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During the “Internet of Education” conference in Ljubljana this week, the multitude of presentations was a pleasant reassurance  of the fruitful contributions technology may yet bring to higher education, even if change is often gradual, minute and occasionally  slow. I have learned much and received constructive feedback for my talk on the German use case for MOOC and similar emergent forms of virtual teaching. It became abundantly clear yet again, however, that the politics and the institutions of German higher education have reached a complexity that is nigh impenetrable to all but the most dedicated and studious outsiders.

Were the Bologna reforms not supposed to change precisely that? It turns out that having uniform degrees and interchangeable credit points is a perhaps necessary, but in no way sufficient condition for an educational harmonization that is European in more than name.

This point was raised by Fred Mulder, UNESCO chair of Open Educational Resources (above): Germany has not (yet) joined the EU-initiative OpenUp Education, which represents a genuine hands-on effort to establish shared infrastructure, best practices for quality and a socio-linguistic diversity for MOOC in the European non-profit sector in spite of its awkward name . It has the potential become a European counterpart to the non-profit EdX effort launched with a USD 100’000’000 endowment for the first ten years by MIT and Harvard.

Even if the comparison turns out to be wishful thinking as far as comparable resources go, OpenUp Ed would at least enable European educational institutions facing similar challenges of academic digitisation to share experiences, generate synergies and form bottom-up partnerships.  German institutional (and, one surmises, generational) scepticism of technology-assisted learning, which has made life so difficult in the for-profit start-up scene,  extends to membership in OpenUpEd apparently, and thus appears to keep a major player in the European educational market on the sidelines.

What explains this skepticism? A (neo-)institutional analysis of this situation might point to the strongly federal nature of the German education system, firmly institutionalized in West Germany  with Allied support – for the best of reasons and intentions – after World War II, extended in 1990 to the modern, unified Germany. Financing, oversight and strategic management of public universities rests with the Länder parliaments. The political weight of the corresponding state ministry is indicated by the fact that it is usually also in charge of “everyone who doesn’t wear a suit” (as a friend of mine quips), namely the affairs and rights of women, children, youths, seniors and animals.

State governments think in legislative cycles and regional development, alas, and have a tendency to impose this kind of short-term, myopic horizon on universities as well. Moreover, from a state parliament’s point of view, education requires investments whose return is mostly unclear, its quality is difficult to evaluate let alone reform, it poses a potentially permanent hotbed of populist political troubles and it helps win elections only if substantial gifts are promised and delivered. Oversight is therefore focused on bureaucratic concerns: student numbers (instead of: performance) and annual budgets (instead of: long-term strategy). Research and teaching being free of government meddling by constitutional mandate, this bureacratic relationship annoys university administrators and professors but suits them fine otherweise, since it leaves them also “free” to run their internal administrative affairs.

While there have been repeated attempts to co-ordinate, develop, diversify and deregulate  higher education  on the federal and the European level, the results have had little structural impact for a dearth of resources, a lack of political will to break established patterns or active undermining by state-level or individual actors. The painful Bologna reforms, the three-stage grant initiative to create ten national institutions of academic “excellence” by top-down spending – these and other ideas have come and gone without solving the underlying structural weaknesses, which are exacerbated by the impending demographic change and the rapid digitization of culture.

The short-lived effort to introduce tuition fees, is yet another example for this pattern of muddling-through: Introducing a fee of EUR 500 per semester and student which would fully benefit the student’s university was introduced nationally a few years ago, in order to inculcate a higher level of individual responsibility (many students tend to postpone graduation when there is no associated cost with taking an additional semester) and to introduce an element of competition among universities (who immediately benefit from attracting and retaining more students). Not the least of effects was to make additional funding available to the (chronically underfinanced) universities themselves without impacting state budgets – a cause, one would think, that everyone could get behind.

Instead, the resulting public outcry was by any measure completely out of proportion with the EUR 83 per month individual students were asked to contribute. The issue quickly became politicized in state elections, so that wherever opposition or coalition governments took power it has since been abandoned, so in all but two of sixteen federal states students are once again able to get their undergraduate degree without having to pay tuition. The irony of this, of course, is that the same political candidates promising to get rid of the hated tuition simultaneously promised to have this roll-back not impact university budgets negatively. Hence, the exact amount raised via tuition (i.e. from the users and direct benefactors of the educational infrastructure) was replaced by public funds from the state budgets. Unless miracles are involved, it must have been cut elsewhere, then, as federal states are not in the habit of running a surplus.

I raise this point not to judge the merits of tuition or to argue that economic constraints do not preclude some – especially undergraduate – students from the benefits of a quality education. These (and other) constraints exist and need addressing. But a more nuanced debate would have attempted to assess the impact of the tuition policy, whose social impact seems incredibly low in a European context and is completely inexplicable to a North American or UK audience, in the framework of the entire educational system and to institute a system of deferred loan payments, merit-based and need-based grant options and institutional student-aid programs accordingly. The only systemic such program in existence is the education funding program – which is again provided by the federal government – as all state-based discussion appears to result in a zero-sum game.

What this means for a successful implementation of MOOC and similar technologies in higher education seems clear: Here, too, agency on the federal or European level is needed to scaffold and support the bottom-up efforts currently under way by enthusiastic individuals and adventorous institutions. Yes, they are experimental and no, we don’t know all the implications, ideological, technological, economic and otherwise. But during Andrew Ng’s presentation on Coursera’s progress Tuesday afternoon it was tangible how little concern for these issues dampens the enthusiasm for experimentation exhibited by Coursera. I heard an earlier version of the presentation from Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller in June at the EU Business University Summit in Brussels and was expecting to be familiar with the content – but the intervening five months have propelled the MOOC landscape into yet another multi-language, multi-continent playing field.

Even in the United Kingdom, where criticism of educational costs and virtualisation of teaching is at least as pronounced as in Germany, little time was wasted to join forces and combine too national educational players of international repute – the Open University and the BBC – to create FutureLearn as a non-profit alternative to the US companies dominating the market. This is understandable perhaps, because of the affinity of both educational systems and a common language – watching the presentation on Coursera’s growth strategy and recently acquired partners in Europe, Latin America and Asia including a rapidly growing portfolio of non-English courses makes me worry who OpenUp Ed will perform without sustainable support from all European countries, Germany in particular.

Slovenia is launching an initiative to integrate digitization strategies into the national Higher Education system.

Slovenia is launching an initiative to integrate digitization strategies into the national Higher Education system.

Simply by the normative power of the factual, Coursera, FutureLearn and EdX will keep growing at an exponential rate. While we scratch our head over how MOOC may impact the European education sector, it might be too late for a sound alternative by the time we have found the answer. Remember the failed and forgotten efforts to breathe life into a (possibly public) European Google-equivalent –  recently revived from a spokesperson unlikely to gain much traction? So OpeningUp Slovenia, a new project initiative sketched at the conference, which aims to build a testbed and experimentation environment for educational technology based on a co-operation of the four universities in Slovenia is an exciting step into the right direction – and let’s not worry about the name too much.

Sometimes it is easier, to bring about change by experimentation, in a small playing field with fewer stakeholders to consider – even somewhat under the radar of mainstream media coverage. I am curious to find out more in the spring. Thanks to all participants for an exciting two days and for having invited me back.