Continuing innovations in technology around the world are bound to make massive open online courses, so-called MOOCs, more sustainable than traditional college and university system campus offerings.
But how soon remains in doubt, according to U.S. and French educators participating in the “Digital Learning in 21st Century Universities” panels held Oct. 20-21 in Atlanta.
The two-day workshop and seminar at the Georgia Institute of Technology were part of France-Atlanta 2014, a two-week overview of Franco-American collaborations in business, education, culture and humanitarian pursuits.
“This subject was chosen because it’s a very current topic in which the U.S. and French approaches could be complementary and enrich each other through cooperation projects,” said Anne Corval, attaché for science and technology at the Consulate General of France and co-organizer of the event.
Despite the spread of the Internet even to the most remote areas of the world and the availability of more MOOCs, the educators discussed looming questions, such as:
How is learning shaped by digital platforms? What role does technology play? How does participant interaction affect digital learning communities? How is digital or virtual learning quantified and certified?
Richard DeMillo, director of the Georgia Tech Center for 21st Century Universities, said that through MOOCs a single professor can reach thousands of students or more. “The long-form lecture is dead,” he added. “Face-to-face interaction is not as important with what technology has to offer.”
Yves Epelboin, special adviser for MOOCs at Univesity Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris, concurred saying that there was a trend to adapt to the new methods based on an old tradition of distance learning through correspondence courses by mail.
Through the benefits of ever advancing technology, the future of education, panel members said, transforms the role of the teacher to that of influencer and educational coach.
And with technology also allowing students from many different demographics and locations to further their learning together in online forums, professors can be freed up to devote more time to research.
The French university system has embarked upon a new digital platform of MOOCs that is building courses based upon student demand, said Catherine Mongenet, policy officer at the French Ministry of Nation Education, Higher Education and Research.
The platform, called France Universite Numerique, or “FUN”, is shared among French universities and their worldwide academic and business partners and launched about a year ago with 24 MOOCs.
The network has grown to 60 MOOCs and anticipates adding another 30 by 2015, Dr. Mongenet said.
“We have been working with a lot of French startups because we want to enrich the user experience on the platform,” she said. “We have a growing number of institutions joining the platform.”
The courses, she added, began mostly with IT and digital subjects, but have grown to include economics, education and some humanities subjects.
And students from developing nations are taking advantage.
“These opportunities to learn were never available to many of these communities before now,” she said.
French universities were long able to connect with one another using optical fibers to enable students on one campus to enroll in classes hundreds of miles away, said Jean-Luc Clement, an international relations adviser for the French Ministry of National Education, Higher Education and Research.
“They were able to connect a lot of small universities and big universities with a (central) research center, to increase the level of learning,” Dr. Clement said. “It’s an interesting situation where you need to collect professors because it is impossible to go and train them to be in each of these areas (where universities are located).”
A central government entity oversees all higher education institution in France, thus allowing for greater control over the collaboration of schools and the facilitating technology. And learners vary in age benefiting from a relatively flat rate of tuition.
The U.S. method, however, contrasts greatly. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are targeted and some 25 million students are enrolled. And the many different colleges and universities includes state-run and private with non-profit and for-profit institutions that have a broad range of tuitions.
Still, Dr. Mongenet says English-language MOOCs – in particular, those in the U.S. – outnumber those started in France.
Indeed, as Georgia Tech’s associate dean of academic programs and student affairs, Leo Mark, pointed out, the Institute has been on the cutting edge of online higher education.
“Georgia Tech had more than 50 online courses before anything was called MOOCs,” Dr. Mark said. “Of course, those classes may only have had 40 or 50 students, and yes, they did pay tuition. But being online and reaching students in many different parts of the world is important.”
One of the largest challenges with massive open online courses, however, is finding a uniform method for assigning students credit or credentialing for their learning.
“Learners have very different motivations when they want to take a MOOC, and they have very different expectations in terms of certification,” Dr. Mongenet said. “Some people really come on a MOOC to learn something … eventually to improve their job or to seek a new job.”
She added that the purpose of certification, particularly in France, is to assure that students actually gained the competencies that they took the class to learn.
“The whole academic community is working on that,” she said of certification. “In my opinion, it is something that is as valuable, in terms of competencies and knowledge of the student, as a true diploma.”
Dr. DeMillo pointed out that MOOC programs like Coursera link with well-known universities to offer online learning. But such collaborations are limited, he said.
“Certifications from highly branded universities in the United States, in France in Japan have an economic value that is highly regarded,” Dr. DeMillo said. “That doesn’t necessarily translate to certifications of all kinds.”
At Georgia Tech, MOOC offerings don’t always lead to college degrees, Dr. Mark said.
“We have completion certificates, which basically just mean the students were there and participated,” he said. “We have program certificates where the students are assessed and go through tests, projects, etc.”
Dr. Clement said the business community could have some sway over the veracity of certifications.
“There’s a lot of synergy between the individuals’ need and the needs of the businesses,” he added. “One of the tools businesses use to retain their employees is continued learning.”
Dr. Mark is optimistic about the future of certifications in the U.S., but he added that “it’s going to take a generation.”
A similar conclusion was drawn on the French side, opening some interesting prospects in sharing experiences and data collected to support global research on e-education. Participants unanimously agreed that discussions should be continued.
For more information about France-Atlanta programs, click here.