During the last six months mmb Institut and NEOCOSMO conducted a study on behalf of Hochschulforum Digitalisierung (HFD) assessing the feasibility of an (inter-)national platform for higher education. We asked HFD experts to share their perspective on the results of the study. We thank Darco Jansen of EADTU for his contribution from an international point of view.
More comments by the Community can be found in this blog post.
About the study
Recently a feasibility study was conducted in Germany about the possibilities to establish a national platform for online education. This study was conducted within a period of five month, commissioned by Das Hochschulforum Digitalisierung. The report “Machbarkeitsstudie für eine (inter-)nationale Plattform für die Hochschullehre” is available in German since the end of May.
This feasibility study gives a very nice and thorough overview of the current situation and discusses the possibilities of Germany to have a national platform in the near future. In this the researchers held many interviews, stakeholder-workshops and expert sessions. They operated in a very complex environment with large autonomy of higher educational institutions and of regional authorities. In addition the study was also complicated by many technological, political, legal, cultural, organizational and economic-financial issues.
Current situation in Germany
The feasibility study offers a good overview about the different priorities of present international platforms according to 13 dimensions (see, classification scheme on page 36). In comparison to international initiatives, it suggests that current initiatives in Germany are having a different focus than their international counterparts. The goal of most German universities is the use of substantive synergies within the university network. The current platforms and initiatives are usually focused on a range of subjects and therefore often have a limited scope - also due to language. Against this background, much emphasis is placed on thematic planning, reliable and legally feasible offers. Overall, development of online education in Germany seems hampered by legal, political (federalism) and cultural barriers as well as lack of (financial) incentives at the level of higher education institutions and lecturers. Marketing aspects, reach and "massive character" are of secondary importance.
However, this study seems to focus too strongly on the platforms for online education. As stated in the report, such a platform should support many objectives amongst others the innovation of education in Germany as offered by online education and digital tools. One could question if educational innovation is lacking in Germany as well. Moreover, it is necessary to examine how current and future initiatives, both by universities, networks and regional authorities, can be supported by other means at a national level (e.g., legislation, regulation, funding, quality assurance, performance agreements, etc.) and how such a national platform can contribute in this wider perspective.
A platform for which component of online education?
One complexity concerns the main focus of such a national platform. Especially since online education is emerging and becomes interwoven with various parts of higher education provision. At European universities three areas of provision emerge: (I) degree education as the backbone of a university; (II) continuous education and continuous professional development, which probably will exceed the number of degree students; and (III) recently forms of open education like OER and MOOCs. Furthermore, in all three domains, new pedagogies have evolved, strongly enabled by the innovation/ICT push and facilitated by different support structures at various levels.
Universities start to develop visions and strategies to position themselves at the national and international level in each of these areas. The German study recognises that digital modes of teaching and learning can solve problems higher education is facing today and will offer new opportunities for teaching and learning in each of thementioned areas. In addition, the study gives an overview according to micro-content (i.e. educational material), open learning (e.g. MOOCS and micro-degrees / short learning programs) and virtual/online education related to degree education.
The study seems to conclude that such a German platform should encompass all three areas of provision. This increases the complexity significantly, but also recognises the opportunities of online education in all kind of provisions. The report recommends a gradual implementation of such a national platform mainly starting with open learning.
Given the current initiatives and strength of the German educational system, I would expect a stronger focus on virtual and online courses as part of degree education. This shift to (short) degree offering is also observed by MOOC providers. The MOOC platforms already offer possibilities to get (ECTS) credits even at the level of short programs and to get those credits recognised as part of post-graduate masters. In this international and German context an additional focus on Virtual mobility schemes both for traditional students and those in continuous education would be expectable. And I am happy to see that this, although only partly, is addressed in the discussion on possible scenarios for a national platform.
Focus on open learning
This study confirms that open education is seen as an innovation driver that has the capacity to improve education, and thus as a basis for transforming higher education systems. Online courses, OERs and MOOCs are excellent for promoting lifelong learning as well. A minor detail is that the study seems to fail to recognise that online education is not the same as open education. MOOCs and OER are part of the long history of university extensions, open education and widening participation initiatives that have sought to extend access to (higher) education.
The study recognises that MOOCs and other forms of open learning contribute to the digital innovation within higher education systems and as such is an ideal starting point for such a national platform. More importantly, they offer a response to the widespread challenge of meeting the future needs of employers and employees for smaller, flexible and regular knowledge and skills development to cope with a rapidly changing world. MOOCs are also a lever for innovation in mainstream degree education. It is expected that MOOCs will have an impact on the further development of formal higher education and continuous professional development, as well as on initiatives for opening up education.
Scalability as a central issue
In a global world digital education is increasingly connected to the economy of scale. This goes beyond visibility and common national/worldwide brands. The massive dimension of MOOCs for example requires the scalability of all educational services. For example, the production costs for MOOCs and digital education and training in general will only break even, when a critical mass of learners is reached. This has resulted in an important digital innovation. An efficient national or even cross-national collaboration is seen to strengthen the scalability of various educational services. Language and cultural barriers are hindering somewhat a scalable approach, especially for small language areas. For Germany this is only partly true, and scale can be provided both technology and on educational services both on a national level and in close collaboration with European organisations.
This study indeed includes a service level when discussing the features of such a national platform, opting for possible shared service centers. It discusses many possible services in connection to different platform scenarios. It somewhat fails to discuss which services are most needed and what kind of services should be dealt with at the institutional, network, regional, national or European level. Such an elaboration would strengthen the connection to existing services at these different levels and as such the acceptance of a national platform.
In addition I would expect some elaboration on adequate recognition and incentives for faculties and institutions to engage in collaborative development and delivery of online education. Moreover, online and open education are not only instrumental for educational institutions - essentially, and especially for continental Europe, they are related to goals at a general societal level (e.g. increasing access to education), at a regional level (enhancing the circulation of knowledge relevant for local societies), and at a learner’s level. As such a national platform in connection to regional and European initiatives, should capitalise on the advantages of these largescale courses and thereby use them as a strategic opportunity to meet local needs and develop related capacities. Governments should support and scale up multi-stakeholder partnerships for efficiency reasons, but also for the benefit of society as a whole, combining solutions for scalability, quality and cost .
What kind of German platform?
The last part of the feasibility study discusses mainly two scenarios for a national platform in Germany. One scenario (A) is related to an open network of universities in which the online courses and related learning are provided by mainly the own platforms of the universities themselves (or existing networks of universities). This is an inclusive but rather supply-oriented approach. In addition, a second, more demand-oriented and centralised platform scenario (B) was developed. This focusses on a consistent user experience and a higher speed of implementation. A SWOT analysis of both scenarios is discussed in detail. As the coordinator of OpenupEd my personal opinion is somewhat biased, and therefore I won’t comment on this. But I conclude with the remark that I am very delighted about this study. Mainly due to the German government and networks of universities recognising the need for such a national initiative. Although the innovation pace in Europe seems somewhat slower compared to Silicon valley initiatives, this study and other national initiatives in Europe show a more thorough approach that is hopefully more sustainable and will have more impact at the level of society (and will not shift to more business orientated approaches).
 Also, the Digital Education Action Plan of EC refers to the focus on implementation and the need to stimulate, support and scale up purposeful use of digital and innovative education practices.