Massive Open Online Courses: Can They Help to Educate the World?

Tracey LiThe World Wide Web recently celebrated its 20th birthday and, since its birth, the Internet has grown to become an indispensable tool for many people, penetrating into many aspects of everyday life, including education. The Flipped Classroom, for example, has revolutionized how classes and homework are organized and delivered. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people are taking advantage of Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs). These are online courses that are open to everyone from all over the world, which enable participants to learn in their own time and often free of charge. While access is easy for citizens of richer nations—and richer citizens of all nations—could this platform also help to spread high-quality education to the less advantaged in advanced and developing countries alike?

Due to huge technological advances, there are now many places in the world where an Internet connection is available although books, schools, and teachers may not be. These are the places where online learning could potentially make a big difference. In particular, the most accessible courses are completely self-contained which means that no materials are required other than those provided online. The only necessities are a computer, or even just a mobile phone, with Internet connection, and a desire to learn. Even the language may not be a barrier as many course organizers are starting to provide translations in multiple languages.

There are many MOOC providers, but three currently dominate: Coursera, edX, and Udacity. All three were launched in the spring of 2012 with similar goals in mind: to make high-quality education available to everyone. They differ in the number, variety, and structure of the courses they offer, and the institutions with which they partner.

Coursera has by far the largest numbers: 3.6 million learners participating in 374 courses offered by 70 different universities from around the world. They emphasize breadth and diversity, offering courses in sciences, the arts, the humanities, and business, and, although the majority of their partners are from the United States, Coursera has partner universities in Taiwan, Israel, and Mexico. They also have very firm pedagogical foundations and the course material is based on research into optimal teaching and learning methods; hence the inclusion of interactive quizzes, homework, and peer-assessed assignments designed to help students engage with, and retain, the taught material.

Meanwhile, edX is the only non-profit enterprise of the three, founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They partner with several Ivy League universities and their first course, ‘Circuits and Electronics’, attracted 150,000 students from over 160 countries, with ages ranging from 14 to 74.

Finally, Udacity is the smallest of the three, specializing mainly in computer science and related subjects. The company was launched following the success of an experimental online course, ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence‘ which attracted 160,000 students.

The participation numbers are a clear testament to the popularity of MOOCs, and there are accounts of their impacts in developing countries. For example, the MIT Technology Review reported that amongst the participants in the first edX course was a professor of electrical engineering named Carlos Martínez from the University of El Salvador. He was so impressed by the course that he traveled around his country persuading others to participate. His story highlights the fact that the problem in developing countries is not just a lack of resources, but also that the existing education is sometimes of very poor quality: Martínez’s institution is the only public university in El Salvador, and he explains that only seven percent of students ever graduate, taking an average of nine years to do so. He also says that his own classes have “developed a very bad reputation” because of poor teaching and professors refusing to help students when they get stuck. This is an example where a MOOC has an advantage: all course participants are encouraged to help each other via online discussions, so that students are not all reliant on one staff member. And in a classroom of 100,000 students, someone is bound to know the answer to your problem. In fact, Daphne Koller, one of the co-founders of Coursera who is a professor of computer science at Stanford University, revealed in her TED talk that the average response time to a student query was just 22 minutes.

However, MOOCs are certainly not without their critics. One cause for concern is the narrow and elitist approach of organizations like edX, who focus on courses given only by top American universities. Even Coursera, who provide courses from a far wider range of universities, offering students a broader choice of institutions, topics, and teaching methods, admit that they will only offer classes from elite institutions. Some students relish the opportunity to take an online class from one of these prestigious schools, but there are also many for whom ‘top-quality education’ does not necessarily entail Ivy League and top five rated universities. As Allan Spessoto discusses in his June, 2013 Development Roast article about the Flipped Classroom, there is a risk of homogenization. The ‘one size fits all approach’ does not work with education, and diversity is necessary to ensure that every student can reach their full potential.

