MOOCs in the developing world – Pros and cons

Massive open online courses have brought education from top universities to armchair scholars across the globe. Now some are wondering whether MOOCs, as they are called, could help elevate developing nations.

Advocates say the MOOC could bring quality instruction to poverty-stricken places where university attendance is little more than a fantasy. But critics worry that the largely Western-style courses could equate to a new form of imperialism and push out more effective forms of education.

Just two years into its existence, the MOOC has blossomed worldwide – including in developing nations such as India and China.

EdX, a non-profit platform developed by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT, boasts 2.5 million students, for example – about a million from developing nations.

Among edX’s students are 300,000 from India alone, said CEO Anant Agarwal – also a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT who taught the first, hugely successful edX MOOCs – at a 19 June forum on “MOOCs in the Developing World” held at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

The forum was hosted by the Nelson A Rockefeller Institute of Government of the State University of New York and the United Nations Academic Impact – a global coalition of universities working with the UN to solve pressing global issues – and also sponsored by the Institute of International Education.

The proponents-versus-sceptics conversation was moderated by Ben Wildavsky, director of higher education studies at the Rockefeller Institute, policy professor at the University at Albany of the State University of New York and author of the award-winning book The Great Brain Race: How global universities are reshaping the world.

Pros and cons

Unlike colonialism, Agarwal told the forum, MOOCs could boost human rights in some countries. “The numbers are staggering,” he said. “I’m really hard-pressed to understand how someone would say this is United States hegemony.”

Among those sceptical of MOOCs’ effects on the developing world is Professor Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College and a globally recognised higher education analyst.

He called the online ventures “neo-colonialism of the willing” and noted that US academics have developed most of the online curricula available to students in poorer countries.

“The pedagogical assumptions are mainly Western,” Altbach said during the panel discussion as Agarwal shook his head vehemently. “One has to ask whether this is a good thing for students in non-Western learning environments.”

Altbach worried that MOOCs would exacerbate class differences, where the elite attend campus-based institutions while others resort to online courses.

While higher education clearly benefits developing nations, it is dangerous to impose one system on a country, said Stanley Katz, a Princeton University professor of public and international affairs who writes about higher education policy. Even Western countries disagree about the best way to educate students, he said.

Although online classes can be helpful in engineering or other technical fields, the humanities are another story. The benefit to developing nations, therefore, is limited, Katz said.

“I believe that MOOCs are a very flawed idea in general,” Katz said in an interview. “If you’re talking about anything that’s philosophy-oriented, MOOCs are not very good.”


In order to help the world’s poorest people, MOOCs will need to overcome serious challenges.

According the United Nations, 25% of children who enrol in primary school drop out before finishing. About 123 million youth aged 15 to 24 years lack basic reading and writing skills.

And developing nations often lack the computer equipment, internet connections and the consistent electricity necessary for online courses.

“Those are very serious problems,” Altbach said in an interview. “I think Agarwal and others have glossed over that.”

Poorer nations need high quality education, said Professor S Sitaraman, senior vice-president of India’s Amity University, but MOOC offerings should be marketed and vetted cautiously.

“There are a lot of students [in India] who are hungry for knowledge but don’t have access to knowledge,” he said at the United Nations event. “We welcome new things, as long as it serves a purpose.”

The larger MOOCs platforms – edX, Coursera and Udacity, for example – have made inroads in nearly every country and are experimenting with ways to help students in places without advanced infrastructure or technology.

Agarwal recounted edX’s collaboration with Facebook to bring classes to Rwanda by providing free mobile phones to students. But such ventures cost money, calling into question their long-term viability.

“These things are driven by profit,” Katz said. “It’s not yet clear whether there’s a viable business model.”

The pedagogy

At their best, MOOCs complement existing educational institutions around the world, said Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business who teaches classes on Coursera.

“It doesn’t replace other kinds of education,” she said during the forum. “We’re clearly filling some need here. I think it adds value and doesn’t replace.”

Although MOOCs have experimented with a variety of techniques to engage students, many lean on old, ineffective teaching methods, Katz argued. In order to appeal to and help students in other countries, he said, educators will have to do better.

“MOOCs embody the newest technology – the internet – and the oldest – the lecture,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you get the best of both. I gave up lecturing as a teaching method in the late 1960s.”

MOOCs “are being adopted and not adapted”, added Altbach.

Several of the challenges cited by sceptics in raising the international profile of MOOCs – how to prevent cheating and improve completion rates, for example – are identical to those faced by Western educators.

Agarwal cautioned against worrying too much about those issues. He noted that a 10% completion rate in a course with more than 100,000 students means 10,000 students finished the class.

It is not surprising, Agarwal said, that educators have few answers for the more serious questions about bringing MOOCs to needy people worldwide.

“MOOCs are two years old,” he said. “We’ve done traditional education for 500 years and we still haven’t figured it out.

“We’ll solve all of these issues eventually.”