France Université Numérique (FUN), will, as previously mentioned, use the edX platform.30

Over the course of 2013, Russian higher education institutions have been discussing how to deal with MOOCs; whether to ignore the trend, use existing MOOC platforms or develop their own. In October, three Russian universities confirmed that they have joined the Coursera platform and are the first Russian institutions on the map of global web-based education. The three are the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MFTI), St. Petersburg State University (SPbGU) and the Higher School of Economics (VSE). According to the plan, VSE will offer twelve MOOCs in 2014, primarily within economics. The courses are offered in both English and Russian.31

A report from the European University Association points out that the European institutions' motivation for developing MOOCs is instrumental in distinguishing the development of MOOCs in Europe from the development in the US.

The development of MOOCs in North America has been driven by risk capital, and the institutions have primarily been represented by elite universities that use MOOCs to promote their own brand. Both the above mentioned development trends seem to be a result of the need to lower the cost of higher education. The driving forces in Europe are somewhat more nuanced. The report points out that many European institutions indeed develop MOOCs to promote themselves internationally, particularly in the UK and the Netherlands. However, one important motivation for several European institutions is also the belief that MOOCs may contribute to raising the quality of higher education by forcing changes in existing learning and teaching practices. European institutions also to a larger degree see MOOCs as an opportunity for better cooperation between higher education and working life, i.e. by offering high-quality education to students who are not on campus.32

6.7.4 The Nordic countries

Developments in the Nordic countries have much in common with the development in Norway. At the moment there are no centrally governed initiatives, but there is some activity at the institution level. Institutions in both Sweden and Denmark offer courses through the large US platforms. Karolinska Institutet offers MOOCs through edX. In Denmark, several universities offer courses through Coursera. In Finland, the University of Helsinki has the most experience, and has worked on MOOCs since 2010. Coursera also placed one of its first 30 “Learning Hubs” in Helsinki.33 In Finland, former Nokia developers have established the company Eliademy and have stated that they will develop a MOOC platform.34

In Sweden, the Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysis has studied the development of MOOCs on commission from the Swedish Ministry of Education. The analysis has focused on the development in the UK, USA, China and India. The purpose of the analysis was, in addition to studying the development as such, to discuss the potential importance of MOOCs for higher education, as well as discussing some of the challenges related to this form of education. Examples of such challenges are issues related to quality and the possibility of earning credits. The analysis was carried out during the autumn and winter of 2013–2014 and was published in February 2014.35

The Nordic Council of Ministers has initiated a mapping of international education providers in the Nordic countries. The mapping e.g. includes a compilation of how the Nordic governments handle international education providers, including MOOC providers, in connection with allocation of resources, approval issues and student grants. According to the plan, the mapping will be published in June 2014.36

The Swedish government has initiated a study to describe the development and composition of educational programmes in the university colleges over the last 20 years, both on a national and institutional level. The study shall consider whether the programmes are balanced in terms of quality requirements, student demand and the labour market’s needs. The study shall also consider whether it will be necessary to change the education schemes to better meet future needs. The study’s mandate also includes a special evaluation of summer courses and flexible education, and the possibilities for increased Swedish use of MOOCs. The assignment will be concluded no later than 15 October 2015.37

6.8 MOOCs in Norway

The first Norwegian MOOCs were produced in 2013. The Commission has learned that several institutions are in the process of establishing MOOCs, and a number of institutions are considering the possibility of producing such courses. A few examples illustrate the development and status of MOOCs in Norway.

Norway’s first MOOC was started in September 2013 at NTNU. The course “Teknologiendring og samfunnsutvikling” (technology change and societal development – transl. note) is offered in four different variants, from the free version without an exam (MOOC) to an ordinary continuing education course with physical meetings for students. About 900 students followed the course, which makes this the largest further education course NTNU has ever had. The course used the Canvas learning platform.38 NTNU is also developing a MOOC in Smart learning, digital skills for teachers and employees in the education sector. A version of this which yields 7.5 credits is also offered for those who choose to take an exam.

Work is under way at the University of Bergen to develop a purely web-based course in natural resource management. The “Natural Resources Management” course was first offered in the spring of 2013 and uses video lectures, a lot of graphics, animation, simulations and games to help students learn. The ambition is to shepherd the students forward, similar to a video game. The course is aimed at international, as well as Norwegian students.39

At Lillehammer University College, teaching personnel are involved in the MOOC “Open Online Experience”.40 The course is aimed at teachers and teaching personnel at all levels who want continuing education in digital skills. The service is network-based and is founded on connectivistic learning theory, the principles behind so-called cMOOCs. Lillehammer University College has also partnered with the University of Karlstad and the Swedish National Agency for Education on the online course “Bedömning och betyg årskurs 4–6” (assessment and grades – years 4–6), which has 2000 enrolled teachers. The course is located on a newly-established Scandinavian MOOC platform, Lifelong Learning Web. Norwegian courses have also been developed in “Assessment for learning” and “Digital storytelling”.41

At the University of Oslo, a MOOC version of examen philosophicum (mandatory introductory course in philosophy), FlexPhil is being developed, and start-up is scheduled for the autumn of 2014. The course will include videos, quizzes, multiple-choice tests and a study guide.42 The Centre for Development and the Environment at UiO is developing a MOOC with planned start-up in the autumn of 2014. The course will be based on the master’s degree course “What works? Success stories in international development”. The course is intended to recruit participants on a global scale.

