What Role Can MOOCs Play in the Development Agenda? Five Key Questions

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.

At a recent discussion jointly organized by SUNY’s Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government and the UN Academic Impact and facilitated by Ben Wildavsky, this topic was passionately debated by a wide-ranging panel of experts—Anant Agarwal, the CEO of edX, one of the largest MOOC platforms; Barbara Kuhn of the Wharton School of Business who teaches a popular MOOC course; Phil Altbach, higher education expert and vocal critic of MOOCs; and Professor S. Sitaraman, Senior Vice President of Amity University. Since Matt Krupnik’s recent article in University World News provides a detailed overview of the discussion itself, I’ll focus instead on five key questions that we should ask ourselves as we consider the potential role of MOOCs for leveling the playing field between developed and developing countries.

  1. Does the infrastructure exist for MOOCs to succeed in the developing world? While MOOCs create an illusion of open and free access, their success is based on the fundamental assumption that the lifeline of technology—power and electricity—is readily available. And yet, many developing countries continue to face severe infrastructure issues where most citizens, both urban and rural, do not have a reliable supply of electricity or the requisite bandwidth to fuel their computers. Worldwide, over 1.2 billion people--or 20 percent of the world's population—are still without access to electricity, almost all of whom live in developing countries. This includes about 550 million in Africa and over 400 million in India alone. And where young students are able to access the Internet, it is usually in cramped, generator-powered Internet cafes.
  2. Can MOOCs play a role in providing non-formal education in developing countries? MOOCs could potentially play a role in enhancing non-formal education in developing countries like India where the tradition of non-formal education has long co-existed with formal education pathways and has provided educational opportunities for marginalized groups like those in rural areas (especially women) and in urban slums. If the infrastructure issue is resolved, MOOCs could potentially increase access to knowledge for such groups that need flexible learning arrangements.
  3. Can MOOCs help close the gender gap in education? Women’s educational attainment in the developing world continues to lag behind that of males, and it has been suggested that MOOCs might be the latest tool to help bridge this persistent gap. Families who might otherwise be hesitant to send their daughters to college might instead encourage them to learn within the home. But to me this is a double-edged sword: indeed, while some education is better than no education at all, MOOCs should not be seen as a substitute to ensuring that girls and women have equal access to education at all levels.
  4. Will MOOCs transform the role of the teacher? One of the most intriguing questions debated by the panel was whether and how MOOCs might dramatically alter the role of a professor. Anant Agarwal’s argument that, “Degrees are an antediluvian concept” and that a student should be able to choose from a menu of courses to design a learning experience for themselves, raises the critical question of whether the new role for a professor is that of “curator.” Thomas Gais, Director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, likened this new role to the field of medicine, with MOOC professors playing the role of a Primary Care Physician but instead coordinating “primary education delivery” for their students that would tap into synergies between their own courses and those offered by other faculty specialists and experts. For faculty, too, this could potentially mean collaboration between those who can create content for a MOOC and those who teach it and adapt it to their needs, resulting in a sort of blended curriculum and pedagogy. And how might this work in the developing world? S. Sitaraman pointed out that MOOCs could help fill the gap for private institutions that have proliferated in developing countries in recent years, but that simply don’t have adequate teaching staff. Such institutions could potentially use MOOCs to temporarily fill this gap.
  5. Can MOOCs be globally accessible yet locally relevant? We know that there are significant cultural differences in pedagogy, learning styles, and the overarching culture of education between the global “north”—where most MOOCs have originated—and the global “south,” which is composed of developing countries that to date have mostly been consumers of these courses. For MOOCs to fully succeed in and to address the unique educational needs of the developing world, they will need to be adapted appropriately to the local cultural context or else we run the risk of what Altbach has referred to as “neocolonialism.”

While these are five key issues to consider in taking MOOCs to the developing world, there are many other questions that will need to be addressed: If MOOCS come to be seen as an adequate substitution for a more formal postsecondary education, will we no longer strive to increase access for those who lack educational opportunities? Would we be encouraging them to settle for less, thereby creating further disparities between those with educational capital and those without? What role can MOOCs play in increasing the employability of learners, one of the most critical issues facing developing countries with burgeoning youth populations? Lastly and perhaps more universally, how can MOOCs accommodate those who are learning disabled and who need significant individualized attention which, by definition, is exactly what a “massified” learning environment cannot provide?