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Online learning
Céline Bilardo
Online courses are changing access to knowledge, bringing it within the reach of a wide audience. Pierre Dillenbourg explains the challenges this revolutionary innovation faces.

Pierre Dillenbourg is considered to be one of the instigators of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). As a tutor of learning technologies, he began developing the Lausanne-based institute’s online courses in 2012, making it a European pioneer in the field. The programme has continued to expand ever since. The EPFL now offers dozens of online courses followed by more than 1.5 million students around the world.


In the EPFL’s Computer-Human Interaction in Learning and Instruction (CHILI) laboratory, Pierre Dillenbourg and his team are now developing new learning tools, as they test the possibilities provided by augmented reality, big data, robotics and eye tracking. As a researcher, he was also involved in the launch of the Alimentarium Academy, a platform for the teaching and sharing of knowledge about food and nutrition, aimed at teachers, young pupils and their parents. 



Pierre Dillenbourg, Professor of learning technologies, EPFL

What are MOOCs for?

“Their main aim is to enrich and diversify teaching; in the case of the EPFL, for the benefit of its own students. Nowadays, videos are everywhere: whenever something happens, there’s always a crowd of people filming it on their mobile phones. Students therefore expect lecturers to put their course material online. The second objective is to share knowledge. Our MOOCs are not just available to EPFL students, but to everyone. Our second audience is the world. Over 500 000 American students have followed our MOOCs, even though some of them don’t even know where Switzerland is!”

Is it true that MOOCs are accessible to everyone?

“No, although one of the objectives of MOOCs is to open up knowledge, they’re not comprehensible to everyone. Some, such as Java programming courses, are intelligible to most people. But, if we take the example of the EPFL, we have online courses in astrophysics, and in fluid dynamics, where the long equations would put off any student who doesn’t have a scientific background. The average person on the street doesn’t want to learn the theory of signal processing. In short, all our MOOCs are open, but not necessarily easy to understand!”


You’ve witnessed the development of MOOCs for almost five years now. What are the main ways in which they have evolved?

“Now, there’s a huge range of MOOCs. Large private platforms such as Coursera offer an ever-greater variety of courses. Some MOOCs offer real benefits in the job market. For these courses, the public is prepared to pay 50 dollars to get an official certificate, in the field of IT, for example. Other MOOCs don’t aim to develop professional skills, but target a more academic or non-specialist audience. There are also recreational courses: to learn more about the Beatles, a language or how to play the guitar, etc. And then there are personal development MOOCs that, for example, will teach you how to be happy.”

Have the ways people participate also changed?

“Oh yes! There is more diversity now as to when MOOCs are posted and followed. Before, people would attend one course a week, like at university. But we thought that this pace was perhaps too fast for some people. Some have therefore tried making MOOCs available at any time. However, this approach runs the risk of losing the social dynamics of following courses regularly, at the same time as dozens of other students, who discuss topics on the forum and have to hand in their work at the same time. There has also been a hybrid system, launching a new group every month and offering the same series of courses several times a year. A lot of research is still being carried out into the different constraints which may or may not appeal to the public.”

What are the financial models?

“Freemium models now exist, where courses are free but, on completing them, students have to pay to get a certificate. There are also specialised packages of four to five shorter MOOCs on a single subject. The trend is no longer for big MOOCs lasting eight to nine weeks, but rather for shorter, four- or five-week courses, with a mini project which the students have to prepare at the end.”

Is it possible to quantify the impact of MOOCs on teaching?

“There’s never any real revolution in education, but MOOCs have brought about some amazing things! The EPFL has raised its profile on the international stage, beyond the academic world. As for our students, we’ve noticed that those who follow MOOCs related to their courses do better in their exams. The tutors have been able to make their teaching more visible, beyond the confines of lecture theatres. So the change has been quite dramatic: teaching is enhanced and students are less dependent on their tutors.”

The Alimentarium is now making its own MOOCs available via the Alimentarium Academy platform. What was your involvement in this project?

