Leiden experiments with free online course for select group

Leiden University is experimenting with Small Private Online Courses: digital courses for a select group. These SPOCs form a counterpart to the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) already available.

Small groups

Just like MOOCs, SPOCs involve free distance learning that can be accessed from anywhere in the world via the computer. The difference is that SPOCs do not have open enrolment, but instead involve selected participants. In addition, the group size is limited (approximately 50 participants) and the tutoring intensive.

Sharia in the West

In February, Leiden University will begin an experiment in which half the group consists of regular students who come to class for classical face-to-face teaching. The other half are participants from abroad who will be following the same course in the form of a SPOC, entirely online. The course in question is Sharia in the West, provided by Professor Maurits Berger.


For the participants from abroad, the course is open in the sense that they do not have to be enrolled at Leiden University and they do not pay any course fees. The course does not carry any study credits, but participants who complete the course will be awarded a certificate. Motivation is an important condition for selection, as is a bachelor’s (or higher) diploma and the willingness to spend 10 hours a week for 12 weeks on the course. Participants should also preferably live in a Western country, since the course discusses the position of the Sharia in Western society.

First-hand information

The expectations are that foreign students will enrich the course by providing first-hand information on the situation in their country of residence. The online participants come from such countries as Uruguay, North America, Scandinavia, Germany, Greece and Australia. Just as with MOOCs, the participants also have diverse backgrounds: they range from students and PhD candidates to security and media experts.

Documentary as final assignment

The other remarkable thing about this course is the final test. Instead of the usual written paper, participants are expected to make a documentary. Following advice from educational experts, the assignment has been designed to meet all the requirements of a final master’s level assignment.

Leiden already has more than ten years of experience in providing distance learning. The  course has been available for more than ten years in a mixed format: primarily as distance learning, but the participants are also expected to come to Leiden three times a year. The SPOC that is now being offered as an experiment is the first course to be taught and tested entirely online for participants from abroad.

Plans for the future

With these first steps on the MOOC and SPOC track, Leiden University is entering a new phase in its experimental online learning programme. The results of these experiments will be integrated in the University’s plans for its future formal online curriculum. 

(28 January 2014)



See also

MOOCs now with extra certificate and greater depth

Last Modified: 03-02-2014