By Paul Glader, Managing Editor of WiredAcademic
COPENHAGEN — EU education officials are closely watching digital education trends in the United States and planning several digital initiatives of their own, ranging from college rankings to creating a portal for open educational resources such as MOOCs – massive online open courses – from top European universities.
“What we want to do is offer any course supported by Erasmus are made open source,” said Adam Tyson, head of the Erasmus unit for higher education at the European Commission. “We should be talking about hundreds of courses.” That could present a direct challenge to US startups.
He’s been watching the MOOC startups in the US, ranging from Udacity to Coursera to the recent edX announcement from MIT and Harvard. He said some colleges in Europe are moving toward online courses, but not fast enough. He said many colleges in Europe don’t have capability to do this at present. “We will help them to do it.”
Language could be a barrier but Erasmus could help create an English language portal of classes as well as several other language portals starting in 2014. He said the EU Commission is also interested in creating more partnerships between universities using technology.
The Erasmus project will also launch a web interface for interested students that ranks and provides in-depth information in many categories for the roughly 4,000 education institutions approved in the Erasmus program. It would list existing rankings for the schools as well as blend in Erasmus’ own data on how good the schools are at research, transferring knowledge, regional engagement and other categories.
Erasmus started in 1987 as an umbrella organization that facilitates European students who want to study abroad at universities within Europe. It has rapidly grown from 3,000 participants to 231,000 in 2010-2011, making it perhaps the largest study abroad organization in the world.
The EU Commission aims to give the organization more funding and power, doubling the Erasmus budget by 70% between 2014 and 2020 to EUR 19 billion. It would combine seven education programs under its umbrella, simplifying the grant process. It aims to network universities in the 27 EU member states together in a way that improves job training programs, reduces unemployment and boosts innovation. The EU Commission legislation to expand Erasmus must first be approved by the European Parliament and the Council of Europe.
The heart of the program has always been creating mobility for students to interact with people and ideas from other places. Some Erasmus faculty believe the organization should not lose focus on that mission as it looks at e-learning and digital initiatives.
“If any such thing becomes a big part of Erasmus, it needs to be coordinated with intensive programs so that people still actually meet each other,” said Ann Katherine Isaacs, an Erasmus staff ambassador and faculty member from Pisa, Italy. “Much of the really useful communication (between students) happens at lunch, dinner and even breakfast. When we cut this out, we cut out a lot of what actually makes it meaningful.”
Natascha Sander, a spokeswoman for Erasmus, said the virtual campuses and learning will be a very big part of Erasmus efforts in the future. In Sweden, for example, elderly students or part-time workers have a hard time getting to class. “Such a blended program may be helpful for them,” she said. “It will be the future.”
The EU is also creating a loan guarantee facility of Eur 100 Million per year that would guarantee bank loans for roughly 50,000 graduate students per year who want to pursue a degree outside their home country.
What are the odds that for-profit colleges try to profit from such a gravy train? Not so good. Erasmus would maintain rules for schools involved in the loans, ensuring the schools are legitimate institutions and not “degree mills,” said Mr. Tyson.