VICTORIA, B.C.–One of the greatest fallacies of living in the digital age is the notion that technology is equal to progress. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the latest fad in providing a technological solution in challenging institutional and traditional systems of higher education. MOOCs are college courses available online to anyone in the world with Internet access, free of charge.
MOOCs have been gaining traction among the one percent of individuals educated at prestigious educational institutions, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. The premise of MOOCs is to provide “high-level, top quality” education to the less than prestigious institutions so students will receive the same content provided to those who attend these elite institutions.
In developing countries, the obvious barrier to registering for these online courses is accessibility. In poor and rural communities, not many individuals have Internet access, but most do have mobile phones and radios. It has been suggested that people living in these areas utilize technologies that they already have in order to achieve the same results that using the Internet would. Another cause for concern is sustainability. Even if communities do have Internet access – do they have the resources to upkeep computer equipment or for repair technicians to fix equipment if and when it breaks? These are some of the seemingly obvious questions that have been overlooked in favor of continued blind celebration for the “revolutionary” potential of free education.
The African Virtual University, created in 1995, has found a way to bypass these issues and provide sustainable education in sub-Saharan Africa. The university supplies coursework that helps graduate 4,000 students a year. It built its own courses; it has its own staff to run the network, repair computers and support local professors. More importantly, it has a computer center that provides Internet access to anyone who does not have it. This is an example of a model to follow that is locally-run, sustainable, and is successful in providing education for thousands of students every year.
Standardization of Education
San Jose State University released an open letter stating their concerns about online education. In their letter, they address the potential for creating two classes of universities: one consists of consists of well-funded post-secondary institutions where the privileged students get their own real-life professor while the “lesser”, financially torn post-secondary institutions receive an impersonal model of education through videotaped lectures provided by the elite institutions.
The “one-size fits all” solution to education does not take into account the inherent cultural, social and economic differences that expand beyond the border. Assistant professor at Sultan Oaboos University in Oman, Aisha S. Al-Harthi, studies the differences between Arab and American students in online courses. She concluded that the cultural differences are so extensive that the courses must be tailored to the needs of that particular country’s culture. This recommendation would be challenging to apply to online courses as they allow access to anyone around the globe who has an Internet connection.
Al-Harthi said, “I found in my study that Arab students preferred a significantly more rigid structure and more interaction with their instructors compared to American students.” She continued, “Arab learners need to know specifically what to do and how to do it. They find the open flexibility and wide chance to provide their input and ideas uncomfortable.”
In addition to accessibility issues, another cause for concern is content. It has been argued that the courses must be locally relevant – and educate individuals in developing countries about subjects that take into account their structural differences. In order to reconcile these differences, universities must collaborate in order to design customized and relevant course content. University of São Paulo professor José Dutra de Oliveira Neto reiterated these concerns when he said the global north “did not ask us what we want.”
Facebook is teaming up with EdX to make course materials from elite institutions (Harvard, MIT and the University of Tokyo) for students in Rwanda. While still in the experimental phase, Facebook hopes to bring more people online in the developing world while providing them with an education in the same breath. Many are concerned over this move as it will place Facebook as the “gatekeeper” to Internet access in developing countries.
“For poorer people, Internet access will equal Facebook. That’s not the Internet – that’s being fodder for someone else’s ad-targeting business,” Crawford explained. She continued, “[t]hat’s entrenching and amplifying existing inequalities and contributing to poverty of imagination—a crucial limitation on human life.”
Facebook stated that it will integrate the social media platform into Edx so that students will be forced to join the social media site in exchange for access to the online courses.
Facebook’s move has been regarded as being disingenuous and profit-focused. The free online education move is simply a Trojan horse for bringing Facebook into these developing countries and making a buck off of the unassuming poor.
Andrew Ng, associate professor at Stanford, explains how Coursera, one of the leading online education companies, has the potential to revolutionize higher education by allowing students to hear his lectures, complete homework assignments, be graded, and eventually receive a certificate for completing the course.
Although Coursera offers 532 online courses, none of the schools that create content for Coursera actually offers credit for courses taken.
Widening Education Gap
Rather than standardizing higher education standards across the board, MOOCs will increase the distance between elite education institutions and the education offered to most college students, many argue.
The partnerships between less-funded universities and elite institutions require the former to pay for the licensed content, so the argument that MOOCs would relieve universities who are “financially strained” is irrelevant. The financially worse-off universities are paying off the elite universities, putting them in a worse position than they were at before.
And since for-profit post-secondary institutions are funded by U.S. taxpayers, the money that goes towards providing these online courses comes straight from American taxpayers’ pockets. All things that are “free” always comes at a cost for someone.
The result is the delivery of these courses without the bells and whistles of having professors from elite universities to teach the content. The less well-funded schools are left paying the elite institutions for Harvard-style content, and nothing else.
While MOOCs has been said to be “revolutionary,” their graduation rates are less than impressive. One example is a 2012 bioelectricity class offered at Duke: 12,725 students enrolled, 3,658 attempted a quiz, and 313 passed. The less-than-modest number of students that pass do not make up for the incredible costs that are being charged to these lesser-funded universities. Edx charges universities $250,000 per course, and an extra $50,000 for each re-offering of the course.
In the digital age, it has become the standard to provide technological fixes to deeply entrenched problems, but we must, as Evgeny Morozov argues, keep this ‘solutionism’ in check. We need to have open discourse and discuss the possible consequences about applying technological fixes to long-standing global issues.
Sources: The Chronicle, The Australian, To Save Everything, Click Here, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, Dissent Magazine, The Guardian, Motherboard, AlterNet
Photo: Business Administration Information