MOOC providers versus sceptics at 'Going Global'

MOOC providers went head-to-head with developing world academics at the "Going Global" conference in Miami over the opportunities and threats posed by massive open online courses. South African Vice-chancellor Adam Habib called for a conversation on how "to use innovation in a way that supports the global academy of commons rather than simply advancing the individual aspirations of institutions".

Providers Coursera and FutureLearn extolled the potential of MOOCs to open access to free, quality higher education to millions of people across the developing world, especially where there is high demand but limited institutional and human capacity.

But Indian and South African academics worried about context, the global unevenness of knowledge and undermining the advance of public universities in developing countries.

They were debating the topic "MOOCs going global, giving access: Miracle or myth?" chaired by Paul O'Prey, vice-chancellor of the University of Roehampton in the United Kingdom, at the British Council's "Going Global" international education conference held from 29 April to 1 May.


Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn - a social learning platform owned by Britain's Open University that is offering MOOCs from 26 universities as well as cultural organisations - described the ability to harness the social web as "incredibly powerful". It would help to make online learning a less solitary experience.

FutureLearn began by looking at existing learning platforms, said Nelson. It wanted a platform that was mobile-friendly, operated across devices and was scaleable. "We didn't think existing technology was able to do that so we developed our own."

The FutureLearn platform launched in beta last year and first courses began last October. There are now about 30 courses. The British Council announced at "Going Global" that its first free course on FutureLearn, for learning English at intermediate levels, would launch later this year.

Among students who have registered for FutureLearn courses, Nelson told the conference, about a quarter were participating fully and nearly 40% were actively participating in the social environment, which exists alongside the course content.

"Some see MOOCs as the biggest thing to solve world poverty, others dismiss them as a fad that will have disappeared in two years. Neither is true. MOOCs are not miracles and they are certainly not myths," Nelson argued.

What is hitting higher education is the internet. "MOOCs are just an early part of that development. I don't think they are going to sweep away universities any more than digitalisation and on-demand swept away BBC radio stations or TV channels."

What MOOCs were doing was providing "access to institutions that previously were only open to those people who could physically walk through the door," said Nelson. MOOCs also provided academics with new web tools to spread their teaching.

"This is an overwhelming positive. But let's not assume it is a panacea for problems in the developing world."

Daphne Koller

Addressing the session via a video link Professor Daphne Koller of Stanford University, CEO and founder of one of America's big MOOC platforms Coursera, admitted that her organisation was "in some ways responsible for the revolution".

In 2011 Stanford looked at offering online courses in computer science and invited people from around the world to enrol. "Within days we had 100,000 students or more."

One turning point was in understanding the power of the visual. There had been online education for decades, but it had not really taken off. What changed was the ability to teach huge numbers of learners with a single lecturer at marginal cost.

A second turning point was the increasing ability and willingness of people to have social interactions via the internet. This opened up the possibility of peer-to-peer teaching and learning, as opposed to the hub-and-spoke model with a single infrastructure and a few dozen lecturers teaching. "If you have peer-to-peer you can scale it up and this is pivotal."

Koller described three categories of learners.

The first comprises people who attend reputable institutions, where MOOCs are being used to enhance learning. The two combined could be better than the sum of their parts.

The other two populations formed the bulk of learners.

One was people who had completed higher education years ago, learning subjects that were now obsolete. For most, it was not possible to drop everything to return to learning. "MOOCs are providing an opportunity for lifelong learning for people who need to refresh themselves. This is a different kind of access, but an important one."

The question was whether MOOCs would democratise education for people with no access, where capacity did not exist. "That's a significant challenge for all of us going forward," said Koller.

One third of Coursera's learners are in the developing world. "We get amazing stories about people with no opportunities for education or jobs, and having access transformed their lives."

On a larger scale, Koller said, MOOCs could help build capacity for local higher education. In India, for example, which aims to grow participation in post-secondary education to 30%, 1,500 new academic institutions needed to be built and millions more lecturers trained.

While waiting for solutions, MOOCs could provide alternative access to higher education and also help instructors to improve. "It is not a global panacea, but would help countries to build up education infrastructure."

One challenge was generating MOOC content for people in their own languages. Coursera has launched a worldwide initiative for volunteers to translate content into a range of languages.

The group is also making content more accessible via a range of devices, and has set up 'learning hubs' - physical locations across the world with good internet access where people can take MOOCs and form study groups with some supervision - a flavour of blended learning.

"So there is lots going on to permeate access," said Koller.

Some scepticism

On the other side of the fence sat Apoorvanand Jha, a professor of Hindi at the University of Delhi, and Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Jha asked what MOOCs might mean for Dalit girls in Indian or Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan or girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. There was a view that MOOCs might save them from bullets or assault, by allowing them to study in safety at home.

"That they can anonymously obtain knowledge and help free themselves. But this ignores the transformative role of education itself. For the vast majority of the world, knowledge and education is about making a claim for a share of cultural capital," he argued.

Space was a critical aspect of this: education had to be a physical reality. Education was an individual affair but was not about being in isolation. Also, it was "not just about saving costs but also about creating international sensibilities".

"We do need to ask, whose knowledge is this? Educational purists have said that knowledge is not brought from outside: both teachers and students learn. Universities must nurture their own expertise - all societies need their own experts."

Unevenness, inequality

There was no doubt, Habib told the session, that the internet would fundamentally transform higher education. "It is crucial that collectively we approach this challenge without cynicism, on the one hand, or romanticism on the other." Cynicism could prevent innovation, and romanticism could raise unrealistic expectations. "We need nuance."

Habib raised three concerns around MOOCs and the way they were playing out.

First, one of the major challenges in the developing world was not only access to education but also its quality. Without quality, students were set up to fail. The high drop-out rate from MOOCs was a problem. Also, online was not the same as face-to-face learning and there was concern about providing education to millions that did not offer the full educational experience.

A second concern was around inequality. "We live in an unequal world, and there is recognition that inequality must be addressed. Inequality impacts on consciousness. People in the developing world perceive that American or European accreditation is by default better."

If Harvard, Stanford and Oxford start telling young people in the developing world to go for their online experience rather than a local university, this could undermine institutions in Africa and large parts of Asia. "It could undermine the potential of and investment in local education."

Further, Habib argued: "If you think you're going to democratise education by giving people MOOCs instead of face-to-face education, it means the poor in the developing world get MOOCs and the elite continue to get face-to-face education. What you have done is consolidate inequalities. And one of the biggest problems we have is inequality."

Third was the financial model. "Everybody says MOOCs are free, but everything starts off free and then five or six years later the economic exigencies start having an impact. Almost certainly down the line there will be a charge structure, and when you have a charge structure in a foreign currency it can have a dramatic impact," said Habib.

Regarding costs, Koller responded that the goal was to provide a valuable service for free, and to pay for it through premium services - in Coursera's case, via credentialing. "We are doing our best to keep what we're offering accessible and free."

Habib said he was by no means arguing for avoiding MOOCs or the internet.

"But can we begin to utilise this innovation to enhance education? Bring fantastic teaching in a way that supports the experience of the local teacher in the developing world?"

Currently there were courses from top universities and a "competitive dynamic between institutions about whose course is most popular. That's not a global academy that speaks of partnerships."

Institutions in the developed and developing world should get together and evolve models that were not based on competition but on partnerships that transcend national boundaries. "We need to rethink, but as a network and not as individual institutions.

"We need to think about how to enable a global academy of commons."