Excited discussions about 'MOOCs' are reaching a fever pitch in some quarters. Separating the hope from the hype related to the phenomenon known as Massive Open Online Courses, in which tens, and in some cases hundreds of thousands of students from around the world participate in (or at least register for) the same university course over the Internet, is not an easy task. There is, to be sure, much here to be potentially excited about.
That said, most of news (and hype) is coming out of North America, and the prominent perspectives on MOOCs are, to a great extent, coming out of North America as well. While voices from Silicon Valley and elite educational institutions in the United States (amplified by prominent media personalities) have been the loudest to date, a fair component of the 'hope' surrounding MOOCs has to do with their potential to improve educational opportunities for students in so-called 'developing countries'.
Trying to keep up with MOOC-related announcements and news stories, let alone all of the opinions on them and speculations on their future, could be a full time job. (I suspect it probably is a full time job for some people, actually. If you are interested in this sort of thing but don't have that much time, you may be interested in a recent EduTech post on Making Sense of MOOCs -- A Reading List.) Wander through this din of excitement, however, and you discover pockets of relative silence.
What are some of the emerging perspectives of key groups in developing countries related to MOOCs?
One specific type of developing country perspective is being heard, and indeed prominently described (usually by anecdote by people in North America): that of a student in a developing country (Pakistan, for example, or Indonesia) who participates in a MOOC, gaining exposure to learning opportunities and connections with other learners around the world in ways (presumably) not otherwise available to her. While anecdotes of this sort have a special place and established history in the selling of new technologies and technology-enabled products and services, this doesn't mean that they don't offer real and tangible examples of how the life of an individual can be impacted in a positive, potentially transformative way as a result of interactions enabled by technologies in ways that are new and innovative.
But aren't there more perspectives from middle and low income countries worth considering?
Here at the World Bank, we are, all of a sudden, getting lots (!) of questions about MOOCs these days from our partners in ministries of education in middle and low income countries, and from some of the institutions and groups with which they typically work.
1. What should our policy on MOOCs be? (Do we need one?)
(In some of these cases, one suspects that word has come down from the boss who, after coming across an article about MOOCs online, or seeing a TED talk, is convinced that 'MOOCs are the future', and the future is coming fast!)
2. How might MOOCs represent a threat to us ... or an opportunity?
(Some people are already thinking in existential terms, others in ways strategic.)
3. We are thinking of partnering with [insert name of MOOC provider here]: What should we know?
(These sorts of questions are practical -- and immediate. We do note that lots of groups are sniffing around this space, some looking for institutions of higher education in a developing country with whom they themselves can jump into the deep end of the pool, and others hoping to serve in a sort of middleman role, encouraging others to jump.)
To be honest, we are not quite sure how to respond to these sorts of queries.
(Some quick and perhaps unsatisfying answers:
1. It depends ... what do you want to accomplish?
2. Potentially yes, on both counts.
3. We recommend you consider taking a deep breath and slowing down. Don't assume you will have 'missed the boat' if you don't jump into a MOOC-related partnership right now. You may want to consider getting your feet wet in some small at some point, however -- or learning from those who are.)
Whether or not a ministry of education or a university in a middle or low income country, should have a 'MOOC policy' today, some time spent thinking about some of the fundamental issues that the emergence of MOOCs raise, and make more acute, might be time well invested.
Long-predicted by some, technological advances are taking us closer to a place where it might be possible to 'un-bundle' many of the types of things that we have for quite some time associated with physical enrolment and study at a single university. Things like:
[-] accessing specific learning materials (whether in the form of text or lectures or libraries, as such things are digitized it is easier and easier for the resulting bits to be beamed quickly around the corner, or around the world, so that what was once scarce -- and available only 'on campus' -- increasing becomes a commodity -- available to all over the Internet);
[-] joining a community of learners with similar interests;
[-] the ability to have your work, and progress in this work, 'graded' by an expert;
[-] the possibility of having individual lessons linked together into a course, which can then be part of a larger academic concentration or specialization (one's 'major', to use the North American term); and
[-] having the completion of a given sequence of courses acknowledged or certified in some way, especially through the awarding of a degree.
Are MOOCs a mechanism to catalyze such an un-bundling?
Or are they just the latest in a long line of innovative approaches to education that emerged over the years to tantalyze us with such great promise, only to in the end deliver a little less than what we had hoped for?
Over the past two decades, developments in industries as different as music and travel have demonstrated the potential for technology to help disintermediate and disrupt established ways of doing things. It's not only MOOCs which have highlighted the potential for the unbundling of these constituent components of the typical university experience, of course -- online learning, distance education offerings of various sorts, and so-called virtual universities have demonstrated how such things might be possible in education for many years. (Viewed from a slightly different angle, the homeschooling movement in the United States is another example of how technologies can enable the schooling experience to be 'un-bundled'.) But the MOOC phenomenon has emerged at a time when new, lower-cost, networked technologies -- increasingly widely dispersed among different populations around the world, and thus more accessible -- are demonstrating how it might be easier than ever before to do something tangible in response to long-standing dissatisfactions of various sorts with the current educational status quo at the higher education level.
Easier than ever before, perhaps, but far from easy.
Desirable? That probably depends on your perspective.
Some critics may lament that MOOCs represent a return to the 'sage on the stage' mentality that ICT-enabled learning practices were meant to make obsolete.
Other critics may see in MOOCs yet another wave in cultural imperialism from the 'North' and the 'West' crashing across borders, washing over (or possibly washing out) local educational institutions, cultural norms and educational traditions.
Still other critics fear the institution of a markedly two-tier system of global higher education, with a small number of elites able to participate in education the 'old-fashioned way' in small, intimate, face-to-face groups in close physical contact with their professors, while the vast majority of students, especially those in developing countries, have to make do with participating in a watered down, inferior educational experience delivered through MOOCs.
(I am not saying I agree, or disagree, with such critics, or that these are the only sorts of criticisms out there, or that these are the most 'important' types of criticisms; rather, I am just noting that these sorts of criticisms are representative of some of the types of comments we are hearing.)
Here are some perspectives from middle and low income countries that would enrich the current debate about MOOCs and make it more global:
[-] from a university leader
[-] from a senior official in ministry of education
[-] from the head of a national accreditation agency or board
Analyses from the perspectives of such people and institutions, considering (for example) the strengths and weaknesses of their current organizations, and the educational systems in which their organizations play improtant roles, as well as the opportunities and threats presented by the emergence of MOOCs (and related phenomena) to their current ways of operating, might be quite illuminating.
And following that, perhaps, a consideration of practical options going forward, and the resources that may be needed to be secured (or re-assigned) in order to realize these options, might shed yet more light on approaches going forward.
(Along the way, some sustainable related business models might be worth considering too!)
Many more perspectives worth investigating than just these, of course, but they might represent three good places to start. (Poke around the Internet enough, and you can find some blog posts from learners in developing countries commenting their personal experiences with MOOCs.) Including some different voices, from different places, in the conversations and debates about MOOCs would enrich our collective ability to separate some of the hope from the hype when planning for investments in higher education systems and institutions in the years ahead.
Like the providers themselves, public discussions around MOOCs have tended to represent viewpoints and interests of elite institutions in rich, industrialized countries (notably the United States) -- with a presumption in many cases that such viewpoints and interests are shared by those in other places.
You might also be interested in a related online discussion that has been happening over at the EduTech Debate site.
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of two cows peaking through a shed ("some different perspectives, perhaps?") is from Andy Wright. Originally uploaded to Flickr, it comes via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.