An answer to the Dutch ‘Why MOOCs?’ question

contribution by: Jaeques Koeman, Edia

Students dropping out of bachelor programmes as the result of a wrong choice of study costs the Dutch society 6 billion euro per year. I will argue that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are able to reduce these costs and thus provide the missing business model for their adoption within Dutch Higher Education.

It’s the Economy, stupid
Students dropping out of bachelor programmes as the result of a wrong choice of study costs the Dutch society 6 billion per year, as concluded in a study by Dutch Research Centre for Education and Employment in a recent study. In 2001, the University of Amsterdam started free online courses for prospective students, in order to provide a realistic insight into the field study they were orienting themselves on. The program, called UvA Webklassen, still exists today and it resembles MOOCs, currently a hype within Higher Education, in many aspects. Over the span of ten years, many thousands of prospective students have followed these free online courses containing video lectures, assignments and ways to interact with both teachers and peer students from the Netherlands and beyond. There is substantial data to support the argument that this form of online courses help students to make a better study choice, and is thus able to reduce huge costs that are the result of wrong choice of study.

Fashion victims
The hype around MOOCs has recently arrived in the Netherlands, causing a true competition between Dutch universities to be the first offering a MOOC. However the question ‘why MOOCs in the Netherlands’ has not been asked, let alone answered by Higher Education management.
This does not come as a complete surprise, since the pioneering American universities have so far mostly been understood to undertake MOOCs for reasons of branding and other pr-related purposes. Whether this is really beneficial for the universities involved in MOOC undertakings, remains to be seen. There are also references to the idea that MOOCs can improve access to education for the less fortunate, but such ideas do not apply to the Netherlands to the same extent as other countries.

But Dutch higher education does have its own unique sides. One of them is that Dutch academic institutions do not have a tradition of competing on quality with each other. Previous initiatives to create a national platform for online courses for prospective students have for example not been received in a positively within Dutch Higher education as a result.

Just do and ask why later
So, if there is no tradition of competing on quality and there is relatively good access to education, it is indeed hard to answer the question ‘Why MOOCs?’ in the Netherlands at this point. Just do and ask why later seems to be the dominant strategy in the evolving Dutch MOOC ecology. This type of reasoning is ironically not much different than the currently booming commercial MOOC platforms such as Coursera and Udacity, who arguably implement the Silicon Valley adagium of caring about users first and caring about money (profit) later. It is no secret that these companies are still looking for a sound business model to sustain the growing demand for their services in a profitable way.

Head hunters
One of the possible business models of commercial MOOC platforms is what one could call ‘capitalizing on human capital’ or simply ‘head hunting’. It is currently experimented with in terms of offering career opportunities for MOOC students and will likely involve gathering and controlling data about people and using some sort of massive learning analytics to find out who are the top performing students. Selling that data to others might be profitable.

The answer is right in front of us
The Dutch universities have a potentially far more solid business model by offering MOOCs as a means to avoid wrong study choices. Using MOOCs as a way to get the right students in the right place will reduce high losses and reduce study costs for students at the same time.

Before surrendering all their personal data and course materials to private companies, it is time for Dutch higher education to realize that they have a potentially much better answer to why MOOCs than many others, an answer that has been out there right in front of them for many years. Hopefully it can now receive the attention it needs, albeit under a new name.

Jaeques Koeman ( is a Dutch entrepreneur and currently a director at EDIA, an IT-company specializing in Education Technology. From 2003 until 2008, he led the free online university program UvA Webklassen, aimed at prospective students.

Een gedachte over “An answer to the Dutch ‘Why MOOCs?’ question

  1. Beste Jaeques, verhelderend stukje over het mogelijke nut van MOOC in het Nederlandse hoger onderwijs. Een hele andere vraag: weet je misschien hoe je MOOC uitspreekt? Mook? M-O-O-C?

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