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More about MOOCs and developing countries

Michael Trucano's picture

an award-winning mooc(ow), as Joyce might sayThe New York Times famously labeled 2012 the 'year of the MOOC', acknowledging the attention and excitement generated by a few high profile 'massive open online courses' which enrolled tens of thousands of students from all of the world to participate in offerings from a few elite universities in the United States.

What might 2014 bring for MOOCs, especially as might relate to situations and circumstances in so-called ‘developing countries’?

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It may be hard for some in North America to believe, given the near saturation coverage in some English language web sites that focus on higher education and in certain thematically-linked corners of the English-language blogosphere, but the 'MOOC' phenomenon is only just now starting to register with many educational policymakers in middle and low income countries around the world. While many MOOCs have (from the start, and increasingly) attracted students from all over the world, at the policy level, 'MOOCs' have not – at least in my experience during the course of my work at the World Bank on education and technology issues -- been a topic much discussed by our counterparts in ministries of higher education and universities. Yes, one does see the occasional bullet point in a PowerPoint presentation towards the end of an institutional planning meeting, but my impression is that this can often be as much a reflection of the speaker’s desire to project a familiarity with emerging buzzwords as it is a reflection of any sustained strategic or practical consideration of the potential relevance (or threat) of MOOCs to traditional practices in higher education outside of ‘rich’ countries.

More than a few commenters in North America have invoked the Technology Hype Cycle (a concept developed and popularized by Gartner to represent the maturity, adoption and social application of certain technologies, and their application) when proclaiming that MOOCs have now past a 'peak of inflated expectations' to enter a period known as the 'trough of disillusionment' as a result of things like the recent change of course or ‘pivot’ of Udacity, one of the leading MOOC platform providers.

riding the hype curve ...While this assessment of the state of maturity/adoption may or may not be true from a North American perspective, and even if we concede that technology hype cycles are being compressed (it took Second Life and other ‘virtual worlds’, another recent notable educational technology phenomenon, three times as long to move from a period of great hype in educational circles to one of ‘disillusion’), such commenters may often neglect to consider that many hype cycles can exist simultaneously for the same technology or technology-enabled approach or service, depending on where you might find yourself in the world.

While perhaps unsure of the extent to which MOOCs represent a 'threat' to existing educational practices, a new avenue for higher education, or perhaps something else entirely, I agree with people who say that the reports of the death of the MOOC are highly exaggerated. Roy Amara, the longtime president of the Institute for the Future, famously remarked that "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run." I would not be surprised if this holds for many of the trends that we, as a matter of convenience, and correctly or not, group together under the general heading of ‘MOOCs’ today.

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In my personal experience working at the World Bank on projects at the intersection of technology and education sectors, and when in discussions in many similar sorts of international organizations, ‘MOOCs’ are, generally speaking, still not a hot topic of consideration for educational policymakers in most middle and low income countries. That said, they are starting to gain increasing mindshare in some places. At the very least, they are generating some real confusion (and where there is confusion, there is potentially opportunity as well, for better and for worse).

As a result, many folks in the international donor community are now beginning to ask themselves questions like:

• How can, or should, we be talking about MOOCs when speaking with our counterparts in government around the world?
• What are the real, practical opportunities to consider in the short and medium term?
• Where, and how, might education ministries and universities wish to engage with related issues -- and what role (if any) should organizations like the World Bank play in this process of engagement?

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MOOCs in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture

those aren't moos you hear on the African horizon, but MOOCsMOOCs? MOOCs!

The excitement about the promise and potential of Massive Open Online Courses is white hot in many quarters. For those who aren't familiar with the phenomenon:

A MOOC is an online course, usually at the university level, offered for free over the Internet which aims for large-scale (some courses have enrolled over 100,000 students at a time), 'open' (anyone can join) participation over the Internet. 

Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera, one of the largest and best-known MOOCs (the two other 'leaders in this space are Udacity and edX) stopped by the World Bank in late February to talk about what Coursera is doing, and learning. While MOOCs have enrolled students from developing countries pretty much from the start, there have not yet been many attempts to systematically include MOOCs as part of targeted education efforts in low income countries. What might such an attempt look like?

With support from the World Bank, a new pilot initiative in Tanzania is seeking to incorporate Coursera offerings as part of a broader initiative to help equip students with market-relevant IT skills. Employers in Tanzania complain that there is a mismatch of skills in the local labor market. Many jobs go unfilled because there are deficits of people with the relevant skills in the local market. There is a growing need for IT and ICT knowledge and skills necessary meet growing demand for technically skilled workers across Tanzanian corporations. For this and other reasons, Tanzania is trying to improve the quality of its higher education system. Currently a very small number of highly capable African students go abroad to meet their related educational and training needs. At the same time, Tanzania is hoping to improve its capacity to attract high caliber students from across the region to study at Tanzanian universities. What, then, to do?