If you want to see the future of online education, lots of people will tell you to head out to Silicon Valley or New York City or Cambridge (either of them) or London -- or to some other ('highly developed') place that tends to be written about by the (English-speaking) press. Fair enough: You can find lots of cool stuff going on in such locations.
I tend to think that it can be even more interesting to talk with local groups and people exploring 'innovation at the edges', especially those who are trying to solve educational challenges in places outside of the 'highly developed industrialized economies' of North America and Europe, Australia and Japan. If you believe that some of the most interesting innovations emerge at the edges, talking with NGOs, start-ups and companies in places like Nairobi or Cape Town, Mumbai or Bangalore, Jakarta or Karachi, who are trying to address educational needs, contexts and challenges of a different nature and magnitude than one finds in, say, Germany or Canada or Korea, can be pretty eye-opening. Observing what is happening in 'developing countries' -- where, after all, most of the world lives -- can provide a quite different perspective on what the 'future of education' might look like. This is especially the case in places where people are not trying to port over educational applications, content and experiences developed e.g. for desktop PCs and laptops, but are rather pursuing a mobile first approach to the use of technologies in education.
If you want to get a glimpse of what the (or at least "a") future of online education might look like in much of the world, you might want to direct your gaze to consider what's happening in a place that combines attributes from, and shares challenges with, education systems in both 'highly developed' and 'less developed' countries, somewhere with a significant urban population as well as large populations in rural areas. A place, in other words, like ... China.
MOOCs -- massively open online courses of the sort that can simultaneously enroll thousands, even tens of thousands, of learners simultaneously -- have been a hot topic of discussion for a few years now in both the worlds of education and 'international development' (and, for what it's worth, the subject of numerous related posts here on the World Bank's EduTech blog). Recent news that edX, one of the prominent MOOC platforms, is to start offering courses aimed at high school students suggests that the potential usefulness and impact of things like MOOCs may soon extend beyond the realm of higher education, out of which MOOCs originally emerged and where most related activity has occurred to date.
There is much (potentially) to be excited about here. Few would argue against having greater access to more learning opportunities, especially when those opportunities are offered for 'free', where there is latent unmet demand, and where the opportunities themselves are well constructed and offer real value for learners. As with MOOCs at the level of higher education, however, we perhaps shouldn't be too surprised if these new opportunities at the high school level are first seized upon *not* by some of the groups with the greatest learning needs -- for example, students in overcrowded, poorly resourced secondary schools in developing countries, or even students who would like a secondary education, but for a variety of reasons aren't able to receive one -- but rather by those best placed to take advantage of them. This has been largely been the case for initial adopters of MOOCs. (One of the first studies of this aspect of the 'MOOC Phenomenon', which looked at MOOCs from the University of Pennsylvania, found that students tended to be "young, well educated, and employed, with a majority from developed countries.")
As a practical matter, some of the first types of beneficiaries may, for example (and I am just speculating here), be homeschooling families in North America (while not necessarily comparatively 'rich' by local standards, such families need to be affluent enough to be able to afford to have one parent stay at home with the kids, and generally have pretty good Internet connectivity); international schools around the world (which can offer a broader range of courses to students interested in an 'American' education); and the families of 'foreign' students looking to apply to college in the United States (the edX course “COL101x: The Road to Selective College Admissions” looks, at least to my eyes, tailor made for certain segments of the population of learners in places like China, Korea, Hong Kong, etc.). In other words, at least in the near term, a Matthew Effect in Educational Technology may be apparent, where those who are best placed to benefit from the introduction of a new technology tool or innovation are the ones who indeed benefit from it the most.
Longer term, though, it is possible to view this news about movement of a major MOOC platform into the area of secondary education as one further indication that we are getting further along from the 'front end of the e-learning wave' (of which MOOCs are but one part) to something that will eventually have a greater mass impact beyond what is happening now in the 'rich' countries of North America and the OECD.
