MOOCs in Developing Nations: Over-hyped But Under-appreciated

Institute of International Education's (IIE) Rajika Bhandari writes about the roles Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) can play in education of developing nations (see here) and highlights five key questions regarding infrastructure availability, relevance in the context of non-formal education, impact on gender gap, impact on the role of the teacher and local relevance.

I feel these questions are extremely relevant, but ones that the MOOC enthusiasts often lose sight of. In fact, the biggest danger for the MOOCs is not that it may not work, but rather one puts expectations on it that can't be satisfied, and this becomes another bubble that bursts in time. The questions, as raised here, can help focus the discussion and understand what the MOOCs can and can not do in the developing countries.

1. The Infrastructure Gap

Most MOOC advocates have a limited view of the developing country higher education infrastructure. The reason for such limited perspective is this: If you are a technologist and have not, for a long time, spent a minute without having adequate access to Internet (and perhaps never spent a minute without Internet in your life), it is extremely difficult for you to conceive that what is meant by 'broadband' in Nigeria or India is very different from what it is in the West. Broadband in many countries may not automatically mean seamless Skype calls or even viewing of video (and video downloads may take hours rather than minutes). I recall my own errors, perhaps one of the silliest in my working life, in planning an IT Training centre in Mawlamyine, Burma, without even realising that the town only got, back then in 2002, electricity for six hours a day: I never realised because I put up in a good hotel which maintained 24x7 electricity. Indeed, 'developing country' is not one homogeneous entity and there is wide variability in terms of infrastructure availability. However, if we expect MOOCs to impact those who don't have appropriate infrastructure access and democratize education further, that is unlikely to happen.

2. Non-Formal Education

Ms Bhandari points out that non-formal education is a culture issue as much as it is an issue of access. Without this perspective, one may end up over-hyping the possibilities of MOOCs and underappreciating what it is already doing. For many, mostly degree-educated, MOOCs have become a way of continuing education. In the work environments in the developing countries, where poor transport infrastructure and lack of urban planning often means many people spend a significant part of the day commuting from home to work, Lifelong Learning is only a rhetoric. Besides, most countries have very little provision for matured students, and culturally this is frowned up, and at least not encouraged. MOOCs are creating a private, flexible option for lifelong learning for many people caught up in life; for some, this is an opportunity to study something they wanted to, but didn't have the opportunity. However, MOOCs themselves are often structured to serve 'democratization' agenda and to serve students studying for credit (indeed, that's the business model for MOOCs), with rigid deadlines and demanding assessments, but this structure ill-suits the non-formal learners. They may not be studying for a certificate, but not being able to complete the work within set deadlines often discourage these learners, and in my experience (which is anecdotal), they often disengage after failing to meet the first deadline.

3. Gender Gap

Again, MOOCs are creating a wonderful opportunity for women to self-educate and enabling a private, flexible option for this. There are many benefits, including the fact that these women are often not ready to go out to study. However, we are talking about a small segment still: Those who have enough internet access and leisure time (which is a big issue for women with Child Rearing and Home-related responsibilities than the men would like to think, given that an average Indian man will spend only 16 minutes a day doing any housework); and indeed, who are fluent in English, foreign language proficiency being a bigger challenge among women than men. Given all these pre-qualifications, it is unlikely that MOOCs will really bridge gender gap in Education, though it may help to raise women's level of education and have a generational effect over longer term (as educated mothers usually tend to have greater influence on the educational achievements of their sons and daughters than educated fathers).

4. The Role of the Teacher

MOOCs may be enabling the possibility of the teacher to be a curator, but there are enormous cultural influences to battle with before the transformation is significant in developing country classrooms. In most developing country (as indeed in developed world), Higher Education is an extension of the power structure of the society, indeed a mechanism to induct students into their proper social roles. The relationships - between teacher and the students, but also between the students and the institution, with knowledge and study - are shaped in the context. The teacher being a curator may need to play out in this context, and may not be appreciated by the learners at all. I have found my learners, often from developing countries, completely disengaged when I used a TED video or something similar, because they did not accept this as a part of the teaching activity. Besides, an English video or material sometimes heighten, rather than flatten, the power structure within the classroom, and I have watched teachers telling off students who did not follow the accent and presentation of the curated materials as a way of asserting their own position. The question of MOOCs transforming the teaching role, even where they are being adopted formally in the curricula, remains a more complex issue than what is being claimed.

5. Local Context

The institutional adaptation of MOOCs in developing countries are often done within the context of its existing curriculum, and in some cases, the contextualisation goes up to changing video materials (with or without appropriate permissions). In such contexts, quality and consistency may be bigger issues than the local perspective. I would tend to think that the local perspective is usually abundantly provided by classroom teaching in most cases, and the MOOCs should provide a welcome break and a window to the world. One may argue that such global perspective may come with the possibility of spreading neo-colonialism, but MOOCs can only do limited harm, being self-professedly Western in most cases. One would like to see more open education efforts from developing countries, but this is perhaps constrained, in equal measure, by financial constraints (an easy problem) and by cultural expectation of what education is about (as discussed in the previous section).

One would hope that a reflective discussion on such issues will temper the MOOC triumphalism but also help put MOOCs in proper context. Only such discussion may help us avoid the bubble and reap the enormous benefits that MOOCs can bring.


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