EU Law and MOOCs: A marriage waiting to happen

In view of the current hype on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), spawning recently a grant competition of the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft and iversity for courses to be hosted, publicly available and free of charge, on a Europe-based MOOC platform, a few thoughts an EU law, legal education and MOOCs are in order. It should be added at the outset that the author of this post is coordinating one of the bids for a MOOC grant for a course entitled “Europe in the World: Law and Policy Aspects of the EU in Global Governance”, which makes him particularly invested in this issue. The author is grateful to European Law Blog Team that he was granted the opportunity to share his thoughts on these developments, as well as his bid, in the form of this post.

Transnational law meets transnational education

Ever since Prof. Sebastian Thrun’s historic feat of attracting more than 150,000 students to his Massive Open Online Course on artificial intelligence two years ago, MOOCs have started to shake up the landscape and minds of higher education. In a kind of “gold rush”, academics want to join this remarkable development, and companies are being founded to provide platforms for such ventures, predominantly in the US, but also more recently in Europe. Beyond subjects closer to technology, such as computer science or engineering, the social sciences and humanities have also come to feel the potential and attraction of MOOCs.

At the same time, the spread of EU law as a subject across the continent and beyond has been continuing apace for decades already. From a somewhat eccentric subject, it is safe to say that today every respectable law curriculum in Europe includes courses on EU law. In addition, specialised graduate programmes in the area have mushroomed through which students can acquire LLMs in EU law or even certain subfields within it.

Of course, EU law is not a universal subject such as mathematics, physics or computer science. Nonetheless, it is a subject matter which per definition transcends borders and has in so many ways come to have direct effects (no pun intended) on citizens and businesses. Given that European integration and the rules that frame it are all about transnational interaction, why should it not be taught in an equally transnational fashion? Instead of sitting in a lecture hall with people from the same country or even region, at best with a few Erasmus students present, the idea of studying and discussing EU law in a digital agora which unites people hailing from all corners of Europe cannot fail to have considerable appeal.

Therefore, unsurprisingly, EU law and MOOCs have recently joined hands. Prof. Stefaan Van den Bogaert from Leiden University is currently pioneering a course on “The Law of the European Union: An Introduction” on the American platform Coursera.

Educational subsidiarity and the added value of MOOCs

 EU law and MOOCs share the overcoming of borders and the bringing together of different people (and peoples), and thus doing an EU law MOOC could, ideally, be a highly mutually reinforcing experience. However, there is also potential for them to reinforce each other in negative ways. As many Europeans feel (for the right or wrong reasons) increasingly estranged from the EU, seeing it as a distant, technocratic and largely unaccountable entity, it would be unfortunate to teach in EU law in a similar manner through MOOCs. This means, in the worst case, that such MOOCs would turn out to be taught by a distant computer programme managed by professors and TAs who are inaccessible, invisible and unresponsive. In doing so, we might well be mixing “integration fatigue” with “MOOC fatigue”. This can be avoided, for instance, through interactive, “smart” discussion forums, which, geographical distance notwithstanding, make the course a genuine meeting place for students and teachers. Through “crowd sourcing”, peer-to-peer rating and other novel tools, management of large numbers of students is facilitated, allowing also active and effective involvement of the faculty without having them chained to their computers day and night.

Furthermore, the question of “added value” is pertinent for both the EU and MOOCs. As the disciples of the principle of subsidiarity will know, there is no need to do something at the European level when it the same could be done equally well nationally, or even regionally or locally. The same certainly applies to MOOCs. Why study online when your own university offers an equally good course on the same subject? One important obstacle here for MOOCs is the credit system. Of course, it is nice to have a certificate from a renowned university and/or for having taken part in a course which is very useful for one’s career or personal interest. But most students in most countries, understandably, also want to obtain their degrees. Hence, if MOOCs do not yield credits, this makes them, literally, extracurricular activities. Then again, if your own university cannot offer a course, or in any event cannot offer a good course with good faculty for a subject close to one’s interests and heart, then MOOCs become an interesting solution, especially if offered for free, by leading authorities and providing this kind of transnational experience which one’s own campus may fail to muster. Moreover, MOOCs can serve to supplement campus courses. Instead of sounding the death knell for traditional university courses, both can be combined in a meaningful way. Concise concept videos and online discussion forums can help prepare students for lectures, seminars and exams on campus. Group work done face-to-face with one’s colleagues at home can be shared, reviewed and improved by bringing it to the global level by virtue of a MOOC. Just as European integration did not mean the end of the state in Europe, MOOCs and on-campus course can certainly be combined for their mutual benefit.

Europe in the World: An EU Law MOOC “par excellence”

It is in view of these considerations that we, i.e. a consortium consisting of the Global Governance Programme of the EUI, the Centre for Global Governance Studies of the KU Leuven and Passau law School, entered our course “Europe in the World: Law and Policy Aspects of the EU in Global Governance” into the MOOC grant competition. The idea behind this course is that during past decades, programmes in EU Law, but also in related fields such as European Studies, International Relations, Global Governance and Intercultural Communication have widely proliferated across Europe and beyond. Within these, a course on “Europe in the World” would seem to be a ‘must have’. After all, the EU represents the world’s largest trade power and aid donor, has a diplomatic service larger than that of most states, and has launched more than 20 civil-military operations. It has presented itself as a normative, global actor, and its emergence as a legal entity that is neither a state nor a classic international organization has both puzzled and fascinated legal scholars and political scientists alike. Without a course addressing these manifold and interrelated issues, curricula would simply disregard the concurrent realities of Globalization and Europeanization.

However, this is a subject that is tricky to cover well, especially for a single teacher or even a single institution. We are faced here with a complex and fast-changing field, as well as myriad questions of law, politics and culture. This requires a profound, cutting-edge and interdisciplinary approach. With this course, we would like to start a truly global conversation on Europe’s place in the world, combining views and experiences from all over the continent and the world, and using the novel online tools to create a truly transnational experience and contribute to European integration also in the field of legal education.

For the next days, until 23 May at noon, people can still cast their votes for our as well as other MOOC proposals they find interesting on the website of the competition (everyone has up to ten votes). Of course, our consortium appreciates every vote from the EU Law Community. But however one may vote in this particular competition, the issue of MOOCs and the teaching of EU law is likely to stay.