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MOOCs: the rapid rise of free digital education

MOOCs: the rapid rise of free digital education

Massive Online Open Courses are digital courses that universities offer free of charge. KU Leuven has already reached 230,000 students.

7 minutes
09 November 2020

Thanks to Massive Online Open Courses or MOOCs, you can watch from free digital courses taught at top universities across the world from the comfort of your own home. It is no wonder that MOOCs have become so popular. KU Leuven has already reached 230 000 students.

Acquiring insight into how vaccines work, penetrating the scientific tricks of beer brewing or going on virtual excursions to the tropics: thanks to our MOOC platform KULeuvenX, interested people from across the world can do all this from the comfort of their own home. Massive Online Open Courses or MOOCs are digital programmes that are free to audiences everywhere. KU Leuven now offers twenty MOOCs with more than 230 000 students. Ten more MOOCs are currently in the pipeline.

Corona has given distance learning a significant boost, forcing millions of people all over the world to take classes from home. Such open digital courses are not new, however. MIT and Harvard launched the MOOC platform edX in 2012. The mission of edX is as clear as it is ambitious: providing high-quality courses to everyone everywhere. Eight years after edX was founded, the platform offers more than 3 000 courses and has 24 million students worldwide.

KU Leuven decided to get involved too. Our twenty edX courses have already attracted more than 230 000 subscribers. KU Leuven has thereby moved to the forefront of European MOOC organizers, both in terms of number and quality. The most popular KU Leuven MOOC is entitled Existential Well-being Counseling: A Person-centered Experiential Approach. This course, offered by the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, has no fewer than 54 623 enrolled students.

MOOCs are an impulse to the realization of our five strategic goals.

Are MOOCs a good calling card for KU Leuven? Undoubtedly. But according to Piet Desmet, Vice Rector for educational technology, they are much more than that. “People are often dismissive of MOOCs as a mere marketing strategy, but that is incorrect. Our primary ambition is not to position KU Leuven as a brand, though of course we do want the MOOCs to refect the quality of our institution. Our central motivation for investing in MOOCs is that they are an impulse to the realization of our five strategic goals.”


One of those strategic goals is ‘Going Digital’. The link with MOOCs is obvious. ‘Going Digital’ aims to integrate digital technology into education in an intelligent way. MOOCs are a perfect example. MOOCs offer exceptionally strong multimedia content built on developed pedagogy and taught by absolute experts in the relevant research field. And according to Vice Rector Piet Desmet, this has important consequences. “More even than in regular education, lecturers are forced to think carefully about a MOOC beforehand. So they are ideal ways of preparing for broader investments in digital methods in education. MOOCs therefore make an obvious contribution to Future-Oriented Education, the second pillar in the strategic policy plan.”

MOOCs also clearly align with ‘Truly International’, another strategic goal that seeks to promote the transition from a national to an international university. With a respected platform like edX, you can reach students across the world. This not only leads to fruitful interactions between our researchers and those of other universities, but we can also integrate MOOCs by other universities into our regular programmes. It also provides additional opportunities for development cooperation. Our Interfaculty Council for Development Cooperation (IRO) did not hesitate to support three MOOCs.

MOOCs are very labour intensive. You’ll suddenly find you’ve already been hard at work for a year.
MOOCs are very labour intensive. You’ll suddenly find you’ve already been hard at work for a year.

MOOCs are very often interdisciplinary: they are developed by teams of lecturers who combine multiple disciplines. MOOCs present the most recent insights around the challenges of tomorrow, which can often not be treated within one single discipline. MOOCs are thus also a powerful tool for the fourth pillar: ‘interdisciplinarity’.

And finally there is Sustainability. MOOCs often treat subjects related to sustainability, which is one of the primary challenges we are currently facing. And they also present digital content of exceptional quality in a sustainable way. So should we all be making MOOCs? Piet Desmet nuances that conclusion. Making one MOOC can take a team of people one year and demands a significant commitment from the lecturer in question. Piet Desmet wants to reward these efforts as much as possible. “In the early days, MOOCs were often the result of research. A project would be translated into a MOOC as a deliverable, since it is of course a powerful vehicle to achieving global valorisation. We now demand that MOOCs are followed three or four times. A MOOC that is only programmed once requires too much investment. We also want the material to be used in our BA programmes to the greatest possible extent. For example, a MOOC might consist of knowledge clips that people can watch separately. The aspect of sustainability is more important than ever. That is why we now pay so much attention to the quality of the videos, etc.: a MOOC has to last several years.”


The KU Leuven MOOC strategy has recently acquired a new dimension. The students enrolled in our MOOCs will soon be able to receive credits. To be clear: that is not the case yet. We first have to get over a number of administrative and legal hurdles. We are working on that as we speak.

There is no doubt that MOOCs have a fine future ahead of them. The advantages of MOOCs are legion. To start with, they offer enormous scaling advantages. MOOCs that are studied by thousands of people around the world are no longer exceptional. But the scale of MOOCs also presents the creators with enormous challenges. For example, lecturers have to provide sufficient remedial materials, to ensure that everyone can keep up. That demands a lot of preparation beforehand. Not only in terms of content, but also pedagogically.

MOOCs also encourage open debate. People from all over the world can engage in dialogue about relevant topics like inequality or wellbeing. One refreshing dimension is that academics can debate with professionals in the field. Piet Desmet also underscores that MOOCs stimulate lifelong learning. “Struggling through a MOOC requires discipline, a quality from which everyone will benefit over the course of their career. That is another reason that MOOCs can progressively be integrated into regular education. Ideally, every student should take a MOOC at some point, by universities throughout the world. That is our ultimate ambition.”

Blended learning

MOOCs may well be rising meteorically, but contact education will always be a part of regular educational programmes. One of the reasons for that is the necessity of active learning, active participation and the opportunity for students to ask questions. These things are all much easier in contact education than in MOOCs because students and lecturers can interact directly in the classroom. That is much harder in a MOOC. Piet Desmet advocates blended learning, a mixed form that includes both digital and classical learning. “Students can process teaching materials independently and then discuss them in the classroom. The KU Leuven Learning Lab supports blended learning. A major benefit is that lecturers are being challenged more. Discussion is far less predictable than simply lecturing. As a professor, your expertise is what matters. It sounds paradoxical, but digital teaching can enhance the quality of contact education. MOOCs as one component in our entire range of educational forms would be ideal.”

Did the KU Leuven MOOC on soil science win the prestigious edX Prize? We’ll find out the answer in December.
Did the KU Leuven MOOC on soil science win the prestigious edX Prize? We’ll find out the answer in December.

edX Prize

KU Leuven’s MOOC machine is running at full speed. A number of interesting courses are in the pipeline: Rule of Law and Human Rights in the EU is starting at the end of November, and European ID in Crime Narratives will première at the end of March. And KU Leuven’s MOOCs do not go unnoticed. For the first time, one of our MOOCs has been nominated for the prestigious edX-Prize for Exceptional Contributions in Online Teaching and Learning. As above, so below: An introduction to soils, ecosystems and livelihoods in the Tropics, a MOOC about soil science has secured a place in the final. Soil science is the cornerstone of sustainable land management and climate-friendly planning, but it is also a complex skill that is difficult to master. Students from 125 different countries enrolled in the course. The MOOC is part of the KU Leuven Global Minds programme and was financed by the Interfaculty Council for Development Cooperation. We will find out if the course taught by Professor Karen Vancampenhout wins the award.