4 reasons why MOOCs should be discussed in international development

I have been following the debate around Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for a while now. In my own imaginary Wordle cloud, the word ‘disruptive’ probably features most prominently, but this post deals with the potential impact on Western educational institutions and higher education only on a side-note. But issues around MOOCs and development (policy) have not been really addressed, yet there is no doubt that
Online learning and various new providers are responding to a major global development, the massification or universalisation of higher education that is creating huge and unmet demand in the developing world. [Source]
In this post, I am more concerned what the rise of MOOCs and the growing interest in/from developing countries may mean for local higher education institutions that are already often underfunded and are struggling to meet the demands for adequate education in the 21st century.
I fully agree with Tony Bates
critical reflections and what he describes as one of the 'myths around MOOCs (Myth 1: MOOCs increase access to higher education in developing countries):
Indeed, to suggest that Coursera is an alternative to conventional university education takes the pressure off governments such as South Africa’s to find their own, indigenous solutions to access to higher education.
I will come back to this point in my final point, but first I want to outline three other areas that I think deserve more attention from the ICT4D and broader development community.

1. Invest in local partnerships!
Even if your university or platform has the brand recognition and delivers content virtually, globally and 24/7 it may be a good idea to reach out to local institutions to tailor courses to local needs, build capacity of staff and forge links that can potentially lead to ‘offline’, non-MOOC activities. From my own experience I know that these can often be time-consuming processes as they mean that you have to engage with the political economy of local elites, institutions and power relations. As tempting as it is to simply circumvent them in the short-term, I do believe that only by engaging with them will you be able to foster more sustainable political and social elites and better research and teaching.

2. Don’t reduce education and academia to teaching!
MOOCs focus on teaching-but this is traditionally only one aspect of higher education. What is still difficult to access in many developing countries is the physical infrastructure around academia-from computer labs to libraries or simply a safe public space for debate and discussion. Yes, some of these aspects can be ‘virtualized’-and in some contexts may even be safer to explore online-but in the medium term I am worried about even less visibility of public intellectuals and the institution ‘university’. The campus university as a fertile ground for dissent, discussions and exploration of critical alternatives will not become obsolete in the future!

3. The risk of ‘digital brain-drain’?
I do not want to focus too narrowly on the traditional model of a full research university as colleges, community colleges, polytechnics or whatever institution that provides skills to young people all have a role to play in encouraging people to stay ‘local’ and gain skills and meaningful livelihoods domestically. Digital tools can certainly help, but I am a bit worried that the, say, MIT brand is a strong pull-factor to turn your back to the local providers and envision a better life abroad-which is understandable and often comes with benefits such as remittances send ‘home’ or engaging from the diaspora.
But how can we make sure that MOOCs benefit the local economy and contribute to
‘digital brain-gain?

4. Investing in higher education is still a development issue!
I remember one of my first workshops that I attended during one of my development-related internships. The Internet was a fairly new thing and one researcher basically laid out the vision of how in a few years time African higher education would be transformed through web-based teaching and learning. Well, sufficient to say that the story is a bit more complicated...but especially for friends and colleagues who teach and research in less ‘marketable’ subjects like anthropology, humanities or most social sciences, they continue to struggle with insufficient infrastructure or political and administrative unwillingness to support ‘critical’ research.

I am sure there is a space for MOOCs to supplement local teaching efforts with cutting-edge insights from abroad, but in the end unless local philanthropists step up or international donors support programs outside a narrower focus on primary education that often promises better photo-ops and easier to measure ‘impact’. MOOCs may ‘disrupt’ long-term local endeavours in search for the next Internet-facilitated ‘revolution’ that still needs to be supplemented by local institutions, scholarship and academics.


  1. Great comment by a facebook friend who is an academic in Australia:
    'i agree with your points and would add that MOOC platforms are often very expensive, so local unis cannot sign up to them, plus the required infrastructure favours industrialsed or at least high internet penetration countries where data is cheaply available. There is potential here, as for a long time distance lerning, via the web has offered remote and overseas students a cheaper way of receiving educational access, but in terms of development that would have to work on a local basis and to my knowledge open university models have not been around in Africa/Asia as a model for this to occur locally successfully. BUt I am a cynic regarding MOOCs in general, it is conceivable that they could help with teacher training or access for some people, but nowhere near the extent teh optimists claim.'


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