In most higher education discourse today it is not unusual to hear the claim that the world’s center of gravity is shifting toward the East. Indeed, no region has undergone as profound a transformation as Asia during the past half-century, from the 1970s to the present. Unprecedented economic growth has driven major social and demographic change and institutional reform and, in most countries, has brought about greater stability. The advent of a large middle class, coupled with openness and market reforms driven by economic imperatives, has contributed to greater interconnectedness among Asian states and between them and the rest of the world.
With the Millennium Development Goals nearing their deadline, the development sector has been rife with speculation about what the post-2015 development agenda will look like and what role, if any, higher education should play in this future outlook. So it is only appropriate that the United Nations is asking whether Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)—with their focus on offering tertiary-level courses for mass consumption—are a panacea for increasing access to tertiary education in the developing world, or whether they will instead widen the gap between those with access to higher education and those without.
It is estimated that 1.7 billion people in the world live in absolute poverty. Close to 40 percent of the world’s population lives without access to improved sanitation, with the vast majority in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. And when it comes to education, only 10 percent of the world has access to a secondary education, and this proportion plummets to 1 percent for a higher education.