Imagining MOOCs For a Developing World

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No presentation by the leader of a major MOOC organizations would be complete without the tale of a student dodging bullets or walking from a remote village to a slightly less remote school to participate in a massive online course (with extra points for inspiration when these tales end with said students finishing at the top of their global class).

The thing is, these stories are all genuine. With global open enrollment, a student was able to balance completing Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity AI course with struggling to survive in war-torn Afghanistan. Nigerian and Pakistani educators have dedicated the few hours of electricity and bandwidth they have available each day to run the computer, router and projector needed to let students complete MOOCs in distant rural classrooms.  And no happy ending has gotten more airplay than the tale of Battushig Myanganbayar, the 15-year-old “Boy Genius of Ulan Bator” in Mongolia who anchored his successful application to MIT with the top score he received in Anant Agarwal’s edX course in Circuits and Electronics.

When Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller described the company’s mission at a 2012 TED conference, she talked about MOOCs democratizing education, linking her company’s solution (courses from the world’s top schools made available for free) to the severe shortage of teaching resources – including university seats – throughout the developing world.  

A Different Set of Realities

Yet when trying to predict potential futures for MOOCs among college-age and older students, an examination of on-the-ground reality served as a better guide than the abstract theories and condemnations that defined much of last year’s MOOC debate.  Conversations I participated in with educators and aid/development professionals at the recent MOOCS4D (as in “for Development”) conference reaffirmed that reality checking is even more important when trying to figure out just what kind of gift MOOCs are to the world.

To begin with, those involved with the many NGOs and aid agencies struggling to solve societal problems through education do indeed see MOOCs as a gift, even if it is unclear where courses that (for all intents and purposes) require high bandwidth and a mastery of English fit into programs serving parts of the world where electricity and literacy are often in short supply.

Bakary Diallo, Rector at the African Virtual University (which provides online classes to dozens of African countries) has taken a cautious approach to these new learning tools, trying to see where courses from top (usually US and European) universities might fit into an African context where needs range enormously across the continent.  Steven Duggan (Director for Worldwide Education Strategy for Microsoft) also had positive things to say about MOOCs, even as his own organization is trying to solve more basic literacy challenges through programs designed to let people create and distribute free books and e-books in parts of the world where native-language content is in short supply and teaching resources limited or non-existent.

Learning For All?

There was also discussion among the MOOCS4D attendees around how MOOCs seem to initially be benefiting members of a nation’s elite, i.e., those with access to technology who may have already obtained a post-secondary education.  And while such trends seem to contradict the mission of global educational democratization, the arguments --highlighted in discussions of MOOCs and older learners-- over where to locate social good still hold true in the developing world (i.e. is it a bad thing if members of a nation’s elite participate in courses on global health to better support the contributions they are trying to make to their own country?).

Over the last 2-3 years, higher education has undergone a cultural change in which courses that were once thought of as valuable intellectual property are now considered open resources to be shared with as many people as possible.  And when massive online courses are implemented in parts of the world that don’t look at MOOCs as cheap substitutes for four years at Princeton, their shortcomings --which are real-- are seen as challenges to be overcome, rather than deal breakers.  

The ways these challenges are being overcome are some of the least talked about aspects of the MOOC story. As Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive technology points out, it is in environments where people have no choice but to live with and work around limitations of an existing technology that truly disruptive innovation emerges. For example, look at the creative blend of online and ground-level education behind Battushig Myanganbayar’s success. As educational workarounds are re-imported back to the developed world, we may find higher education disrupted not by MOOCs as we know them now, but by those derivatives that arise after being exposed to environments their creators never imagined.


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