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!”