Democracy MOOC: Education for democratic citizenship for adults

Democratic and civic education may be high up on the list of educational concerns, but it is not all that easy to deliver.

Authors: Christin Reisenhofer, Gerhard Bisovsky

MOOC Citizenship Education, „Die herausgeforderte Zivilgesellschaft“, CC BY-SA 4.0.

MOOC Citizenship Education, „Die herausgeforderte Zivilgesellschaft“, CC BY-SA 4.0

Democratic and civic education may be high up on the list of educational concerns, but it is not all that easy to deliver. More often than not, democratic and civic education is tied up with ideological beliefs and reduced to the level of party politics alone. It is also often said that the general public’s interest in politics is on the decline. And yet “politics affects us all in one way or another”. This statement crops up time and time again at events, workshops and conferences dedicated to democratic and civic education. Noteworthy contributions to the field are certainly being made by people committed to the cause in Austria.

Sadly, it only takes a quick look at recent studies, such as the European Values Study[1], to see that citizens are not all that interested in politics. The fact that people do not consider politics to be a key aspect of their lives has not changed between 1990 and 2018. In fact, in 2018, only 20% of people asked said that they were very interested in politics, whilst 80% claimed to take little to no interest.

The legitimacy of representative parliamentary democracy is also called into question, with 16% of people who completed the European Values Study in 2018 feeling in need of a strong leader.[2] Right-wing populist parties are experiencing a rise in popularity in Europe and researchers are issuing warnings about young people becoming increasingly frustrated with our political system.[3]

In light of these results, it is important for us to recognise that the need for democratic and civic education is not to be taken lightly. Our democracy relies on citizens of voting age assuming responsibility and getting involved in helping to shape matters of public interest. In other words, civil society has the function of protecting against state despotism and controlling the way in which the state exercises its power. It serves the state by fulfilling social functions and it also represents the interests of disadvantaged groups.

Against this backdrop, the ways in which citizens think and act within the framework of a democracy are crucial in determining how they view the opportunities they have to get involved. These include the ability to play an active role in our democracy and to represent their own interests.

When it comes to education, we focus heavily on supporting and empowering people so that they are in a position to exercise their rights and help shape the way in which society progresses. After all, we are all responsible for bringing our ideal vision of the present and the future to life. And there are plenty of ways to get involved. It is interesting to note, though, that it is predominantly the people with a higher level of education that make the most of such opportunities.

Taking all of this into account, there is no denying that democratic and civic education is incredibly important. It can be used as a form of mediation between the private sphere, the citizens’ own lives, and the political sphere and political issues, the socio-political reality. Democratic and civic education provides the foundation that allows people to form an opinion on politics and take action accordingly. It also helps them to really understand political processes. It can go a long way towards encouraging citizens to think and act on the basis of a fundamental understanding of participatory democracy.

The aim of the ‘Democracy MOOC’ project is to provide a foundation course on democratic and civic education to cover some of the qualification requirements within adult education and other areas of education.

Why the MOOC format?

A MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is an online course with no restrictions on who can participate. MOOCs are a more or less fully inclusive way of giving people the opportunity to broaden their knowledge and skill set alongside the various online platforms and information portals available. As there are no restrictions on who can access and participate in MOOCs since the training is all delivered online, the target group can be diverse.

The MOOC format has been deemed to be the best option given Austria’s geographical location. This way, the training can be accessed at any time and from anywhere in the world. Having said that, we will also be offering face-to-face sessions alongside the MOOC in the near future. These will cover the ways in which each of the modules on the Democracy MOOC can be delivered in lessons. The Federal Institute for Adult Education (Bundesinstitut für Erwachsenenbildung) will be holding a two-day event on this at the end of October:

All of the materials relating to gaining the qualification are available online. People taking the course can take control of their own learning and work at their own pace. They can also reflect on controversial issues and check their progress online. The content covered by the MOOC is also structured in a way that is appropriate in terms of the specialist knowledge and didactics.

Aims of the DeMOOC

The MOOC delivers information on political issues as well as providing support and opportunities to reflect on behaviours, values, skills and attitudes relating to democracy and civil society.

