MOOCs have placed Wageningen University & Research (WUR) in the picture with people across the globe. These accessible, online programmes provide everyone with a working internet connection access to Wageningen’s education. WUR recorded its millionth enrolment on 28 August.
WUR started organising two English spoken MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) on nutrition and health in 2015. Five years later, there are 43 courses on a variety of topics related to nutrition and health, smart agriculture, healthy living environment, circular economy and bio-based production. Students from over 200 nationalities have followed a Wageningen MOOC.
Ulrike Wild, programme director Open and Online Learning was involved in the development of MOOCs from the start. She is not surprised that many people discovered this form of higher education. ‘Our focus is on open, accessible education to all. A student in Bangladesh, for example, can follow our MOOCs, all that is needed is a rudimentary knowledge of the subject and internet access. Moreover, MOOCs are inexpensive. The course itself is free of charge, a programme that includes exams and a certificate costs 200 euros at maximum.’
A low-threshold to spread knowledge
One million enrolments is a significant number, but in practice, not all who enrol complete the course. Participation is flexible and has a low threshold. A small portion of the participants opts to pay and get their certificate.
Ulrike Wild stresses that getting as many participants and issuing as many certificates as possible is not the leading goal of Wageningen MOOCs. ‘We want to transfer knowledge in an accessible way, providing as many people as we can with access to scientific education, especially in countries where university-level education is normally limited to the happy few.’
Wendy Jansen, marketing coordinator Open & Online Learning, adds: ‘Via the MOOCs people get in touch with WUR, its philosophy and mission. Even if they drop out, they may well return at a later stage, or tell family and friends. Approximately 8 percent of the MOOC students opt for a study in Wageningen. We are facing enormous global challenges and must collaborate to find solutions. Our million learners can apply the knowledge they have gained towards that goal and help us on our mission.’
Considering innovation in education
The spin-off generated through MOOCs is at least as important to WUR, says Ulrike Wild. Consider, for example, aspects such as knowledge transfer, innovation, expertise in online education and reform in teaching. ‘MOOCs force a university to think about the design and innovation of its programmes. WUR has gained much: about 50 different products, two studios, expertise on instructional design and a complete infrastructure for online education. Teachers use the expertise they have acquired and products such as clips and modules, in their offline classes as well. I feel confident in stating that we would never have gotten through the corona crisis as we did without our expertise in online learning. After all: the whole online teaching infrastructure was already present.’
According to Ulrike Wild, the past five years have shown a shift in the perspective on professional learning. ‘In the beginning, MOOCs were viewed with some scepticism, but they have since evolved into a normal part of teaching. Having followed a course at a university is definitely an advantage in the business sector. Acquiring knowledge on a specific topic has become more commonplace. You don’t return to university to get a new degree. You go back to follow an academic course. In this respect, MOOCs are also an innovation in the professional world outside of the university.’
Building an infrastructure
The very first MOOC was launched by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States in 2012. Immediately, over one hundred thousand students enrolled. In the Netherlands, the universities of Delft and Leiden were pioneers. Ulrike Wild: ‘Of course, we learned from the approach of others, but you can’t simply copy their method. You must build your own infrastructure. For example, there are different platforms on the internet that host MOOCs. We selected edX, an open, non-profit and accessible platform. That open perspective fits in well with our mission.’
WUR kicked off with two MOOCs: “Nutrition and Health” by Sander Kersten and “Future Food” by Ken Giller. Both were recorded in a make-shift studio with the lecturer in front of a green curtain. The technology has become more professional. WUR now has two fully-equipped studios at its disposal. Wild: ‘Thanks to increased knowledge about instructional design to keep our MOOCs interesting, our approach is more didactic. We have established an entire organisation dedicated to the development and marketing of MOOCs and other forms of online and blended courses.’
Making a MOOC is easier than adding a new course to the curriculum. If a lecturer has an idea for a MOOC, he or she submits a request. If the request is approved, a team of teachers develops the concept with the support of a team of producers; an educational specialist assesses whether the course material is suited for the target group teaching assistants and a functional designer weigh in to plan and make all the recordings.
Self-reliance in studying
Participants in WUR-MOOCs are expected to be independent. Wild: ‘Self-paced studying is the term we use. On edX, there is a discussion forum where participants can pose questions. WUR provides moderators, often students working part-time, who answer questions or relay them to experts or teachers. You could enlist the help of teachers or researchers to answer these questions, and some do so out of passion, but we strive for self-reliance in students. The students are also expected to help each other as much as possible. That is why we invest in a solid design with clear and unambiguous course content. In our experience, investing in design requires less after-care.’
Ulrike Wild expects WUR to increasingly target the professional market with the MOOCs. ‘The possibilities are endless: for small target groups and across the globe. We can combine offline and online education, for example, by offering a workshop to follow up on a number of MOOCs.’
WUR will certainly continue to invest in online education. Wild: ‘MOOCs are invaluable to people’s careers. There was enormous enthusiasm for the “Animal Breeding and Genetics” MOOC from developing countries such as Ethiopia. One of the participants emailed: “This online course is the turning point for my future career”. That is what motivates us.’
Most popular MOOC
Nutrition and Health: Macronutrients and Overnutrition: 192,993 registrations since the launch in 2015
Most popular MOOC programmes (consisting of two or more MOOCs)
- Nutrition and Health: over 240,000 registrations
- Food Security and Sustainability: almost 100,000 registrations
- Nutrition and Disease: over 50,000 registrations
Top 3 MOOCs that are completed with a certificate
Some of WUR’s MOOC-partners
- ArtEZ Institute of the Arts
- Delft University of Technology
- The Landscape Academy
- Koepon Foundation
- African Chicken Genetic Gains Project