MOOCs and the Global Classroom

While the opportunities, challenges and controversies surrounding MOOCs inside the classroom discussed yesterday are very real, there’s one part of the educational multiverse that views new, free, high-quality online courses as entirely upside: international universities (especially those in the third world).

Like their US counterparts, prestigious centers of higher education in places like Europe are looking at MOOCs through the lens of opportunity and competition.  But for countries like Pakistan or Kenya, free content from institutions like Stanford, MIT and Harvard is being plugged into an online teaching backbone to deliver high-level learning in places remote and often impoverished.

These benefits were brought home to me during this week’s LINC conference where the leaders of virtual universities in Africa, Pakistan and Mexico introduced us to the missions of their institutions and the challenges they face trying to educate huge numbers with limited resources.

In some cases, these resources include electricity and bandwidth (things we all too often take for granted).  For example, in some villages in Asia, electricity is available at best every-other-hour.  Which means that online learning has to be plugged into a schedule that assumes today’s web-based lecture might have to be replaced by offline classwork at a moment’s notice (possibly done outside when the lights go off as well as the Internet).

Schools in Africa that leverage material available from the African Virtual University (centered in Nairobi Kenya) will sometimes have their own generators and satellite links to maximize time online.  And there MOOCs (as well as other online learning resources created locally or imported) are used to close the huge gap between the number of students that need to be taught and the limited number of professionally trained teachers available to teach them.

Limited teaching resources are particularly acute in places like Pakistan where three million new students enter the primary and secondary school systems each year, far faster than new teachers are coming out of the tertiary education system to provide support.  Which is why leaders like Naveed Malik of the Virtual University of Pakistan have been recruited to bring some of the technology and techniques they have successfully implemented in Pakistani higher ed into primary and secondary school grades.

If you take a look at University of the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico (which now has 33 campuses and just as many satellite campuses across Central and South America), you can get a sense of how virtual universities will continue to develop and close gaps between  haves and have nots.  But even successful systems continually struggle to find material to educate massive numbers of students in nations where poverty, literacy and infrastructure challenges create barriers to the type of economic growth educational opportunity can provide.

Educators working in these places have little time to be concerned with what MOOCs from Ivy League colleges might mean for their jobs since many of these places could absorb two or three times the number of teachers the system currently produces.

Given that LINC is an MIT initiative, there’s tended to be a focus on the benefits of science and engineering courses vs. classes in other disciplines (although an innovative social sciences course on global poverty turns out to have been particularly popular with a third-world audience, especially since they were able to take the class in parallel with students in a brick-and-mortar version of the same course).

As a group of MOOC leaders and critics mentioned during a different panel discussion at LINC, MOOCs have only been around for 1-2 years and are already being asked to solve all of the world’s problems.  But it’s interesting to note that some of the challenges teachers face when trying to integrate online course material from third parties into existing educational systems are pretty consistent whether you’re talking about a US-based college or a university in Nigeria.

Do MOOCs create an incentive for ever-increasing class sizes and does quality of instruction make up for the distance online learning places between professors and students?  How do we measure that learning has taken place and provide credit to students who have gone through non-traditional learning channels?  And what is supposed to happen when the MOOC lecture is done for the day (either because it’s completed or the power goes out) to ensure students internalize the material, vs. just being exposed to it?

No comments yet, your thoughts are welcome »

Leave a Reply