Looking for a European MOOC Model: Comparing paradigms?

Article by Rosanna De Rosa, EMMA project coordinator, Università Degli Studi Di Napoli Federico II, Italy

In 2014 the European Commission approved two different MOOC projects which were invited to compete on the MOOC market and to act as enablers of innovation in the Higher Education area. Both these projects are now leaving behind their infancy as pilot projects and taking up their position as providers of digital education in Europe. For both projects it has been hard to cope with a fast changing environment which has seen learning platforms mushrooming all around the world, brand new pedagogical models developed in line with very old theories, from Dewey to Freire, to more radical approaches such as Illich’s, and, last but not least, openness translated into a more and more unstable concept. We have witnessed the transformation of pedagogies into ideology, where “learning in a certain way” has become a new dogma to be defended everywhere and anytime. Even the idea of an individual “learning style” has been rejected to make room for emerging dogmas.

But how have the two projects, ECO and EMMA reacted? How did they tackle the challenge of proposing a European MOOC model. Let’s look first at some basic background information about the two projects. The ECO learning project is run by 24 partners led by UNED, a public distance education university based in Madrid and one of the biggest Open Universities in Europe. The 5 MOOC platforms used by ECO – mainly open source – are run by partners, while the ECO learning project provides a portal for all their MOOCs via a unique entry point. ECO uses the concept of an ‘sMOOC’ where ‘s’ stands for ‘social’ and it is this concept that is common to all ECO MOOCs. The ECO team promotes sMOOCs as a suitable, effective, unique approach to be promoted in Europe. From a pedagogical perspective this approach seems to rely on well-known literature and an evidence-based perspective.

But what is probably more interesting is that the ECO learning approach can be considered to be one that is highly political in that it reproduces exactly the same political approach as that of Europe: a federation of member states which are almost autonomous in their internal decision-making but which have a common currency. However, if we take into account the pros and cons of adoption of the Euro, it is clear that such an approach can also suffer from the same limitations as the European Union: how to cope with member states’ financial and institutional policies, investments and emerging issues, and how can individual needs be balanced with collective agreements?

The EMMA consortium took a different approach. EMMA is a project based on the work of 11 partners, some of whom are also part of the ECO learning project. EMMA is headed by the University of Naples Federico II, the oldest public university in Europe and one of the largest in Italy. Since the very beginning, it was clear that each partner had both a pedagogical approach and a native language that was brought to the table as a non-negotiable principle. This is why EMMA pursued the idea of creating a flexible and multilingual platform using an agile approach largely based on providers’ needs and feedback, without any restrictions in terms of pedagogy and/or instructional design. Translation/transcription features based on in-domain languages were also created, piloted, and embedded into the platform, while a decision to avoid linguistic niches was taken for the social interaction tools.

We can now state that the EMMA model was a culturally inclusive one, built around the Erasmus idea. The concept is one of creating a unique framework where pedagogical diversity can be represented, while giving to the multilingual generation we are educating, the opportunity to feel truly European. Such an approach suffers from one clear limitation: it takes little account of the conflicting interests that naturally emerge in complex environments. How to govern the growing request for diversity, balancing individual choices with technological constraints?

In other words it seems that both projects pursued a different idea of diversity: independence vs. integration. No one project team is claiming to have all the answers and each are well aware of the challenges that lie ahead, although much has been achieved, much more remains to be done.

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