by Maha Bali
Inspired by: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” — William Gibson
“The web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect — to help people work together — and not as a technical toy. The ultimate goal of the Web is to support and improve our weblike existence in the world.” — Tim Berners-Lee
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been the subject of much hyperbole in the educational/eLearning world for a few years now, under the guise of spreading university-quality education to the masses for free (the hyperbole is dwindling down, but not completely).
MOOCs hold potential benefit for many in the developing world: the ability to reach the unemployed, women and eager learners of all ages unable to afford a university education. But we need to be aware that, while they have potential to expand access to some knowledge (usually nowhere near the quality and social capital of a credentialed education at university) to the underprivileged, developments like MOOCs for the most part actually reproduce privilege. In this sense, they can be seen as a striking example of distribution problems that exist across the entire internet.
There are four main ways in which MOOCs (and the wider internet) reproduce privilege:
a. The majority of content comes from Western, developed countries — where is the voice of the rest of the world? Not only that, but within those countries, the content comes from the privileged institutions that are able to afford paying their professors to offer MOOCs (ironically while continuing to employ adjunct faculty).
b. The majority of content comes in English (and a handful in a few major world languages) — again, where is the voice of the rest of the world? What about people who are not fluent in English? And moreover, what is the English-speaking world missing out on by not reading the content written in other languages? Translation apps continue to leave much to be desired.
c. There are still many people in the world without internet access, or with insufficient infrastructure to support richer forms of media including audiovisual and synchronous communication. Giving people content on CDs, as some suggest, would not solve the problem because I believe connectivity is necessary to realise the power of the internet in enabling learners to find the content they are interested in, and to empower learners to connect with others.
d. Digital literacies, not just digital skills, are needed to navigate the potential of the internet for connection and learning — and not everyone who has access to the internet has these skills and literacies. These literacies are needed also for people to become producers of content and not just consumers of it. This all explains why the majority of people benefiting from MOOCs have been those who already have a college degree — it takes a certain kind of autonomous learner with digital literacy to be able to navigate a MOOC well.
Steps Forward — Towards a More Postcolonial Internet for Learning
a. There are two developments in the MOOC world that make me optimistic. First, there are MOOCs coming from different regions of the world and in different languages. Some of those are on already-existing MOOC platforms like Coursera; some come in new, dedicated platforms, such as Edraak, the Arabic MOOC platform funded by the Queen Rania Foundation in Jordan. Edraak offers MOOCs from the Arab world, primarily in Arabic. Second, the original type of MOOC (called a cMOOC or connectivist MOOC, as initially facilitated by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in 2008) which emphasises participant-driven goals and content, continues to exist alongside the more widely-known xMOOCs on platforms like Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn and Open2Study. Because connectivist MOOCs are participant-driven, content can potentially come from outside the developed world, and often does; when I was responsible for co-facilitating such a learning experience, I made an effort to ensure we had ‘guest contributors’ from all over the world. Some digital pedagogues who teach MOOCs on traditionally xMOOC platforms find ways to infuse connectivist principles in their teaching. Examples include the University of Edinburgh’s #edcmooc (ELearning and Digital Culture MOOC) and University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Shakespeare MOOC (#moocspeare) led last year by Jesse Stommel. These MOOCs did not use traditional didactic video or multiple choice quizzes and instead encouraged learners to use social media and reflect on deep questions and engage with each other.
b. Khan Academy, which first started as a series of educational videos in English, is making efforts to expand worldwide such that the content provided is available in a variety of languages and localised to different regional contexts and curricula. There is already content available in Spanish (working with Mexico), Portuguese (working with Brazil) and Hindi (working with India) and more in the pipeline.
c. Initiatives like Virtually Connecting, which focus not on pushing content, but enabling conversation. Virtually Connecting carries many of the limitations mentioned earlier — English-focused, using rich media (video and synchronous communication), and the need for digital literacy to benefit from it. However, for those who can benefit from it, it expands access not to conference content, but to up-to-date conversations in the education field, and by doing so, it has the potential to empower academics in developing countries and those less privileged in developed countries. It is an example of a connectivist lifelong learning experience, rather than a MOOC. And it is grassroots- and volunteer-based, rather than coming from any large organisation.
I don’t want to dwell on all the things that are still going wrong, but I will list a few:
a. There is still much more emphasis in hyperbolic education discourse on pushing content rather than enabling connections between people.
b. There is a lot of power coming from organisations that choose to fund particular initiatives and institutions who are able to push their content onto the rest of the world.
c. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and search engines like Google, use algorithms which bias the kinds of connections and content individuals can make when using them for learning. This means that even the ‘free choice’ of finding your own content and communicating with others is not completely in your own hands as a learner. There is also all kinds of data being collected about individuals for purposes unknown to these individuals, and often without their awareness or explicit consent — and again, it takes digital literacy to find ways to circumvent it and become critical digital citizens.
Still — there is hope, as well as growing awareness that the ed tech hype is not all it is advertised to be. There will always be room for improvement, but there are enough steps in the right direction for me to be cautiously optimistic about the future.
Maha Bali is Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, International Director of Digital Pedagogy Lab, Editor at the journal Hybrid Pedagogy, and editorial board member of both the Journal of Pedagogic Development and Learning, Media and Technology. Bali is also a Prof Hacker blogger, DML Central blogger, and co-founder of virtuallyconnecting.org and edcontexts.org.