The concept at the heart of the MOOC aims to encourage engagement, involvement and diversity management. In order to ensure that these principles are followed, the MOOC is based on the following didactic principles:

Didactic principles

  • Reference to real life: References are made to the participants’ own lives by having the content delivered in the form of tasks and additional information relating to specific problematic areas currently being faced in society.
  • Problem solving: Participants are presented with problems to encourage them to find out the information for themselves.
  • Multiple perspectives: Rather than conveying some ‘independent’ truth, the course focuses on giving participants the tools to think critically for themselves. Several relevant perspectives are always taken into account when delivering the content to make this happen.
  • Practical application of content: Didactic delivery options are covered for the content to provide possible examples and guidance on practical application.
  • Focus on learners: Subjective knowledge, processing and prior knowledge on the part of the participants are taken into account as central points of reference when working through the content to be covered with plenty of chances for reflection.

The MOOC makes for a very flexible form of training. There is no requirement to complete all the modules and they can be worked through in any order. Each module is a standalone unit, meaning that participants can just choose to focus on the modules and units that are relevant to them.

Target groups

People responsible for delivering adult education form the MOOC’s main target group, but the course can also be used to form the curriculum for democracy and civic education in the broadest sense. In other words, the MOOC can be used as a further education course for anyone interested in the issues covered, trainers, course creators, teachers and (social) pedagogues.


The content covered by the MOOC follows the European Key Competences for Lifelong Learning, with a focus on the skills that citizens require.[4]

Module overview

The MOOC is divided up into ten standalone modules that are linked in terms of content and methodology. Each module consists of units focussing on the various aspects covered within the scope of a single topic. As a whole, the course provides a solid foundation on democracy and civic education.

Here is an overview of the ten modules:


The Democracy MOOC is a project being run by the Association of Austrian Adult Education Centres (Verband Österreichischer Volkshochschulen) in partnership with the Democracy Centre Vienna (Demokratiezentrum Wien) using funds from the Chancellor’s Office (Bundeskanzleramt), the Future Fund of the Republic of Austria (Zukunftsfonds der Republik Österreich), the Chamber of Labour (Kammer für Arbeiter und Angestellte) and the Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung, Wissenschaft und Forschung). The Democracy MOOC is hosted free of charge on the iMOOX platform.



About the authors:

Christin Reisenhofer, Gerhard Bisovsky (c) OeAD-GmbH/APA-Fotoservice/Hörmandinger.

Gerhard Bisovsky is the Secretary General of the Association of Austrian Adult Education Centres (Verband Österreichischer Volkshochschulen, VÖV). He studied Politics and completed a doctoral degree on State Adult Education Policy. Bisovsky has many years of practical experience in adult education, having taught the subject at universities and written countless articles on it for specialist publications, and he trains adult educators. He headed up the Meidling Adult Education Centre in Vienna (Wiener Volkshochschule Meidling) from 1996 to 2012, where he developed digital learning amongst other things. Between 2008 and 2012, he managed the ‘Education Guidance in Vienna’ network project. His experience in and with European education projects spans many years and he was a Member of the Board for the European Association for the Education of Adults (Europäischen Verband für Erwachsenenbildung, EAEA) from 2012 to 2017. Since 2012, he has been the Editor-in-Chief of ‘Die Österreichische Volkshochschule’ magazine ( and Head of the Media Prize Office (Büro Medienpreise), which awards the radio and television prizes for adult education as well as the VÖV’s academic prizes.

Christin Reisenhofer is a research assistant at the Democracy Centre Vienna (Demokratiezentrum Wien). Her tasks include planning and running workshops on political education and arranging, putting together and overseeing the content covered on the DeMOOC. She has a Master’s degree in Education and also studied History, Social Studies and Political Education as well as German for her Teacher Training Diploma. She worked as a study assistant for Psychoanalytic Pedagogy, a tutor on various courses and an educational writing mentor – all at the University of Vienna (Universität Wien). As an external lecturer on the eEducation Master’s course at the Danube University Krems (Donau Universität Krems), she is jointly responsible for supervising on the Media Pedagogy and Didactics module.

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