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Interview with Bernd Huber

"MOOCs will partially replace on-site lectures"

Munich, 02/20/2014

LMU President Bernd Huber on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the future of university teaching.

Bernd HuberProf. Dr. Bernd Huber has been President of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) Muenchen since 2002. During his term in office, LMU has established itself as one of the leading research-intensive universities in Germany, and was among the three winners of the so-called Excellence Initiative in 2006, a Germany-wide competition to promote top-level university research. Huber, who is an influential economist, is also a member of the Advisory Board of Deloitte. Under the coalition government formed in 1998, he was appointed to the Academic Advisory Council to the Federal Ministry of Finance, on which he still serves.

Huber‘s university was the first in Germany to embark on a collaboration with one of the leading American providers of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Bernd Huber views this venture as an experiment - the outcome of which remains open-ended. However, he is convinced that MOOCs will significantly shape higher education in the future.

Professor Huber, of all German universities, LMU is probably the one most deeply involved in the area of MOOCs. LMU already offers four lecture series via the Coursera platform. What do you hope to gain from the engagement with this format?
Bernd Huber: At the moment, we regard our MOOCs essentially as an experiment, as a pilot project. We want to find out what this new educational technology is capable of; we are still at the stage of gaining experience in how to handle this new tool. MOOCs will fundamentally change university teaching, and we wanted to be part of this development from an early stage.

The internet courses offered on the Coursera platform by LMU have been online since the summer of 2013. Are you happy with the results of your experiment?
The results have been quite sensational. In all, nearly 200,000 participants registered for the four MOOCs, and a comparatively high proportion of them completed their courses. More than 10,000 users worldwide even took part in our MOOC on volcanology, which is a rather specialized field. Naturally, instructors have to rethink their approach when they give lectures on camera rather than speaking to a live audience in an auditorium. But that, too, went remarkably well. In short, we are extremely pleased with the results so far!

How much effort, and how much money, has gone into LMU’s MOOCs?
Of course, producing the video lectures requires a great deal of work because you cannot simply transfer the normal lecture format one-to-one into the context of an online course. Production costs for the four courses, excluding expenditure on personnel, were about 60,000 euros. In light of the opportunities that the courses open up for us, that is a reasonable outlay.

Why did you select Coursera in preference to other providers, and instead of developing a platform of your own?
LMU is a university with an extensive curriculum that encompasses the Humanities as well as the Life Sciences and the Natural Sciences, and Coursera also offers a wide range of content. Apart from that, Coursera is the largest international network, has the broadest reach, and also has the most experience in this area. And since we wanted to gain experience with this new tool, the platform is the ideal partner for us.

Don’t you think that there are risks attached to entering into a dependent relationship with a commercially oriented, private company like Coursera?
No, not at all. The copyright in our own courses remains entirely in our hands. We design and supply the course modules, and Coursera’s staff provides advice and tips. We of course profit from the company’s international cachet because it is also our goal to improve our international visibility.

This is an argument one hears from nearly all universities who have decided to get into MOOCs. But what does “international visibility” mean in this context, what concrete benefits does it bring for your institution?
We chose to join up with Coursera very deliberately because their network has the largest reach and a very good reputation. This offers us a chance to become better known globally. That in turn has, for example, a positive impact on the number of inquiries we receive concerning our doctoral programs – from postgraduates who have taken our MOOC in Cell Biology, for instance, and now wish to come to Munich to study at LMU. That would be one immediate and concrete advantage.

So where do you go from here? How does LMU intend to make use of the new forms of online learning in future?
We plan to extend the range of our courses available on Coursera, concentrating on the production of appealing and high-quality courses. This is a very important consideration, by the way. If an online course is not going well, then it has no publicity value. Instead of having a promotional effect, it may actually leave a bad impression.

Online courses seem to be unsuitable for many students. At any rate, the fraction of students that successfully complete such courses is generally not terribly impressive. Is that not a serious obstacle to the further development of learning by internet?
Basically, my view is that in terms of their didactical impact, well-designed online courses can certainly compete with face-to-face instruction. A wide-ranging analysis undertaken by the US Department of Education argues that online learning is more effective than on-site learning.

The average proportion of Coursera users who successfully take the final examinations is around 5% at present. The completion rate for one of our own courses – the one on Competitive Strategy given by Tobias Kretschmer – was almost 20%. However, figures of that sort are not very meaningful, as long as students who successfully complete a MOOC course only receive a certificate of completion. What will happen once MOOCs become part of a regular university degree program is an open question.

You have now touched on an issue that is surely a crucial one. The question is whether MOOC users can obtain a certificate of accomplishment that is recognized by other educational institutions, and later by employers. Without that incentive, most students will have little motivation to put much effort into passing their online exams – and universities will have little hope of obtaining a real return on their investment.
The question of ECTS points (grading system defined in the European Credit Transfer System; MB) is indeed crucial. It remains to be seen whether money can be made with MOOCs. As far as LMU is concerned, the question of financial returns is not uppermost in our minds.

What sort of role in higher education do you envisage for MOOCs in the future?
In the USA, MOOCs have aroused great anxiety. Some experts are already talking of "clicks instead of bricks". I can’t imagine that universities, as physical entities and environments, will someday disappear and be replaced by computers and the Internet. But university teaching and the university landscape as a whole will unquestionably undergo fundamental change. Personally, I expect that tools like MOOCs will partially replace on-site lectures, and universities will have to adapt to that.

Professor Huber, you once posed the question of "whether every subject really must be taught everywhere by on-site instructors, or whether it can be combined with MOOCs?" You seem to welcome this development. But is it not understandable that the move to online education also provokes fears at smaller universities?
As I just said, online courses will in the future supplement, and in some cases substitute for, familiar modes of teaching – without making direct instruction superfluous. This is actually a positive development for universities because it means that they will no longer be forced to offer their own full-scale, on-site teaching programs in all fields, including many highly specialized ones. Instead, each institution can concentrate on its own particular strengths.

But will that not necessarily result in further specialization, reduce diversity because there will be fewer courses on offer – and thus lead to job losses?
I believe that academic diversity can even be enhanced overall if universities focus on their strengths, and design their on-site and online curricula accordingly. Innovations like this always involve an element of risk as well as opportunities. I personally view these developments in a very positive light because many, many people all over the world who have had no chance so far to obtain an academic education now have an opportunity to gain access to the world of education and science via MOOCs. Remember the well-known case of the Pakistani Khadija Niazi – a 12-year-old girl who is obviously highly gifted, and can now grapple with problems in Artificial Intelligence and Theoretical Physics without leaving her parents’ home in Lahore.

Interview: Matthias Becker

The interview appeared in Telepolis on 23 January 2014.
Translation: Paul Hardy, Copyright: 2014 Heise Zeitschriften Verlag.

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