Free, open online courses as development tools?

Right now it is reverberating through the world’s universities like a tectonic shock.

It is free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs); this quote is part of a recent article in University World News about how MOOCs will change higher education around the world. You’ve probably heard that many prestigious universities are putting their course syllabi and lectures online; MOOCs also grade student performance and can issue a certificate of completion. These courses can be accessed without cost, from anywhere in the world, to anyone who has a computer with Internet connection.

MOOCs can be used to supplement local education, or bundled courses could (although likely not) replace university degrees. In some places, MOOCs might be a student’s first – or only – exposure to higher education. (Note: According to e-Literate Blog, only 10% of those who register for a MOOC complete it.)

MOOCs are only a few years old, yet they’re redefining the horizon of global higher education. Just think! New courses will spread like wildfire, catapulting the best lecturers into living rooms from Abuja to Ulan Baatar. And if employers equate MOOC credentials to university degrees, anyone with desire and a computer could list Harvard or Stanford on their CV.

As this revolution takes shape, too few people are asking: Will MOOCs bring higher education to those who cannot access or afford it? Is it an effective – perhaps revolutionary – way to teach skills, open minds, and present alternatives in countries with weak higher education systems? Will it lift people out of poverty?

World Partners for Development of Ghana thinks yes, and “is linking thousands of disadvantaged students … with such genuine online free certificate programs in many disciplines to help build their future.” (Quoted article here.) The organization’s website links to seven MOOC platforms, including a large skills-training site called ALISON.

What impact MOOCs will have on Ghana – and other developing countries – is yet to be seen. My best guess is that we will see analogous outcomes in both the rich and poor world, whatever those outcomes prove themselves to be. After all, students aren’t remarkably different across the globe; it takes highly-determined individuals, regardless of nationality, to complete a course or a full certificate program. Students with fewer resources will have additional challenges: English proficiency, reliable Internet, the ability to work independently, and time to devote (and funds to make this time available). There is also the question of how employers will receive MOOCs.

It seems there is greater potential for MOOCs in existing higher education systems, supplementing coursework and providing ideas and examples to lecturers. We’ll see what happens. This much is clear: open access to education is a marvelous thing, and universities should be commended for offering the so-called “world’s best courses” online.

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In case you want to poke around a MOOC, here are links to some well-known sites: MIT’s OpenCourseWare; MIT, Harvard & Berkeley’s edX; and Udacity, a private company.

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One Response to Free, open online courses as development tools?

  1. Pingback: Follow-Up: Free open online courses as development tools? | Higher Education + International Development

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