St Petersburg University is a co-founder and first representative of Russia in the Global Alliance for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The creation of the Alliance was officially announced at the Global Online Conference in Beijing ‘Learning Revolution and Higher Education Transformation’, which took place from 9 to 11 December 2020.

The Global MOOC Alliance is a non-profit partnership of universities, online educational platforms and international public organisations. Its establishment was initiated by the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (UNESCO IITE) and Tsinghua University (China). St Petersburg University’s participation in the establishment of the Global MOOC Alliance is a great honour and worldwide recognition of the achievements of St Petersburg University in the development of online education.

The two initiators of the Global MOOC Alliance are among its founders, who are: the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (UNESCO IITE); Tsinghua University (China); the three largest online educational platforms: XuetangX, Thai MOOC and edX; and universities that are actively engaged in designing and using massive open online courses.

XuetangX is the world’s largest Chinese national online educational platform, hosting over 3,100 online courses with over 228 million students. edX is one of the world’s largest online open source platforms, founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in May 2012. It currently hosts over 2,800 online courses with an audience of 100 million students. Learning management systems built on the open source platform service Open edX are very popular and are used to support the teaching and learning process. St Petersburg University’s own educational online platform is also based on open edX technologies. Thai MOOC is a project of Thailand Cyber ​​University, which has brought together more than 100 partners who submitted 472 online courses.

Among higher education institutions are universities that are key players in their regions. For example, Cornell University (USA), which is part of the Ivy League, is one of the best-known universities in the USA. Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) is ranked 11th globally and 3rd in Asia in the QS World University Rankings 2020. Politecnico di Milano (the Polytechnic University of Milan) was ranked 16th in the world among technical universities in 2019 by Times Higher Education Top Universities. Currently, it is ranked 2nd among European universities that are partners of the Coursera platform in terms of the number of online courses. The University of Nairobi (Kenya) is ranked in the top 10 universities in Africa. It is the leader of online education in the African region and the initiator of the creation of an African online education platform. The University of Toronto (Canada) is the leader in higher education in Canada, according to the Times Higher Education Rankings. This university’s online course ‘Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During COVID-19’, presented on the largest international online platform Coursera, is among the most popular in Canada (almost 140,000 students enrolled). The course ‘Learn to Program: The Fundamentals’ on the Coursera platform has been listed among the top 100 courses in 2020 (more than 220,000 people have signed up).

St Petersburg University Rector Nikolay Kropachev addressed the participants of the first Global MOOC Conference with a welcoming speech. In particular, he spoke about the University’s experience in the development of online education both before the COVID-19 pandemic and after it began. St Petersburg University managed to quickly adapt to the new conditions and maintain the quality of teaching at the highest level. The Rector explained the main conclusions drawn by the University during its work amidst the pandemic.

‘On the one hand, by using information and communication technologies during a pandemic, e-learning makes it possible to take full advantage of the knowledge, experience, talent and creative potential of academic staff. On the other hand, it enables the advancements of e-learning to be introduced into the academic activities. E-learning does not and cannot disavow the quality of university education. The pandemic has shown how much the academic community needs cooperation. The academic community around the world needs to expand national and international collaboration, the insufficient level of which was highlighted by the pandemic. Especially we need to consolidate our efforts in relation to e-learning. As a result, we are delighted to be part of the Global MOOC Alliance. This organisation will definitely be at the heart of the success of international collaboration and implementation of the state-of-the-art pedagogical technologies and practices,’ said Nikolay Kropachev.

Nikolay Kropachev also noted that St Petersburg University has long been cooperating with China. Among the University’s partners are over 50 partners from the People’s Republic of China and 30 China-capital companies. They are the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, Tsinghua University, Peking University, Harbin Institute of Technology, Fudan University, and Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd to name but a few. ‘I am sure that the Global MOOC Alliance will definitely serve as an efficient platform for our continuing cooperation with our Chinese partners. No factors can prevent us from cooperating with China, even the COVID-19 pandemic,’ concluded the Rector of St Petersburg University.

Chen Baosheng, Minister of Education of the People’s Republic of China, speaking at the conference, noted that China is today the world leader in the number of MOOCs. He said that there are over 30 major online platforms operating in China that provide access to 34,000 online courses. These courses are attended by 540 million students. The Minister said that today it is the largest audience for online courses in the world. Chen Baosheng stressed that one of the goals to launch the Global MOOC Alliance was to expand opportunities for access to Chinese educational products. ‘We have created the Global MOOC Alliance to improve the quality of our courses, and to ensure that students around the world have access to them through international cooperation,’ said Chen Baosheng.

The Minister also added that the launch of the Alliance was aimed at increasing the level of accessibility of knowledge and the global development of lifelong education, which can continue throughout a person’s life.

‘Education is no longer the privilege of classrooms and books. They have been replaced by vast amounts of knowledge on the Internet, which provides many more opportunities for learning,’ said Chen Baosheng.

One of the initiators of the Global MOOC Alliance launch and the organiser of the conference is Tsinghua University, a long-time partner of St Petersburg University. Tsinghua University President Qiu Yong, speaking at the conference, noted that present-day educational institutions need to develop the principle of openness. ‘More openness means relief from physical boundaries, technical restrictions, and identity constraints, enabling more high-quality educational resources to be shared with learners around the world in a more convenient and effective manner. Universities with more openness will achieve equity in education on a larger scale, promote lifelong education with more effectiveness, and advance exchanges and cooperation among the global society and mankind with an inclusive humane sentiment and a broader vision for school management,’ said Qiu Yong.

Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO, in her welcoming speech to the conference participants, also noted the importance of developing online education to expand access to knowledge. She emphasised that the principles of inclusion, equity and quality must come to the fore, and every learning platform or resource must serve these principles.

Ms Giannini also noted that education cannot completely go online and the pandemic actually has proved it. ‘Let’s be honest: we have learned one important lesson from the pandemic — students need their teacher. Interaction between people and live communication remain at the heart of the teaching and learning process. We must develop a new type of relationship. It should involve technology, teachers and students. We should avoid the digital divide and not fall out of the modern world. Teachers should develop their professional skills in this direction and look for new ways to deal with such challenges,’ said Stefania Giannini.

All participants in the first Global Conference of the Alliance supported the adoption of the 2020 Beijing Declaration on MOOC Development.

The remarkable thing is that St Petersburg University is rightfully considered a leader in the field of online education: the University has initiated the Russian National Educational Online Platform ‘Open Education’. Today, the University ranks number one in terms of the courses available on this platform and the number of students. There are 146 courses out of the total of 663. The total number of students on the platform is 7 million, while the number of students of the University’s online courses on the national platform is about 2 million.

Additionally, the University is ranked first among European universities in the number of online courses on the international educational platform Coursera with 130 courses. It is third in the world after Google Cloud (USA) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (USA). Two years ago, St Petersburg University became the first and remains the only Russian university whose online courses are hosted on the largest Chinese platform XuetangX.

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One of the goals of the MOOC Alliance is to form a global community interested in the exchange of quality educational resources. The Alliance will promote MOOCs and best teaching practices in online education, as well as develop international cooperation between leaders in the field of innovative educational technologies. The Global MOOC Alliance will also help its members achieve one of the United Nations sustainable development goals: ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.