“With MOOCs, you can’t go and hide away in the comfort of a closed lecture room”

Alex Diggins talks MOOCs with Frank Gielen, InnoEnergy’s Education Director, a leading provider of sustainability courses for higher education and CPD

Please tell me about your role, and the work of InnoEnergy in regards to MOOCs?

I am the education director at InnoEnergy, the leading innovation engine for sustainable energy in Europe. InnoEnergy has been developing online and digital courses for over five years. Our goal is to use online and digital education to improve the learner experience and the quality of our portfolio. Massive Open Online Courses are an important component in this. We have created MOOCs on different platforms such as FutureLearn, eDx and our own platform ISE (The Institute of Sustainable Energy).

MOOCs play a huge role in helping us to meet this ambition, since they enable us to give a wide range of innovators easy-to-access training, insight and advice from the world’s leading energy experts, at low or no cost, wherever they are.

What do you understand by the term MOOCs?

MOOCs means that we can reach large global audiences per course; typically, thousands of learners. This is exactly what we need to reach as many actors in the energy transition as possible. The fact that it is ‘open’ means that everybody can have access; the scalability of education is for us an important factor.

What this means for InnoEnergy is that we can make university-level educational content easily accessible to both individual professionals and whole organisations – enabling them to develop both the technical knowledge and commercial skills required to create sustainably successful cleantech innovations.

What advantages can you see for MOOCs over conventional physically located higher education courses?

Once you detach education from a location you can reach many more people; and another key advantage of online digital learning in general, and MOOCs specifically, is that we can collect all types of data about the course – the students and the online interactions with peers, teaching staff and content. This data can be used to improve the quality of the teaching material but it also shows the areas of a course when students struggle or need additional help. All together this allows us to create a far better learner experience and teachers get real-time feedback.

In any MOOC, you can interact with students and professionals from all over the world. They have different professional and cultural backgrounds and look at a problem from different perspectives. This type of social learning with peers is probably more valuable than the online course material by itself.

By contrast, what challenges or difficulties have you encountered/can foresee with the model?

MOOCs have suffered from the typical hype cycle. Some ‘visionaries’ were even predicting the end of higher education as we know it. Of course, it did not happen and on the contrary MOOCs did a lot to improve ‘classical’ education and to drive innovation in the rather conservative higher education sector. I am sure MOOCs are here to stay but they will be used in different ways. For example, following a couple of MOOCs is not sufficient to give you a degree, a professional certificate or to claim certain qualifications. It needs to be combined with learning-by-doing or learning from peers. This is where formats such as blended learning come in. One challenge with MOOCs, especially in the technology and innovation domain, is their limited lifetimes. We need to upgrade our content every year in order to keep pace with evolution in our sector and to remain relevant.

Finally, there are a lot of MOOCs that do not meet basic quality standards but you cannot hide bad quality on the internet and learners have a very low threshold for bad quality. So the problem is solved by an online feedback cycle. Some teachers take the feedback into account and improve their online teaching; others go away and hide in the comfort of the closed lecture room.

What changes do you think the model will encounter in the next five years?

As with many innovations, there will probably be a shake-out among the providers and quality will surface. MOOC creators and providers also need to find a financially sustainable model. We already see a big trend in moving into the market of professional and corporate training with closed, paid versions of MOOCs that are customised with teaching cases in the context of the company. These corporate MOOCs are often combined with classroom sessions. They represent a nice business opportunity for universities that want to work with industry for their education programmes.

Lastly, MOOCs: the future?

The future of MOOCs and digital online education in general will be to certainly lead us towards ‘data-driven education’. If we can combine the data that is collected from thousands of learners with the skills and competencies that are needed for future jobs, we can determine the optimal personalised learning path that a student needs to follow to move from one job to another. Since our society and our industry is going through a permanent change, the capability of predicting skill gaps and linking those to learning will give companies a competitive advantage and will increase everybody’s employability.