The 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’?
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.
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.
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?