SEFI2013: Online Learning and Higher Engineering Education – The MOOC phenomenon

SEFI logo 2013Paper presented at SEFI 2013 Conference in Leuven, Belgium.


The purpose of this paper is to gain a better understanding of the phenomenon of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and other trends towards greater openness like Open Educational Courseware and Resources, and to think about the implications for Higher Engineering Education (HEE). A MOOC is an online course aimed to provide free access to university level education for as many students as possible. MOOCs differ from traditional university online courses in two ways [1] Open access, anyone can participate in an online course for free, and Scalability, courses are designed to support an indefinite number of participants.

The speed in the development of MOOCs is a novelty in the history of education as well as the media coverage that exceeds any preceding innovation. Some consider the situation to be explosive, but there has not been enough time yet to confirm early experiences and to draw definite conclusions. The background of this phenomenon is multi layered, but there are three connected elements that seem to be decisive: a. The public discussion about the mere existence of higher education on the issue of incompetence of the institutions to cope with today’s learning demands as the need for higher productivity and more flexibility; b. The rising costs for and of students, decreasing state support and multiplying debts of institutions, and c. The significant acceptance of internet technologies in society in general and in education, increasing the likelihood that the technology can serve as a problem solving opportunity.

Especially the discussion on the very different dynamics of education in the 21st century play a role and the fact that most institutions very much relate to the factory model of mass instruction which was the dominant model for centuries. An important defect of this model is that most universities and colleges are essentially traditional and conservative not being able to cope with the changing demands in society appropriately. The fear is that if institutions do not respond, they will not survive [2]. Today’s reality is that new models of education are emerging initiated by a selective group of high class institutions and investing companies with a history in education, publishing and public media. This is quite a different arrangement with a strategy focusing on online student centred approaches and the exploitation of smart personal technologies for anytime and anywhere learning and partnering with an industry that is looking for easy, efficient and low priced talent management.

In a sense this situation for HE is decades old. The British Open University started in 1971, the for-profit University of Phoenix is online since 1989 and MIT and lots of other Universities including the Delft University of Technology have been posting free online ‘open courseware’ since a decade. These developments were not considered disruptive for the existing HE system, but with the emergence of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), this seems to change rapidly. In this context HEE has a special position since the development of technologies that enable online learning are at the core of the learning innovation business. HEE though is not a prominent partner in the discussion on the perceived consequences of this development for education and therefor this paper should help to extend the debate in the HEE sector on the role to play in this arena for learning innovation.


De Vries, P. (2013). Online Learning and Higher Engineering Education – The MOOC phenomenon in SEFI Annual Conference Proceedings 2013.


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