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5 Questions With An EdTech Startup: Hannes Klöpper of Berlin-based MOOC provider ‘iversity’

By on July 4, 2013
International, Interview, MOOCs, Required, Technology, Universities & Colleges

Hannes Klöpper’s is managing director at Berlin-based iversity, which recently hosted a contest, The MOOC Production Fellowship, where it awarded €250,000 to 10 European MOOC concepts. The company has significant angel investment and government investment to be one of the three main emerging MOOC providers in the European Union. WiredAcademic managing editor Paul Glader and Hannes have met several times at ed tech events in Berlin and recently exchanged email questions and answers as part of our ongoing series ”Five Questions with a CEO.” (Although we happen to have six questions this time). Here’s what Hannes had to say:

WA – Tell us how and why iversity came to be?

HK – In 2008 iversity started out as a student project. My co-founder Jonas Liepmann was frustrated with the digital infrastructure in use at the institutions he attended. He decided to apply for a so-called EXIST-grant, a sort of  scholarship programme for entrepreneurs funded by the German government, and raised €100,000 to get started. At the same time some friends of mine and I won a Germany-wide idea competition with the idea for an interactive online-education platform. In 2011, we decided to join forces and went on to raise €1.1 million euros in funding from the Frühphasenfonds Brandenburg. When MOOCs suddenly appeared on the horizon, we immediately realized the enormous promise of this new form of online education and decided to bring this phenomenon to Europe. We spent all of 2012 talking to universities, businesses and investors to evangelize this space.

WA – It seems your strategy has changed a bit, right? You started considering corporate MOOCs? But now are focusing on introducing MOOCs from university professors?

HK – In January 2012 we decided to focus on MOOCs. Back then the question simply was: whom could we work with? Who would be the best partners to collaborate with in this space? We initially assumed that corporate actors would be better placed to muster the resources necessary for MOOC production. After all, continental European universities lack the funds that some of the private institutions in the US can mobilize. However, we soon realized that producing MOOCs as a new form of marketing and recruiting tool, might be a plausible value proposition for a corporate strategist. But on an operational level there simply wasn’t anyone to talk to. A MOOC project would lie at the intersection of three departments within the organization: marketing, HR and another that supplies the relevant subject-matter expertise. That proved very tricky to arrange.

WA – Talk about MOOC platforms from Europe and their challenges and opportunities?

HK – As a European MOOC platform we have one clear advantage and that is that we have a foot on the ground. Unlike our colleagues in Silicon Valley, we are one to two hours away by plane from most major cities in Europe. Working with the MOOC Production Fellows we are seeing the tremendous value that results from close interaction of those involved in course conceptualisation and course production with the developers building the platform. Creating a good educational experience is not a one-size-fits all business where you just set up a platform out of the box and then let people dump content into. You really have to get to know this space and work closely with the educators on the ground. And that’s exactly what we are doing.

WA – What’s iversity’s primary strategy going forward? How will it be different from the Open University’s MOOC platform, the new OpenUpEd platform from the EU or the big 3 American platforms?

HK – Time will tell. I think we have taken a unique approach with the open call for applications for the MOOC Production Fellowship. This was a bottom-up initiative all the way. That is why we also wanted the students to have their say in the voting phase. Another interesting aspect might be that we work with a well-established player in the German higher education landscape. Stifterverband is a think tank as well as a foundation and as such the most important private funding organization for German academia. Going forward I believe that a number of formats and schools of pedagogy will evolve and as much as some professors and institutions have established reputations for research, others will do so for teaching.

WA – We understand you wrote a book recently, Hannes. For now, it’s in German, only right? Can you summarize your main point in the book?

HK – I’m currenlty working on the English version which is to be published later this year. In fact Yehuda Elkana, a distinguished philosopher of science, and I wrote the book in English. But it was commissioned in German so that’s why it was published in reverse order if you will. The core themes of the book are two questions: What is it that universities should be teaching and how should they go about teaching it? In a nutshell the argument is that universities should design curricula that let students engage with the complexity and messiness of real-life problems early on. That way they get to grapple with the important epistemological questions that too frequently are left out of undergraduate curricula. We believe that a paramount objective of any form of higher education should be to cultivate a capacity for interdisciplinary dialogue and to educate concerned citizens. The typical objection to this demand is that this is an idealistic conception of higher education that cannot be implemented under the conditions of contemporary mass higher education. We believe, however, that technology can act as a catalyst that will allow us to make better use of scarce faculty time. It can help us to change the instructional model in a way that maximizes the impact of student-faculty interaction.

WA – How do you foresee European universities changing in the next 20 years? What will they look like then?

HK – Tough call. One thing I would venture to say is: very different. I find it hard to imagine a future in which the degree of change that will have taken place between now and 2033 does not profoundly exceed the rather incremental degree of change that we have observed between 1993 and today. Someone who worked at an institution of higher education back then could walk into most universities today, and as far as teaching is concerned, wouldn’t feel disoriented. I don’t think the same could be said about someone that is fast forwarded to 2033. Personal interaction and discussions in small groups will still lie at the heart of education. But I think the institutional setup, the notion of the classroom and the way students and teachers interact will have undergone transformative change.

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