The Future of MOOCs Must Be Decolonized

Opinion | MOOCs

The Future of MOOCs Must Be Decolonized

By Taskeen Adam     Jan 3, 2019

The Future of MOOCs Must Be Decolonized

This article is part of the guide: New Year, New Learning: Reflections on Education in 2018 and Beyond.

The heyday for massive open online courses was studded with hype. So much so, the New York Times even dubbed 2012 the “Year of the MOOC.” Advocates for the courses would point a finger at the unaffordability of traditional education, promising that MOOCs could offer cheaper, more innovative alternatives.

But in many ways, the times have changed. Since their glory days only a few years ago, MOOCs have been on the receiving end of much critique, and the false promises of democratizing education through simply connecting to the internet have been severely slashed. Still, a critique that is often sidelined from the current dialogue is that which targets the neo-colonial nature of MOOCs, specifically on dominant MOOC platforms from the U.S. and U.K. such as Coursera, EdX, Udacity and FutureLearn.

But what on earth could be neo-colonial about free online education? And why would MOOCs need to decolonize? Well, here are three reasons:

Knowledge Production

The content on MOOCs is typically produced in universities from the U.S. or Europe and transferred almost uni-directionally to enormously diverse global participants who are treated as mere recipients of content. Thus, ‘global education’ is shaped mainly by a handful of universities in a few countries. Such a model assumes a deficit of knowledge in other parts of the world and a belief that non-Western parts of the world have less or even nothing to contribute to online learning.

Language and Culture

Through my research I’ve tallied that of approximately 11,400 MOOCs in existence today, more than half are produced in English, followed by Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. This excludes vast amounts of people, and the potential for a truly pluralistic global knowledge base vanishes to colonial and imperial languages and cultures. (Note that Hindi and Arabic, two of the top five most spoken languages worldwide, are not proportionately represented in most of the MOOCs available today). The argument for a global language of communication has its pros and cons. But by offering courses in only a limited set of languages to a global audience, MOOC providers force learners to adapt. This gradually leads to the erasure of local and indigenous knowledges, and does a disservice to humanity as a whole.

Epistemic Injustice

How we make sense of things and define our morals—what is good and bad, right and wrong—is formed in our educational process. Drawing on the previous two points, when the ownership of knowledge lies in the hands of a few, they get to define what knowledge is and the processes by which that knowledge is deemed valid. While MOOC pedagogies are continually improving, little attention is paid to the question of who or what shapes global knowledge. For many of the MOOCs available today, their epistemologies are rooted in Western-centric thinking.

Fortunately, the online learning space continues to evolve and there are now examples of MOOCs that are embracing different cultures and languages. According to Class Central, a website that reviews MOOCs, at least 41 MOOC platforms existed in 2018. Below is a chart of the top MOOC platforms, ranked by number of students. The top five unsurprisingly included Coursera, edX, Udacity and FutureLearn, with a new contender, XutangX from China. There still isn’t much competition for these big MOOC providers, but various ‘regional’ MOOC platforms have emerged, supporting other countries and languages. These include providers such as MiríadaX (Spain), MéxicoX (Mexico), France Université Numérique (France), EduOpen (Italy), ThaiMOOC (Thailand), SWAYAM (India), and Edraak (Jordan).

Platform Founding Partners Students* Offerings and Details
Coursera (U.S.) Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, and John Hopkins University ≈37 million - Paid subscription model
- Offers an iMBA
- Partnered with Google, World Bank, CISCO, BCG, Intel
edX (U.S.) Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and UC Berkeley ≈18 million - Not-for-profit and open source
- High partnering fees
- Partnered with Microsoft, IBM
- Lecturer-centric
- Offers micro-masters
XuetangX (China) Tsinghua University ≈14 million - Facilitates self-produced content by students
- Focuses on interactivity and blended learning
Udacity (U.S.) Stanford University, Google, Facebook, AT&T ≈10 million - Commercial revenue model
- Offers a Nano-degree program
- Partners include BMW, Amazon, IBM
Futurelearn (England) Open University ≈8.7 million - Student-centric
- Top 200 universities can access
- Partners with specialist organizations
>28 other platforms Varies ≈13.3 million - Platforms are
considered ‘Regional’ and ‘Country-specific’
- Many created in non-Western countries
- Many use OpenedX for backend

*calculated from information on Class Central

These newer MOOC platforms are ironically termed ‘country-specific’ and ‘regional’ because of their specific content or language, yet platforms from the U.S. and U.K. are automatically termed ‘global’ because they are in English and thought of as culturally neutral, reinforcing the narrative that to be global is to be Anglo. It’s also important to note that approximately 1,600 of these new MOOC sites use the OpenedX platform on the backend. It is great for such an open source platform to exist, however this also means that edX’s lecturer-centric pedagogy is embedded into each of these platforms, rather than re-envisioning what a MOOC platform could be like across different cultures and learning styles.

Slowly, some providers are attempting to move beyond the edX framework. One example so far has been with XuetangX in China, which has completely revamped the OpenedX backend in order to offer a bustling community section and a channel for self-produced content.

Looking Forward

MOOCs, if designed inclusively, have the potential and ability to create reciprocal channels between truly diverse global participants, where a plurality of voices can be heard and true diversity of global knowledge can be achieved. This would require taking into account the context of the marginalized virtual participant such as financial difficulties, geographic limitations, educational and emotional support, resources and infrastructure constraints, data costs and connectivity access, time and opportunity costs, levels of education, and aspirations, amongst many other factors.

In making the online space, particularly MOOCs, truly accessible and more pluralistic, existing power dynamics must be acknowledged and addressed. If more local and indigenous knowledges are put online and become accessible to all, who will benefit the most from these? Could this lead to exploitation of local knowledges through capitalistic agendas such as the commodification of culture? Such questions should be at the forefront of our next steps.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated there were 44 MOOCs in 2017. It has been updated to reflect that there were 41 MOOC platforms in 2018.

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