Robust debate boosts the MOOCs agenda in development

MOOCs – massive open online courses – have the potential to build new learning pathways. Governments, universities and stakeholders have a duty to scrutinise how the opportunities MOOCs offer can best be harnessed for development, the International Council for Open and Distance Education, or ICDE, conference heard.

There are both challenges and opportunities for helping the poor by responding with MOOCs to the newly adopted United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, said Dan Wagner, UNESCO chair in learning and literacy and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s International Education Development Program, USA.

Wagner was a keynote speaker for the MOOCs4D II track at the 26th ICDE World Conference, held at Sun City north of Johannesburg from 14-16 October and hosted by the University of South Africa.


The 2015 MOOCs4D stream – which followed a first MOOCs4D conference at the University of Pennsylvania in April 2014 – was held under the theme “The potential of MOOCs as a transformative lever for promoting education as a global common good”.

The first MOOCs4D, according to the ICDE conference website, reflected on “the role of MOOCs in international development, expanding inclusion, transforming institutions and curriculum innovation”, as well as building capacity to create digital information resources and overcoming infrastructural constraints.

Since then the SDGs, particularly Goal 4 – “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” – have evoked global responses, according to the ICDE.

The World Education Forum reaffirmed education as a public good, stating in the Incheon Declaration that it is “a fundamental human right and a basis for guaranteeing the realisation of other rights".

A focus of this year’s MOOCs4D discussions was on developing economies, particularly in Africa, through South-South-North collaboration.

Wagner said for the world to be sustainable, there had to be more focus on learning. “If you are in the field of education you have a stake in the SDGs. You are there, even if you don’t know how to get there.”

It seemed too early to ask whether MOOCs could deliver in terms of the SDGs, Wagner said. But while most universities were not working on them, all of the SDGs presented opportunities for universities to contribute towards development through MOOCs.

Focus on the bottom of the pyramid

Implementing MOOCs had its pitfalls, however.

“If we buy MOOCs as promised, we are eliminating some opportunities for specificity. Can they increase access? Well, for some people yes, maybe not for everybody, and not all the time,” said Wagner.

Global attention should include those at the bottom of the pyramid, in rural areas, contending with poorly trained teachers and poor infrastructure – the poorest families, with parents with low levels of education.

Wagner said the rapid increase in mobile practices and penetration of technology opened up new opportunities for education, but certain criteria had to be followed.

“To design a solution, which in this case is a MOOC, you have to know what the purpose is, what device you will be able to use, who the client is, in what context and in which language.”

Irrespective of the design chosen, he added, MOOCs raise a lot of issues. They offer opportunities but also pose particular challenges. Can MOOCs address more diverse learners? Can they deliver quality and credentials?

He said major MOOC providers – mostly universities in the North – claim to reach global learners but in reality are still sampling from elite populations, neglecting those at the bottom of the pyramid who might not even realise MOOCs exist.

“It’s low hanging fruit out there,” he said.

Lessons learned

Countries starting out with MOOCs, and in the initial phases of development, learned about critical challenges and issues faced, said Rachel Prinsloo, MOOCs programme director and head of planning and strategy at the University of South Africa, or UNISA, as the conference ended.

Emerging themes for MOOCs were there. The presentations, from Wagner’s keynote onwards, demonstrated analytical quality and collegial sharing of country specific experiences.

“We saw evidence of reflective and research-based developments in curriculum innovation and integration that adds transformative value to both institutional and community contexts.”

Prinsloo said the meeting was fortunate to benefit from dialogues between education providers and UNESCO, the International Labour Organization and the German International Academy, and funding bodies gave insights into their funding models.

“All the presentations had considered and systematic introductions of MOOCs. So they are not just a fad or a business approach; there is this deep conceptual embeddedness.”

Discussions ranged from using open courseware for MOOCs and infusing online education into MOOCs to contextualising collaborative design and development of MOOCs and sharing a global study on Open Educational Resources for development that sought to improve the curriculum fabric of research-intensive universities.

“Topics focused on faculty skills development, the need to break down resistance, critical skills shortages, teacher development, maths teaching, health and land degradation,” Prinsloo said.

The presentations sought to advance quality and richness of learning, educational intent as a focus for delivery, using different means of monitoring student learning experiences and learning progression.

“Completion is not the only powerful success indicator, there are many other things,” said Prinsloo, adding that delegates learned how MOOCs could expand and diversify student learning and progression, and create new pathways for learning.

Giving MOOCs some mileage

Key stakeholders were called on to play a role in the design of scalable projects and to integrate funding mechanisms to unleash the full potential of MOOCs. There was little to be shared on business models that MOOCs could adopt to maximise effectiveness, scalability and sustainability.

Responding to a new policy agenda, such as the Sustainable Development Goals and national or regional policies, would give mileage to MOOCs.

Prinsloo said the need for monitoring and evaluation strategies and metrics that were complex was not addressed in meaningful ways.

“The community felt that simple performance output indicators were not that important. But the value of learning and empowerment, and ensuring student capabilities that were marketable and could improve situations, were more important,” she added.

Professor Catherine Odora Hoppers, who has a South African research chair in development education at UNISA, warned that a good part of education was chopped off when MOOCs were prepared.

“What is education in different contexts? What do declarations [for online education] mean in different contexts? Let us pay attention to various issues of the curriculum, otherwise we are lost. When we think of our mode of transmission, let us remember that our national yearning was for education, and use that as a base to link up with a mode of transmission.”