The problem with online education

When Salman Khan launched Khan Academy in 2009, digital education took a great leap forward. Putting video tutorials online to explain universal subjects to anyone, for free was revolutionary. Real, personal education was no longer restricted to the classroom. Online education went from reading wikipedia articles to streaming the full 1-on-1 tutoring experience to anyone’s computer.

Online education took another jump forward in 2012 with the advent of “Massively Open Online Courses” or MOOCs. With some of the world’s best universities offering their courseware online, for free, to students around the world through platforms such as edX and Coursera, MOOCs offered the world the opportunity to break barriers and truly democratize education.

And then, in 2013 — came reports like these from major news organizations about the failure of MOOCs to truly democratize education. With the future looking so bright for online education — you could easily ask — what happened?

The broadband barrier

The first is something that’s hard to grasp for Americans: That only about 10% of the world has fixed broadband internet at home (as of 2014 [1]). Given that MOOCs were realized as self-study tools for students to gain access to higher educational resources — they are only implicitly targeting 10% of the world’s population. It might be comforting to think that streaming broadband internet is now such a widespread commodity that only the most rural or off-the grid communities don’t have access to such resources, but numbers don’t lie, and as soon as you step outside the “First World Bubble”, you quickly realize how little penetration there is of resources like Khan Academy and MOOCs, largely in part because they are just plain harder to access.

Cost of broadband

The locality issue

English fluency is also taken for granted in the US, where most never experience the difficulty of learning from educational material in a language in a foreign language. Given that most online education offered on MOOCs and Khan Academy are developed / offered primary in english — it is a problem that English is actually only spoken by less than 5% of the world as a native language [2]. Noble efforts have been made to translate content to subtitles such as with Khan Academy, though even when subtitles exist, the underlying content is entirely US focused — using American examples, discussing american contexts and using American writing / text /labels throughout the lectures. Again — this may be hard to grasp if you re reading this but imagine you were trying to learn programming (which is hard enough). Now imagine you also had to learn a good amount of working level Chinese before being able to start taking your programming course — and you begin to understand the problem.

The content problem

One final issue deals with the nature and source of online education: the content itself. With the pattern of MOOCs (and earlier initiatives like iTunes university), online education has become associated with higher education. There’s no reason, however, that education needs to be, or should be, restricted to traditional university disciplines, or even traditional K-12 educational curricula.

Ultimately, when you’re talking about self-study tools, people will only be motivated to learn what they want to learn -and given the broad array of people’s unique circumstances and needs, many people may never find what they’re looking for in a university or on a MOOC site.

A simple example would be the wide range of vocational trades which get no visibility in the MOOCs sphere primarily because the institutions that are in a position to give away content for free are big name brand universities, and not small vocational schools.

What we’re doing about it

Our goal is to make Online Education truly work for emerging market, and that means solving the broadband barrier, and putting localization at the core of our organization.

[1] International Telecommunications Union, ICT Facts and Figures 2013,Geneva, Switz. 2013

[2] English | Ethnologue.” Ethnologue. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Sept. 2013. <http://www.ethnologue.com/language/eng>.

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