Online ‘classrooms’ break the MOOC language barrier

China is the number one country worldwide in terms of growth potential for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. This is something the largest North American MOOC platforms know well, and the past year has seen a flurry of activity to capture this market.

Tsinghua University became the first in mainland China to create online courses, available through the US-based platform edX since October – the same month that rival platform Coursera announced a partnership with National Taiwan University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

But the question of translation – how to make the selection of predominantly English-language courses accessible to a global audience – is a problem these industry pioneers are still grappling with. Providers like Coursera, edX and Khan Academy have brought Ivy League teaching to the world, but cultural and language barriers remain.

“There is a lot of action in China,” said Dr George Siemens, associate director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute in Canada. What has been lacking, he said, are home-grown platforms that can serve their native markets.

That is beginning to change.

A home-grown platform

Take Guokr, for example. This Beijing-based site is not a MOOC platform per se, but rather a platform for MOOC users: a growing community that has taken upon itself the hard work of translation.

Guokr – Chinese for 'nutshell' – launched in 2008 as a social network for science geeks and has since morphed into an online MOOCs community with 'classrooms' for more than 50 courses, in both English and Chinese, and 50,000 registered users from across the country.

Guokr's Director of Education Dr Yang Liu presented recently at the World Innovation Summit for Education, or WISE, where she charmed a roomful of delegates with anecdotes of how users have stepped up to create the services they need.

About 150 registered users, said Liu, have formed a group called Education Without Borders, and have translated notes and materials for 24 English-language courses. The group recently formed an official collaboration with Coursera.

“The list is growing,” said Liu. “Nowadays, a lot of people know English but it's still comfortable for them to learn new things with their mother language.”

Guokr's foray into MOOCs began fairly recently, when a Guokr employee and colleague of Liu's created an online classroom for a Coursera course she had enrolled in, “A Beginner's Guide to Irrational Behaviour”, at Duke University.

The course required students to read hundreds of papers, a task “unrealistic for those whose mother language is not English,” said Liu. Thanks to the virtual classroom, students organised to split up the papers and share their analyses with each other, discussing the main points and arguments in the comfort of their own language.

According to Liu, at the end of the course, 11 students out of 20 got certificates. Considering that the average MOOC completion rate is about 10%, and only five per cent in China, “that's pretty remarkable”, said Liu. “This is the difference an online community can make.”

Guokr also has a forum for rating courses and instructors, and allows students to rate the quality of class notes that are posted in its online classrooms, allowing the most useful to move to the top of the pile, said Liu.

Many of the students are proficient enough in English, but require extra help with reading comprehension. Others would like to study abroad, and want to become more comfortable learning in a Western teaching style.

However, as Liu pointed out, cross-cultural challenges go beyond language. “I think translation is the number one problem,” said Liu. “But at the same time you have to really appreciate the difference in terms of the teaching.”

She gave gaps in curricula as one example. Students in China are not necessarily learning the same things in the same order as their Western counterparts. In future, Liu explained, Guokr would like to be able to analyse Western courses and fill in the gaps with the appropriate elements from Chinese curricula. “A kind of map to world curriculums,” she said.

New pedagogy

That sort of global curriculum map could no doubt be part of the ‘new pedagogy’ that Siemens spoke of during a panel discussion on the democratisation of MOOCs at WISE.

“Massive is key,” he said, “because you have a new pedagogy emerge when you have a large group of learners.”

He and other panellists emphasised the need for a bottom-up, rather than top-down approach to overcoming language and cultural barriers in the borderless world of higher education.

“Customising MOOCs is absolutely essential in order to have good outcomes,” said Piotr Mitros, chief scientist at edX. He cautioned that expansion should not just be about having US-produced courses translated for a global market.

“I'd much rather see global collaboration around content.”

Siemens said he did not think it was the role of MOOC providers to come up with services that students need, emphasising that users need to drive innovation. “We don’t do things for our learners,” he said. “We want our learners to do things for themselves.”

In the case of Guokr, indeed, it is the students who are leading this new approach, and spreading the word about MOOCs. Guokr is also compatible with Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, which allows users to share short bits of information that are available far beyond the online classrooms.

“We're just trying to get people curious about MOOCs, to go through the courses and invite people to join. We don't think our way is the ultimate way,” said Liu. “The students will know how to follow, how to organise their own studies.”