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Swiss universities try to catch the MOOC wave

Massive open online courses

Free interactive online university courses known as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are quickly spreading far beyond the United States. After Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), other Swiss universities are keen to experiment.

But not everyone is convinced: some sceptics say MOOCs are not particularly innovative and just a new marketing opportunity.

Last year witnessed an e-learning explosion as MOOC madness took over higher education. Eager not to miss out on this new trend, top universities from around the world are joining platform providers such as Coursera and Udacity, or forming their own ventures like edX and Futurelearn, while individual initiatives are also being spawned.

EPFL is an early MOOC adopter. It became one of Coursera’s 33 university partners last June offering a course in Scala computer programming to which 53,000 students signed up, five times the number on campus.

EPFL President Patrick Aebischer describes MOOCs as a potential “tsunami” for higher education and his colleague Karl Aberer, who oversees the courses at EPFL, agrees: “I’m pretty sure they will result in fundamental changes. There is already talk about no longer needing large lecture halls on campus.”

The Lausanne-based institute is forging ahead. Another Scala course is programmed in spring alongside new courses in English on digital signal processing, computational mathematics, Java computer programming, and scientific computing in French. EPFL plans to introduce ten more courses by autumn 2013. 

Get on board

Other Swiss universities are also looking to take the plunge. Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ) will possibly start a MOOC in autumn this year on an undisclosed topic. But it plans a more careful approach and has set a two-year time-frame to assess the new trend.

MOOCs epitomize current developments in the higher education world – internationalization, a regrouping of small elite universities and a desire to reach a new public – said Pablo Achard, deputy rector at Geneva University.

The Geneva institute  is also preparing a course with either Coursera or edX and is likely to make a formal announcement within the next month.

“There is definitely a huge wave of interest around MOOCs, especially in the US, but it’s too early to know whether they represent a passing fad or a more profound change for higher education,” Achard added.

Elsewhere, Bern University said it was considering MOOCs as a way of improving teaching but they were not a priority. Zurich, Basel and Lausanne universities have not expressed an interest.

Lausanne is pursuing other channels. Since 2009 it has been a partner of iTunes U, the Apple online platform, which boasts thousands of courses offered by hundreds of colleges, universities and high schools, such as Yale, MIT and Berkeley.

Not that innovative

But not everyone is as enthusiastic as Aebischer. For some MOOCs are little more than a marketing opportunity.

Konrad Osterwalder, head of teaching development and technology at ETHZ, said there was nothing particularly innovative about current MOOCs, adding that ten-year-old well-made e-learning products were generally better quality.

“Moocs is just a format that needs to be filled and you can do that well or badly. With much of what I’ve seen it’s easier to be critical than find pearls,” he commented.

But he felt the community aspect – especially peer-to-peer learning – and large amounts of new data from greater numbers of participants were particularly interesting developments.


For many universities the motivation to explore MOOCs stems from economic factors and pressure to improve productivity.

Aberer says MOOCs should offer insights onto new teaching methods and access to thousands of participants will open up new avenues for research and data analysis.

But EPFL has wider ambitions. Aebischer is taking a six-month sabbatical this year to focus on MOOCs and will be travelling to Boston, San Francisco and to Africa to assess potential.

He believes the new form of online lectures offer a unique opportunity for the development of higher education on the continent.

In an interview with Le Temps newspaper, he said the French-speaking university had a certain responsibility towards the 220 million people who speak French around the world, expected to rise to 750 million in 2050, most of whom live in Africa. 

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