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iversity Plots a New Path for European MOOCs

iversity, the Berlin-based MOOC provider, launched its first MOOCs in 2013 with the goal of being the ‘European Coursera’, and has grown quickly, recently reaching a cumulative 500,000 users with over 700,000 course enrollments. There are now ~50 courses from a few dozen European universities, with most users in Europe, but also from all parts of the world.

iversity recently raised a new round of venture-financing and will focus on its regional strength, taking a slightly different path from Coursera and edX. iversity’s vision is to be a platform for European universities to offer students credit-granting courses from other universities. Hannes Klopper, iversity’s CEO, took time to sit down with BestCerts to discuss the startup’s history and future plans.

iversity’s Start and Pivot to MOOCs

In spite of the fact that the Internet had been invented by academics, they weren’t really making use of it 

iversity was founded in 2011 when two students met and joined forces: Jonas Liepmann had won a government entrepreneurial grant to digitize university infrastructures, and Hannes Klopper co-author of a book about the 21st Century university, had won a Germany-wide idea competition on the topic. They both were in disbelief that although social interactions were changing all around them, with Facebook, Twitter, etc., universities were hardly changing at all. “In spite of the fact that the Internet had been invented by academics, they weren’t really making use of it at the institutions,” says Hannes. Thus, they formed iversity to help connect students across universities, with the initial product being a social learning management system (LMS) for universities. This solution saw only limited success, and when they started to see the popularity of the U.S.-based MOOC platforms in 2012, they pivoted to become a MOOC platform focused on Europe.

Benefits of a Strong Regional Focus

“Coursera can’t partner with everyone” 

iversity approached universities in Europe (starting with Germany, but quickly spreading to other countries) and offered them a way to get into the MOOC game quickly. Coursera did develop partnerships with European universities, but slowly, and with a limited number (now around two dozen, with edX partnering with less than a dozen European). “Coursera can’t partner with everyone,” says Hannes, whereas iversity is closer to the scene in Europe. In addition to working with universities, iversity also partners with individual instructors who want to turn their courses into MOOCs (requiring only simple permission from their universities). As a result, iversity has tapped into a large latent demand for MOOCs in Europe, both among universities and instructors who want to provide them and the European & worldwide public who want to take them.

iversity's Hannes Klopper on US and European University Credit

iversity CEO Hannes Klopper on Differences between US and European Credits

Having a strong European focus does not mean iversity is strictly limited to Europe, though its university providers are there. An estimated 20% of iversity’s users are in Germany, around half are in other European countries, and the rest are in India, the U.S., and other regions. Most current MOOCs are conducted in English, but more courses will be in other European languages, which will open up access for additional audiences in linguistically diverse Europe.

An example of a MOOC with strong global appeal was the Future of Storytelling MOOC, from the University of Potsdam in Berlin. This MOOC, with charismatic lead instructor, Christina Maria Schollerer, covered the elements of storytelling, and how those elements are applied to new media, including tv, web, games, transmedia, and virtual/augmented reality. This is a hot topic and word of the MOOC quickly spread, resulting in an enrollment of more than 90,000 students—multiples higher than the student body enrollment. This small university, founded only in 1991, would be unlikely to make Coursera’s partner list. Yet it had a unique area of expertise, with a willing set of instructors who put together a compelling and engaging MOOC, and then leveraged iversity’s platform to teach thousands of people who had likely never heard of the university.

Unique Opportunity for European MOOCs

Of course, iversity faces challenges as well. Their users show single-digit completion rates, comparable to Coursera and edX. Being small and nimble, iversity is in a good position to experiment with different techniques (reminders, commitment aids, etc.) to help improve this. But ultimately, this is an issue that all MOOC providers face, and the burden is not on iversity alone to figure out the answer.

The major focus for iversity in the near future will be increasing the number of credit-earning MOOCs. This is a major opportunity in Europe that is not quite as feasible in the U.S., because most universities in Europe are funded publicly. Hannes explains:

“In the U.S. the university that accepts credit from other institutions loses out on revenue because you pay on a per credit basis, whereas the European institution does not receive any tuition fees, so it doesn’t have as much of a problem with accepting credits from another institute.” 

Education credit mobility is an explicit priority for the European Commission (and cooperating non-EU European countries), and there is a framework for standardizing transfer credits, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). If a large number of iversity MOOCs grant ECTS credits (only a select few do currently), then the platform will take a major step towards realizing the goal of enabling additional high-quality course choices for university students. However, it will take a concerted effort to get universities to coordinate and execute this, and this is something iversity is trying to help coordinate.

What is iversity’s plan? Hannes sketched out a potential concept: iversity convinces, say, 25 European universities to form a sort of consortium, where they agree to produce 4 courses each (at an estimated cost of 25,000€ each). The universities agree to inspect the quality of the courses in order to exchange ECTS credits. They each also provide exam space. Thus, for an investment of 100,000€ and a commitment to produce 4 courses, each university has access to 100 credit-granting MOOCs for its students. These MOOCs can be offered to the public without credit, and would be assured of their high quality, or perhaps for some specialized courses, universities could even monetize some courses by charging for executive education enrollments.

This is a distinctly European vision of what MOOCs can do in higher education. It is an approach that Coursera and edX cannot easily pursue (largely due to the differences in funding dynamics described above). In the European context, these MOOCs can help enable universities to do what they already want to do: give students more diverse credit-earning course options. Hannes notes:

“We want to move into the digital age and enable students to virtually go to all these different universities so they would have a platform with hundreds of courses from institutions all over Europe…there will be new opportunities for students to take courses that are not be offered at their institution.” 

There are still many issues to be addressed, such as: what is the right mix of online vs. face-to-face instruction? How do you ensure quality in a MOOC? Will universities try to cut costs by leveraging MOOCs to reduce the number of instructors? But as Hannes and Jonas had observed, society has changed dramatically from a technological standpoint, and universities must as well. In that context, these issues will need to be discussed and ironed out.

Incidentally, as Coursera has partnerships with two dozen European universities, we wondered whether Hannes sees Coursera as iversity’s primary competitor. “It’s very early days for MOOCs, and therefore I think we are learning more from them than we are competing with them.” If iversity makes progress towards realizing the vision Hannes outlined, then Coursera and edX would have some things to learn from iversity as well.

Bonus clip:

iversity's Hannes Klopper on Benefit of Humanities MOOCs

iversity CEO Hannes Klopper on the Surprising Value of Humanities MOOCs