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Is the developing world ‘MOOC’d out’?

The limits of open access learning

July 17, 2014 6:00AM ET

Much of the promise of MOOCs, or massive open online courses, lies in what they might offer the world’s less fortunate students. MOOCs, some argued, were a solution — or even the solution — to the developing world’s higher education problem. These online courses not only promised to bring the Ivy League experience to anyone with a broadband connection — they provided a way for students around the world to learn new skills and even earn credentials for little or no cost.

The New York Times declared 2012 “the year of the MOOC.” Venture capital funds flooded into for-profit MOOC providers, such as Coursera and Udacity. “Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty,” wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in 2013. “Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.” And nonprofits, such as edX, roped in more students and, along with them, more university partners. Their reach seemed expansive: By providing access to world-class institutions to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection, MOOCs had the potential to target the “non-consumers” of education, making the possibility of “a future where everyone has access to a world-class education” a little more plausible.

Yet for all their hoopla, MOOCs have had their share of critics, who have raised a number of concerns: ineffectiveness, a Westernized curriculum, a failure to reach their target audience. While these fears should be addressed, a few promising adaptations have arisen that can effectively channel the strength of the MOOC to help serve its ultimate purpose: educating more people.   

Hype and hate

In June, the Rockefeller Institute of Government (RIG) organized a panel to outline the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs in the developing world. The four-person panel — moderated by Ben Wildavsky, the director of higher education studies at RIG — featured MOOC practitioners, critics and higher education experts. Panelists debated the viability of MOOCs as a solution to the developing world’s higher education crisis, as well as the veracity of claims that they’ve been effective in reaching beyond the developed world.

According to research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania — an early partner of Coursera — 65.3 percent of participants in Penn’s MOOC courses were from developed countries. Of those students from BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) or other developing countries, roughly 80 percent had a college degree. A global survey of Coursera and of edX users indicated a similar pattern: Over 72 percent had a bachelor’s degree, at least two-thirds had a master’s, and a large cross-section of users lived in developed countries.

While the percentage of users from the developing world may be small, MOOCs are “massive” by definition, and a small fraction of users on any given platform can be in the hundreds of thousands. Some practitioners noted they’ve personally witnessed the breadth of MOOCs’ reach. At the panel, Barbara Khan, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, recalled one encounter she had while traveling: “This guy, he came up to me. And he took my hand: ‘You’re Barbara Khan!’ This is in India! He takes my hand and shakes it, won’t let it go, and says, ‘Thank you, thank you so much for your Coursera course.’”

If 2012 was the year of the MOOC, it wasn’t too long until what some call ‘MOOC hype’ gave way to ‘MOOC hate.’

Ben Wildavsky

Rockefeller Institute of Government

Still, the backlash seems to be in full swing. “If 2012 was the year of the MOOC, it wasn’t too long until what some call ‘MOOC hype’ gave way to ‘MOOC hate,’” Wildavsky noted. Numerous objections have surfaced. The sheer size of a MOOC made grading anything beyond multiple-choice tests difficult and meaningful one-on-one interaction with a professor nearly impossible. The rise of the MOOC also raises concerns about further homogenization or “McDonaldization” of higher education. What’s more, the promise of access to an elite Western education to every Web user puts those same Western institutions on a pedestal.

But by far the biggest criticism of these courses in the developing world relates to accessibility. Critics, both at the conference and beyond, contended that the disruptive potential of these courses was overhyped, pointing out that they were already failing to reach the very group they were supposed to save. MOOCs require a strong digital infrastructure, one that can handle downloading or streaming high definition videos and participation in Google+ Hangouts. Today, 31 percent of households in developing countries have Internet access. By the end of 2014 an estimated 55 percent of mobile-broadband subscriptions will be held by residents of the developing world. Urban areas may have high-speed Internet, but its reach could dissipate right outside the city limits. Students who can commute to Internet access centers may struggle with limited access times and sluggish download speeds. This also defeats the purpose of a course that markets itself on its convenience.

Better infrastructure may improve access, but it doesn't guarantee engagement. MOOCs, some argue, are focused on only expanding access, not fostering cross-cultural understanding or improving local educational institutions.

“In an era when higher education is making significant advances in becoming global and helping to build educational capacity within developing nations, MOOC’s play the center against the periphery,” noted Jason Lane and Kevin Kinser in a 2012 paper. “They strengthen the ivory towers by enabling a few elite institutions to broadcast their star courses to the masses from the comfort of their protected perches.”

Democratizing knowledge

Despite their flaws, MOOCs, if used properly, have the potential to assist in the democratization of knowledge. But to do so, they must make some key changes to their programs. MOOC providers should tailor their platform to meet the needs of a particular community — for example, by expanding language capabilities. Developers and educators, edX’s Anant Agarwal emphasized, should be able to make the platform their own, adapting it to meet linguistic and regional needs. In the Arab-speaking world, for instance, edX’s platform has been adapted to produce Edraak; in China, edX’s “federated approach” helped produce XuetangX. Part of the key to success for new educational initiatives at large, argued Dai Ellis, the co-founder of the Kepler project in Rwanda, is to go “radically open source,” to not only adapt to linguistic or regional needs but to encourage others to seize their “university in a box” and use it anywhere. Students can then receive an associate degree through Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, a competency-based program.

Crucially, MOOCs should be treated as a supplement to, not a replacement for, brick-and-mortar schools. An educational revolution may be underway, but MOOCs are still unlikely to replace “elite institutions with established reputations and low student-to-tutor ratios,” The Economist reported. And many institutions aren’t looking to become fully digital. There’s a lot of promise and demand for a blended system that combines a MOOC with some sort of in-person interaction. Kepler uses teaching fellows to lead in-person discussions and contextualize the information presented in a MOOC to a Rwandan audience. Even the U.S. State Department has held “MOOC camps,” or facilitated discussions based around MOOCs, across the globe.

In a blended system like Kepler, Ellis emphasized, a MOOC is effectively a textbook, part of a larger educational experience. So far that approach appears to be working. Kepler students are building skills and receiving credentials while avoiding the high dropout rates traditionally associated with MOOCs. Its class sizes are smaller, but it’s still received requests to help with similar initiatives throughout the developing world.

Most important, higher educational institutions, governments and investors should approach MOOCs, like any new technology, as highly susceptible to overhype and inflated expectations. Part of the danger, as Roy Amara, the former president of the Institute for the Future, noted, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” But its long-term role and strengths are the ones that matter most.

Staying aware of MOOCs’ shortcomings and experimenting with novel approaches to overcome them is a more effective way of getting governments and other higher educational institutions to follow suit. Sometimes the most powerful revolutions are those led by example.

So for now, “the most useful way to think about MOOCs in the developing world, present and future, is to view them as a work in progress,” Wildavsky wrote earlier this year. “We’re in a period of experimentation on a massive scale.”

Hannah Gais is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, First Things, U.S. News and World Report and The Moscow Times.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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