The French Ministry for Higher Education and Research (MESR) has driven and supported a policy for the national-level sharing of digital learning content according to major disciplinary fields. As a part of this policy, the Ministry set up seven Thematic Digital Universities (UNTs) between 2004 and 2007.
Each ThematicDigitalUniversity was created with the mission of facilitating the design, promotion, production and provision of a coherent set of tools and digital resources for teaching and learning purposes for all students and teachers.
These universities were to work towards the constitution of a quality national digital teaching heritage with indexed and visible contents for the whole French university community (teachers and students). The UNTs thus identify, produce, archive, index and disseminate approved digital educational resources used in the courses run by French higher education institutions.
Each UNT covers a particular subject area. Six of them cover one discipline (in the broadest sense of the term) while the seventh, and last to be created, the Environment and Sustainable Development Virtual University (UVED) is cross-disciplinary in nature. UNF3S works in the field of health and sport science. UNIT covers engineering science. Law and political sciences are handled by UNJF. UOH works in the field of the humanities and social sciences, literature, languages, culture and the arts. Economics and management are the chosen fields of AUNEGE and finally, UNISCIEL’s disciplinary field is science.
A new initiative: MOOCs
MOOCs (massive open online courses) are the buzzword of the year in education. These open, massive on-line teaching courses are a true example of free-of-charge distance learning. Participants – both students and teachers – are geographically remote and communicate entirely via Internet. Free educational resources are used for training purposes. The term “massive” is used because of the large number of participants – anything up to 150,000 people for one lesson.
MOOCs are a good illustration of the on-going educational revolution particularly through the number of students involved, the geographical distances between them, their international dimension and the opportunity they provide for some to access higher education when this would have been otherwise impossible. Thus the digital format actually abolishes any restrictions linked to distance and internationalizes teaching and learning.
The UNTs are a useful tool in the context. By making free educational resources available they enable the rapid and comparatively low-cost construction of MOOCs offering high-quality peer-reviewed resources.
MOOCs with the “French touch”
French and American MOOC initiatives do have certain similarities (massive in structure, open access, free of charge, on-line, no conditions of access; certification separated from training; peer tutorship and/or evaluation; badge).
However some French MOOCs are different because they aim to cover transversal skill requirements. This potentially concerns a large number of students. In 2013 the creation of a “students’ digital skills” MOOC based on the French C2i computing and internet certificate is of potential interest for all French undergraduates, staff in retraining and indeed a fair part of broader society. A high level of demand has also been noted in the French-speaking world as a whole.
This French MOOC takes skills into account and sets up collaborative activities between learners. It also creates a link with an ePortfolio. This modular MOOC does not have a set course schedule – learners study the elements of their choice when they wish and can sign up for paid certification at a session run by a higher education institution. The teaching is run on a thematic basis by a community pedagogical manager. Institutions may choose to complete the MOOC teaching offer with a SPOC (Small Partially Open Course) which enables them to add services or resources to the basic MOOC structure for their learners.
A second example of a French MOOC is SOCLES (Free Science Lessons Open Services) launched by the Unisciel UNT. MESR is supporting the creation of this complete support structure for long-distance learning which offers over 3,000 hours of UNISCIEL’s scientific teaching contents for degree (French ‘licence’) students. SOCLES will be open to all whether in higher or ongoing education and training.
Unisciel’s aim is to accompany universities and respond to their different pooling requirements. SOCLES is based on the MOOC principle and is the unique French-language support structure for full, adaptable Open Distance Learning packages up to the French degree or licence level in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Computing, Life Sciences, Earth Sciences and Sciences of the Universe.
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