MOOCs guide for policy-makers in developing countries

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have been expanding rapidly throughout the world since the ‘Year of the MOOC’ in 2012, offering higher education, often free, to millions of learners – especially in developed countries with wide access to the right technology and resources.

Now there is a guide to raise MOOC awareness in less well equipped developing nations, and to advise their educational policy-makers how, through online learning including MOOCs, they can build new routes to higher education and lifelong learning to benefit increasing numbers of their young – and older – people.

Making Sense of MOOCs: A guide for policy-makers in developing countries is edited by Mariana Patru of UNESCO and Venkataraman Balaji of the Commonwealth of Learning.

Dr Qian Tang, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for education, highlighted the benefits of online learning and MOOCs.

He said: “MOOCs are excellent for promoting lifelong learning – courses offered free to countless people offer access to higher education to those who can’t afford formal education and are disadvantaged; this is democratisation of higher education.”

In addition, MOOCs reduced the disconnect between skills and aptitudes of most university graduates and the needs of industry in many developing countries, he said. There was high use among adults, especially women, so greater gender equality in areas where women were under-represented.

Tang recognised it might be too costly for higher education institutions in some countries to offer high-quality content, but MOOCs could help deal with this challenge.

The guide was launched in June, just over a year after the 2015 World Education Forum in Incheon, Republic of Korea, which issued Education 2030, an educational ‘roadmap’ for the next 15 years and part of the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, Goal 4 which is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

As “the (initial) philosophy of MOOCs is to open up quality higher education to a wider audience... MOOCs are an important tool to achieve Goal 4”, says the guide.

So it “seeks to highlight the potential of [MOOCs] to meet (however partially) some of the requirements of large-scale effective training and supplementary (credit-oriented) learning in developing countries”, though it maintains “an objective account of MOOCs rather than taking a position”.

It aims “to raise the awareness of policy-makers in terms of the potential that online learning, including in the form of MOOCs, has for building new learning pathways towards tertiary education and for expanding lifelong learning opportunities”.

The guide describes the recent major transformations in higher education due to increasing internationalisation and student mobility; the ever-growing demand for quality higher education and lifelong learning; changing student demographics; the rise of online and blended learning; cross-border higher education; and recognition and quality assurance of qualifications in a borderless, digital world.

The total number of MOOCs on offer reached 4,200 in 2015 – but they were mostly offered by top universities in the Global North, “which many observers consider a one-way transfer of knowledge from the developed countries to the developing world”, says the guide.

Meanwhile, 43% of the world population is now online, with 3.2 billion Internet users, including 2 billion from developing countries, according to the International Telecommunication Union. But it is mobile connectivity that has increased most in developing countries.

Global developments and initiatives

The guide describes global developments and initiatives, such as:
  • The open education movement – Higher education policy-makers and institutions “need to better assess ways in which MOOCs and open education resources could be effectively leveraged to improve access, enhance quality and potentially lower the cost of higher education”.

  • Increased use of online and blended learning in higher education – “By integrating online and face-to-face approaches, blended learning provides learners with both flexibility and support”.

  • Emerging and developing countries already integrating and implementing MOOCs in their national and professional education initiatives – Courses developed by leading universities “could be adapted and customised to meet individual students’ needs... as it is recognised there is no one-size-fits-all approach”; and increasingly MOOCs are seen as a “medium for providing ‘relevant’ job training courses” and as a “viable channel to achieve greater equality for women in education and employment, particularly in jobs and industries where women are under-represented”.

  • Promoting a culture of quality in higher education – “Online learning holds the potential of delivering quality education to anyone, anywhere... Governments should develop or strengthen quality assurance frameworks for the recognition, validation and accreditation of flexible learning pathways as part of their broad development agenda”.

  • Education 2030: A new vision for education – “which recognises lifelong learning for all is one of the underpinning principles…” and “all age groups, including adults, should have opportunities to learn and continue learning”. It also calls on countries to “develop policies and programmes for the provision of quality distance learning in tertiary education, with appropriate financing and use of technology, including the Internet, massive open online courses and other modalities that meet accepted quality standards to improve access”.
Then the guide sets out the potential for MOOCs to increase access to quality higher education, while bringing down costs; to increase participation in lifelong learning; and to produce good results through cooperation between higher education institutions, governments and the private sector.

It also covers issues including possible benefits and challenges of MOOCs for developing countries; key issues of quality assurance and criteria; what motivates MOOC participants to take online courses; development and (re-)use of MOOCs; and the need for good government policies.

