Can MOOCs Better Help Women in Developing Countries?

THE “COMPLICATED TRUTH” OF MOOCS: MOOCs are often heralded as a way to bring a diversity of educational courses to any student with internet access. But as guest editor over at The Verge, Bill Gates brings up a pressing problem for MOOC providers: How can online courses, often lacking the one-on-one support and accountability of teachers in an actual classroom, target the issues faced by disadvantaged students in developing countries?

While MOOC students hail from across the world, they are largely already well-educated. According to The Verge, around a third of Coursera’s user base is from the developing world, but nearly 80% of those students already have a college degree--as opposed to 10% of the general population.

Some argue that MOOCs shouldn’t prioritize providing basic skills. As Coursera’s president and co-founder Daphne Koller puts it, “if you think about the economic benefit of taking someone who is pre-literate and giving them four years of education, versus taking someone who’s more or less high school-level and giving them four years of education, the latter have a much bigger effect in terms of the society around them.”

But Gates contends that if MOOCs are geared towards a developing nation’s elite, the courses will only exacerbate the digital divide between haves and have-nots: MOOCs can also provide an education to those who cannot access traditional instruction, like students in very rural communities or girls prevented from attending local schools.

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