Around the world, university-level online courses have become a standard part of higher education. What began in the States in the for-profit education space through online universities such as University of Phoenix and Walden Universities, has now expanded to the top universities in the world. Many top and second-level US universities started migrating several of their courses and content online years ago, rendering this information more accessible to their students and transforming the educational experience. Now, many of these universities have taken a big step further and are offering free open courses direct to students all over the world via companies such as Coursera, edX, or Open Culture. You can now access numerous courses from such prestigious institutions as Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, Yale, etc for free online. Even emerging markets, with a rapidly growing need for affordable, scalable higher education, have gotten into the game with India witnessing the emergence of various free course startups (i.e. NPTEL and EduKart) and China offering a range of courses online from its top 20 universities. Unfortunately, France isn’t yet nearly as advanced as other countries in this area. Apparently the vast majority of French universities don’t even offer courses online for their student body, let alone offer online open courses to students around the world. Amazingly, according to Le Figaro while 80% of US universities offer online courses, in France only 3% do! Even France’s elite ‘grandes écoles’, who tend to be a bit quicker on capitalizing on new academic trends, have made few inroads in this growing area and, as such, are still quite behind their international peers.
Geneviève Fioroso, the Minister of Higher Education, has recognized that France is quite a bit behind on this and, as a result, has announced an initiative called FUN (France Université Numerique), which will seek to move 20% of French public universities’ content online by 2017. Although this is a positive move, there still seems to be significant resistance to the idea of teaching via a medium that removes the possibility of physical contact between the student and the professor. So, the idea of virtual universities, such as those discussed earlier as well as those popular in other European markets such as Spain and the UK, will probably take a lot longer to catch on here. Given that the overcrowding problem of the French public university system likely limits much valuable contact between the professor and student anyway, it is a bit strange that moving some courses completely online wouldn’t be more seriously considered. Perhaps it will ultimately be France’s grandes écoles and other private higher institutions (universities and technical schools) that will be the ones to lead the way on this.
Education is increasingly a global market. France’s higher education institutions have struggled in recent years in terms of their visibility and recognition at the global level. Although still in its infancy, the online course model (free or paid), offers a tremendous opportunity for France to bring its knowledge, research, and ideas to students around the world. France is clearly missing out at the moment on an important opportunity and, given that five years is an eternity in the digital world, the government needs to move a lot quicker if they don’t want to get left behind.