Berlin’s iversity wants to play ‘evangelist’ for MOOCs in Europe

Silicon Valley startups Coursera and Udacity — as well as the Harvard and MIT-backed non-profit edX — may be driving the momentum behind massive open online courses (MOOCs) for now. But that doesn’t mean organizations around the world aren’t trying to get in on the action as well.

Earlier this year, two-year-old Berlin-based education startup iversity announced that it was pivoting to become a MOOC platform for Europe. On Monday, the organization took its next big step in that direction with the announcement of its first 10 classes, which were selected through an open competition.

Iversity said 30 professors from more than 20 countries submitted more than 250 MOOC proposals to the contest, which was managed by iversity and Stifterverband, a German educational foundation. The winning courses were chosen by public voting as well as a jury of experts from academia and business. Several of the courses will be offered by German institutions, but universities from Italy and Spain are represented as well.

As they’ve grown, all of the top three American MOOC providers have talked up their commitment to meeting global demand for online educational opportunities. Last month, edX added 10 new international partners and about a quarter of Coursera’s institutional partners are international. And, since partnering with crowdsourced captioning service Amara, Udacity says students have translated its courses into 63 languages, making its content accessible to students around the world.

MOOC mania not as pronounced in Europe

But despite the European incursions of its stateside rivals, iversity believes that it still has the local advantage – not only is it geographically closer to potential partner universities, it’s more familiar with the European market so it can adapt its business model and courses accordingly.

Hannes Klöpper, co-founder and CEO of iversity, said that while many Europeans may be Coursera students, MOOCs haven’t yet impacted the institutions the way they have in the U.S. In the U.S., MOOCs are regularly the topics of opinion pages and have become central to conversations on the future of higher education, but that isn’t yet the case in Europe, he said.

“We’re still very much in an evangelism phase,” he said. “That’s the kind of work we’re doing – we’re demonstrating in a very visible way how this can play out with instructors here and… we’re talking to the institutional decision-makers to move [the conversation].”

In Europe, iversity isn’t the only organization aiming to elevate the role of MOOCs. The U.K.-based Futurelearn platform, founded by The Open University, has partnered with 19 organizations for free, online courses and plans to offer its first classes this fall. In April, launched, with the support of the European Commission and several educational partners, as another portal for free, web-based classes. And, in addition to the European services, other global MOOC providers have recently emerged, including Open2Study in Australia, EducateMe360 in India and unX in Latin America.

Not a Facebook kind of market

Given the amount of media attention given to American MOOC providers in the past year — and their significant international following — it’s not surprising that organizations around the world have aspirations of being the “Coursera” for their local markets. New players may have to overcome the head start of U.S.-based MOOC platforms, but Klöpper made the good point that local organizations maybe better suited to contextualize MOOCs for their environments.

In the U.S., for example, MOOCs are often pitched in the context of the country’s cost crisis in higher education. But Klöpper said that, in Europe, where higher education is largely low-cost, the bigger issue is around quality.

“This is not a Facebook market where you have one platform and you translate that interface [for everyone]. It’s going to be much more nuanced… Each [educational] system has its own issues,” he said. “And I definitely do believe that digitization – and the MOOC phenomenon as the most visible aspect of that – is part of the answer to issues in each of these systems, but it will play out in very different ways.”