The University of Stavanger has developed a MOOC for drug dosage calculation, which, in addition to a review of the subject matter, also contains the “pill game”, an educational game developed as an open learning resource supported by Norway Opening Universities. The MOOC for drug dose calculation can be used by all nurse training and other health education subjects where students need assistance in drug dosage calculation.43

6.9 The MOOC debate

In September 2013, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills published a review of available documentation on the development of MOOCs.44 In addition to gathering published research on the topic, the report also reviews the recent years’ debate on MOOCs as it has emerged in various sources.

The report puts particular emphasis on the debate between participants from academia. Here the report concludes that a majority believe that, at the present time, MOOCs will not radically change the education sector by making traditional institutions obsolete, but that such courses will gradually change the education landscape. The literature review also shows that many believe that we are facing a disruptive innovation that will bring about major changes in the sector. A survey among administrators and academics at US universities are mapping which education innovations they feel will have the greatest positive and negative impact on higher education in the US. Both administrators and academics believe that the various hybrid models that combine traditional education and digital aids will have the greatest positive influence. Correspondingly, both groups believe that MOOCs will have the strongest negative influence. Among university executives, two per cent reply that MOOCs would make a positive contribution to the development of US higher education, while 50 % feel that MOOCs would have a negative contribution. Eight per cent of the academic employees believe MOOCs will contribute in a positive way, while 65 % believe that such courses would be negative for the future of US higher education.45

In Europe, the general attitude seems to be that MOOCs would not bring about major upheavals in higher education, and that changes would come anyway as a result of other types of digital learning. In their report, the European University Association (EUA) argues that this applies particularly to countries that already have well developed programmes for flexible education. The EUA believes that the debate here only marginally relates to MOOCs as such, but rather how digital services in general can contribute to developing higher education.46

The report from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills shows that academics who are positive to the development of MOOCs, see such courses as a natural consequence of the great challenges facing US higher education. In an education system with a low completion rate and where students enter the labour market with a very high debt burden, cheaper web-based courses are a welcome alternative. Many therefore see the emergence of MOOCs as a natural innovation in the education market, an innovation similar to what we have seen in, for example, the publishing industry.

Others point out that MOOCs are important in order to elevate the quality of web-based courses. A recurring theme is that the majority of current MOOCs are better in terms of quality than the first courses called MOOCs. This is primarily because current MOOCs are largely adapted to meet the needs of the average campus student in order to succeed in his/her studies. Current MOOCs are more integrated with established flexible learning services and campus education, and in many instances yield results in the form of credits.47 One final group of participants in the debate has primarily focused on MOOCs offering a new and necessary arena for self-study.

In an article, Sir John Daniel expressed several critical objections to the emergence of xMOOCs.48 Several of these objections are directed at players that have been central in the development of MOOCs in recent years. Among other things, Daniel points out that the elite institutions behind many of the most popular courses available through the major xMOOC platforms are elite institutions due to their research efforts, and that there is little to indicate that they are at the forefront as regards web-based education. Daniel also believes that many of the players have little concern for the students’ benefit from the courses. Furthermore, he is critical as regards the value of the accreditation offered by the courses, and particularly certificates issued by such players as Coursera. Daniel argues that there are organisations with extensive experience in accrediting web-based learning, and that they are far better equipped to certify knowledge acquired through flexible education.

The article also contains critique of the xMOOC providers’ educational basis. Daniel believes that the educational science forming the basis for such courses is not new, but in reality a behaviouristic educational approach that is already outmoded. Finally, Daniel also raises criticism against the xMOOC providers’ philanthropic motivation behind disseminating free knowledge to the masses. According to Daniel, the opportunity make a profit is the real motivation behind the development in recent years, which, according to him, is clearly emphasised by the considerable interest MOOCs are generating among investors with a clear ambition of making a profit.

Many have also been concerned with the fact that the democratising effect of MOOCs, where knowledge is now more readily available to those interested around the world, is not as strong as the proponents claim. Firstly, and in line with the argument that strong financial interests are behind recent years’ developments, many MOOCs have a course fee. Secondly, and as a result of the way in which courses are produced and distributed, effective use of MOOCs presumes a familiarity with technology and experience with using digital services. In other words, this argument is based on the assumption that MOOCs will bring about a similar effect that can be observed in other forms of knowledge and skill acquisition; the provision primarily leads to an acceleration in differences, in that those who already have knowledge and skills will acquire additional knowledge and skills.

Other critics have emphasised that the types of courses offered through platforms such as Coursera cannot teach the participants the more complex skills education is meant to instil, for example critical thinking and creativity. Many have also pointed out that mass teaching, as expressed through the xMOOC platforms, cannot deal with the fact that participants have different needs. The courses and learning processes they prescribe follow a fixed structure that can be effective for some participants, but not all.

A central theme in the recent MOOC debate has been the high number of participants that are not completing the courses. As mentioned previously, the New York Times called the year 2012 “The Year of the MOOC”. The year 2013 was by many referred to as “The Year of the Anti-MOOC”, the year where many of the visions for what MOOCs could contribute, turned out to be difficult to realise.49 There was considerable media coverage surrounding Sabastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, in late 2013 when he stated that the company delivered a bad product. The background for the statement was the low number of participants completing the courses, and the fact that the courses did not seem to help previously excluded groups gain access to higher education.50

The commission believes there are signs of a developing MOOC debate in Norway, and refers to the input to the Commission from trade and industry organisations in Chapter 14.3.



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Marques, Juliana (2013) A Short History of MOOCs and Distance Learning. Available from: moocs-and-distance-learning/(Retrieved: 11 December 2013).


Universities UK (2013) Massive Open Online Courses: Higher Education’s Digital Moment? Available from: Documents/2013/MassiveOpenOnlineCourses.pdf (Retrieved: 11 December 2013).


Harvardx (2013). Available from: 11 December 2013).


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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).


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