It ends with the financial implications of developing MOOCs, and proposes various business models that include government involvement.

What is a MOOC?

While definitions vary, says the guide, they share common elements. These are:
  • Massive: Designed for an unlimited number of participants, meaning the effort to provide services for a course does not increase significantly as numbers increase;
  • Open: Access is free, with no entry qualifications (though some are fee-paying);
  • Online: The course is fully accessible through the Internet;
  • Course: It offers a complete learning experience including materials, assessment tools, feedback, examination and completion certificate.
The Commonwealth of Learning and MOOCs

Professor Asha Kanwar, president and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning or COL, said her organisation’s mission was to help the Commonwealth’s 53 member states and their institutions “to harness the potential of distance learning and technologies for expanding access to education and training”.

The Commonwealth included 46 developing countries with several challenges relating to education and training. “Globally there are 1.2 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24, and most of them are in developing countries. The Commonwealth is young, with 60% of its population of 2.3 billion below the age of 29.”

Youth unemployment was high: 12% in the Commonwealth compared with the global average of 14%. While there were 80 Internet users per hundred in the developed world, there were only 35 in developing countries, and in Africa just 21.

But, she said, real growth in the past decade was in mobile use, at 80%, and COL’s MOOCs for Development – MOOC4D – could deliver content via low bandwidth, including basic mobile telephones, unlike mainstream MOOCs.

Another difference from most MOOCs is that all content of COL courses is available free, as open educational resources for general use and re-use.

“COL has carved out a niche for itself with MOOC4D and has a network of institutional partners and practical researchers keen to harness MOOCs in support of mass outreach,” said Kanwar.

Courses include climate change, in partnership with the University of the South Pacific, the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur and UNESCO; and, with the African Virtual University, teacher-training integrating ICTs for teaching and learning.

A consortium has created agMOOCs, related to food and agriculture; COL’s MOOC for Malis, or gardeners, is offered through basic mobile phones jointly with the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur.

COL also provides technical advice to partners in developing countries on how to offer MOOCs on MOOC4D, reaching participants in 116 countries, said Kanwar.

COL has developed Guidelines for Quality in MOOCs, to be published in July, for governments, MOOC providers, learners and quality assurance agencies.

MOOCs in China

The Chinese initiated online higher education in 1999, with the aim of providing access to disadvantaged members of the population, said Dr Wenge Guo, associate professor of the Graduate School of Education at Peking University. By 2010, 4.42 million students had been enrolled, 2.19 million had graduated and 20,000 online courses had been created.

Guo established the K12 Online Training National Programme on Educational Technology Skills in 2006 and coordinated the first online K12 teacher training course. In 2010 the Ministry of Education set up the National K12 Teacher Online Training Strategy.

The education ministry approved 69 leading Chinese universities, including Peking and Tsinghua universities, to establish the Network Education School.

The government funds operations such as updating the China Education and Research Network or CERNET, and Chinese educational television; supporting the universities to develop national high quality online courses; developing the website; and assessing the quality of online courses.

Chinese MOOCs are run under a partnership between Peking, Taiwan and Hong Kong universities. Peking University initiated the first MOOCs in September 2013, and by April 2016, 68 MOOCs were available online, published in edX, Coursera and Chinese MOOCs, with collaboration from Alibaba. There are more than 2 million students from 200 countries and regions, said Guo.

Tsinghua University set up its platform in 2014; today it has 2.74 million enrolled students from 137 countries and regions, taking 287 courses, said Guo.

The C20 K12 MOOCs Alliance was established in 2013, based at East China Normal University and with 20 K12 higher schools. Its teachers’ professional development platform features the flipped classroom; how to develop a mini-video course; how to design a MOOC; and cross-disciplinary courses.

MOOCs in France

France’s FUN – France Université Numérique – project was launched in January 2014, an open source shared platform for higher education institutions. It started with 25 MOOCs in 10 institutions and now 75 institutions, including six foreign universities, offer more than 200 MOOCs with nearly 2 million enrolments, said Catherine Mongenet, director of the public interest association FUN-MOOC that was set up in 2015.

There are about 725,000 learners, 44% of them women, in 120 countries. While 70% are students in France, 17% are in Africa. The biggest group, 36%, are aged between 35 and 50 years old.

The wide range of MOOCs on offer includes health, art and design, languages, law, environment and sustainable development, management and entrepreneurship – and there is a MOOC for learning how to make MOOCs, said Mongenet.