Learning with new technologies has of course been around for many decades but, broadly speaking, has not (yet) had the 'transformational' impact that has long been promised. "Gradually, then suddenly" is how one of Ernest Hemingway's characters famously describes how he went bankrupt. Might this be how the large scale adoption of educational technologies will eventually happen as well in much of the world?
f so, one credible potential tipping point may be a 'black swan' event that could push all of this stuff into the mainstream, especially in places where it to date has been largely peripheral: some sort of major health-related scare. (For those unfamiliar with the term, which was popularized by Nicholas Taleb, a 'black swan' is a rare event that people don't anticipate but which has profound consequences). One of the first ever posts on the EduTech blog, Education & Technology in an Age of Pandemics, looked at some of what had been learned about how teachers and learners use new technologies to adapt when schools were closed in response to outbreaks involving the H1N1 influenza virus: the 'swine flu' that afflicted many in Mexico about six years ago; and an earlier outbreak of 'bird flu' in China. I have recently been fielding many calls as a result of the current outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa asking essentially, 'Can we do anything with technology to help our students while our schools are closed?', and so I thought it might be useful to revisit, and update, that earlier post, in case doing so might be a useful contribution to a number of related discussions are occurring.
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?
Over the past month, the EduTech Debate site has been featuring posts and comments from authors exploring various issues and opportunities presented by the phenomenon of so-called Massive Online Open Courses. While perhaps it hasn't been a 'debate' per se, it has featured responses and reactions from the authors to each other's posts, and I thought I'd quickly highlight the conversation that has been occurring over there, in case you may have missed it and doing so might be useful.
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?
A few years ago I participated in a fascinating online course. I had earlier read a thought-provoking article called Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age by a Canadian academic named George Siemens, and was intrigued to stumble across references to a related online discussion that was taking place, led by Professor Siemens and another Canadian researcher named Stephen Downes. OK, to be honest, I am not sure that I actually participated in the course (and I wasn't actually sure if it was a course in the traditional sense ... although it was certainly a community), given that my 'participation' consisted of a haphazard scanning of emails and RSS feeds being generated by people whose were much more engaged in the effort than I was. That said, both the content and approach piqued my curiosity, and I spent enough time browsing through related materials that I was able to tell my boss with a straight face that I was doing some 'online learning'.
I saw Siemens speak at eLearning Africa, was suitably impressed, and later tried to figure out a way to bring him to the World Bank to talk about his work as part a new series we were trying to put together on 'eduradicals'. I was particularly interested in learning more about, and exposing colleagues to, the concept of a 'massive open online course', which (it turns out) was the label that was being applied to what Siemens and Downes (and a few thousand other people) had been engaged in. In this I rather spectacularly failed, as most people with whom I spoke thought that the whole enterprise I was trying to describe, while conceptually quite interesting, was unlikely to be of practical interest or relevance in the near term to the policymakers with whom we were engaged in developing countries. My failure in this instance was, I believe, more a consequence of my inability to articulate to my colleagues in a convincing way just what exactly the possibilities were of this 'connectivist' learning theory and of one a 'model' by which this theory might be explored and put into practice -- which was one of the first (and possibly the very first) 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?
Most likely, it will largely look like the school of today -- but that doesn't mean it should. Few will deny that it will most likely, and increasingly, contain lots of technology. Some may celebrate this fact, others may decry it, but this trend appears inexorable. To what extent will, or should, considerations around technology use influence the design of learning spaces going forward?
Of course, with the continued rise of online 'virtual' education, some schools don't (or won't) look like traditional 'schools' at all. Various types of structured or semi-structured learning already take place as part of things that we consider to be 'courses', even if sometimes such things don't conform to some traditional conceptions of what a 'course' is or should be. The massive online open course (or MOOC) in artificial intelligence offered by Stanford has received much recent attention, but the phenomenon is not necessarily new (even if its current exemplars are marked by many characteristics that are indeed new, or much more developed, than those previously to be found in, for example, large 'distance learning' courses).
Let's leave aside the case of the 'virtual school' for a moment and assume that there will continue to be a need for a physical space at which students and educators will gather and interact. (Such places may be access points to virtual education, or featured various types of so-called 'blended learning', where face-to-face interactions are complemented by interactions in the virtual world -- or vice versa.) Indeed, let's assume, for our purposes here, that the school as a concept will presumably be along for many decades to come, and that it will have a physical representation of some sort. What might such a school look like, especially in the era of ICTs?