“I acted as the liaison between CoorpAcademy, located in the EPFL Innovation Park, and the Alimentarium, for the creation of MOOCs aimed at children aged between 8 and 16. We decided that we couldn’t create MOOCs for children, but MOOGs, Massive Open Online Games, a term specifically invented for this project. It is important to always tailor to your target audience, so I suggested creating games, with a system where the teacher can gather information and then talk about it with the children after the game. Otherwise you can play for hours on end without learning a thing!”


Can you give more details about the Alimentarium Academy platform? What makes it unique?

“The platform was built as an ecosystem with three components: one with games for children, a ‘school’ component for teachers, and the ‘family’ component. It also acts as an online tool to complement an actual tour of the Museum. This is a unique approach. The platform offers children three interactive games: Digestix, Tubix and Nutrix, available as an app or online. Teachers can open virtual classrooms on the platform and see how far each pupil has progressed in the game. They can then talk about it and see what has been taken on board and what hasn’t. For example, the teacher may ask a pupil, “So, what happened, did you get eaten by enzymes? What’s an enzyme? Are enzymes bad? What do they do?”

How are parents involved?

“One of the Alimentarium’s missions is to improve eating habits and raise people’s awareness of health issues. We thought that the best place to talk about this was around the dinner table. That’s why the platform has an app which lets parents see what their children have been playing, so they can talk about it over a meal, discuss the issues which arose during the game, the information given, etc.”

So, who are the Alimentarium MOOCs for?

“We designed the Alimentarium MOOCs for adults and more specifically for primary school teachers. The aim is to bring in experts to train and share knowledge with non-specialist teachers. Teachers can simply show their pupils the videos made by these experts, or they can choose to absorb the information and pass it on to the children in their own way. The content of the Alimentarium MOOCs covers subjects featured in all school programmes and is already aligned with Swiss syllabuses (PER, Lehrplan21) and the French curriculum, which are integrated into the navigation mode. It’s a great idea! So teachers can incorporate online activities into their lesson planning, all within the curriculum.”


How do you view the use of educational technologies in primary school classrooms?

“They’re fantastic tools. We can do so many things today that we couldn’t do thirty years ago! Unfortunately, these technologies also pose a problem in terms of classroom management. Take tablets, for example. People often say: “Let’s give a tablet to every child in the class!” But imagine a schoolteacher faced with twenty children all on their tablets. You create a situation where it’s difficult for teachers to fulfil their role. These tools need to be introduced gradually.”

So how can teacher-use be improved?

“It’s essential that we think about a pedagogical scenario suitable for the use of technologies in the classroom. I work a lot on robots. But, it’s not because children interact with a robot that they are learning something. It’s because they are doing a certain activity in class with it that, in some cases, it’s good to have a robot. It’s the same for a tablet. It’s important to always collaborate with teachers to invent these activities. The teacher can decide for example: “Before giving my lesson on sugar, I’m going to let the children look for information in articles pro sugar and articles anti sugar. I’ll get them to work like this for ten minutes and then ask them to summarise what they’ve found. Only then will I give my lesson.” This is in line with the idea that there’s a ‘time for telling’. If we allow children to explore before telling them, it works better than if we give them the answers straight away.”

What are the main challenges for the development of MOOCs and new learning technologies?

“With regard to MOOCs, it’s a question of finding the right balance between the frequency of the courses and giving participants more flexibility in the way they manage their time. I imagine there will also be more MOOCs in fields that develop professional skills, particularly digital skills. Another issue is the use of data to improve learning tools. In the future, we should collect more information to understand how people learn, how far they go in the courses and which videos they don’t like.”

Alimentarium Academy

MOOCs annual report 2015 (EPFL)

EMOOCS 2017 Conference (European MOOCs Stakeholders Summit)

State of the MOOC 2016: a year of massive landscape change for massive open online courses.

Quand les MOOC changent le marché du travail des professeurs d’université, Le Temps, 22 juin 2016.

J-BONK, Curtis et al., 2015. MOOCs and Open Education Around the World. Routledge.

[Links visited on 23.03.2017]

Céline Bilardo
Geneva, Switzerland

Céline Bilardo holds a master’s degree in journalism from the Université de Neuchâtel. She has been working as a journalist for the LargeNetwork media agency since 2014. She is inspired by various topics relating to health and culture.

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