Then there is debate over the suitability of the online format and assessment. Current data indicates that majority of online students are learning for interest, rather than to gain a certificate or any qualification; in this case, the assessment method may be useful, but not crucial. However, if MOOCs are to substitute conventional courses and enable students to gain accreditation as well as the knowledge and skills that they would gain from a traditional course, the teaching and assessment have to be of a standard that is comparable to a real university. Subjects such as mathematics and computing are well suited to an online format due to their theoretical and logical nature; my personal experience of an edX computer science course was highly satisfactory, and the homework problems and feedback certainly enhanced my understanding of, and ability to apply, the concepts taught. I do not feel that I could have gained significantly more by attending a ‘live’ class. On the other hand, subjects like poetry, politics, and philosophy are harder to transfer to an online platform since they are based on skills such as creativity, independent thinking, and critical appraisal which are difficult to teach and test online. I experienced this whilst taking ‘The Challenges of Global Poverty’ course from edX: it was very informative, but I felt that I didn’t learn any more than I would have by reading a text book, and that the homework assignments amounted to nothing more than reading comprehension. For acquiring factual knowledge, the course is perfectly adequate. But for those who are perhaps studying with a view to pursuing research or a career in the field, a real classroom environment with face to face discussions, extended written assignments based on independent research, and fieldwork, would seem to be a superior option as this would enable students to develop critical thinking and related skills, in addition to learning the facts.

There is still the question of whether MOOCs are really as accessible as they claim to be; that is, do they really reach those people who do not otherwise have access to higher education? Firstly, there are the effects of the ‘digital divide’ between those who have internet access and those who do not. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) document, ‘The World in 2013: ICT Facts and Figures‘ reveals that 78 percent of households in developed countries have an internet connection, compared to only 28 percent in developing countries. The reason that many households do not have internet is because fixed connections may be prohibitively expensive and require that you first have a computer and, indeed, a house and electricity. Unfortunately, it is often these lower-income groups who also tend to be those with restricted access to traditional education facilities, so MOOCs are currently not reaching many people who would stand to benefit most from them. However, mobile internet is becoming increasingly cheaper and more popular – the number of mobile-broadband subscriptions in developing countries more than doubled from 2011 to 2013. And Google chairman Eric Schmidt optimistically predicts that everyone in the world will be online by 2020, aided by non-profit organizations such as Geeks Without Frontiers, who are working fast to help bring computer technology and wireless internet to the world’s poorest regions.

Relatedly, it is important to ask: is the material contained in MOOCs really accessible to those from under-privileged educational backgrounds? It is hard to find numbers for students categorized by educational history in either developed or developing countries, so it is a difficult question to answer. For sure, MOOCs have enrolled students from developing countries since they were launched, but again it is hard to find out exactly how many of these students there were, or how effectively they learnt. However, one initiative does look set to directly benefit this group: a joined Coursera and World Bank project to develop a tailored MOOC for Tanzania. Many employers there complain of the difficulty of finding candidates equipped with the relevant technical qualifications, so Coursera are designing a curriculum, with input from local businesses, to teach precisely these skills.

At the end of it all, education is at the root of social and economic, as well as personal, development. Many people who have already had a solid education have a desire to continue learning throughout their lifetimes for the latter reason, and online courses enable them to do this relatively easily. And for those who are not fortunate enough to have access to traditional education facilities, although MOOCs may not be perfect and lack benefits that only a real classroom can provide, an online education is certainly better than nothing.

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Tracey Li is a Senior Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.

For your reference:

CERN, 30 April 2013, Twenty years of a free, open web. <>

Harvard Magazine, 1 May 2013, Differences of Opinion on Online Courses. <>

Inside Higher Ed, 22 March 2013, Coursera’s Contractual Elitism. <>

ITU, The World in 2013: ICT Facts and Figures. <>

Koller, D, talk at TEDGlobal 2012, What we´re learning from online education. <>

Regalado, A, MIT Technology Review November 12, 2012, Online Courses Put Pressure on Universities in Poorer Nations. <>

Spessoto, A, Development Roast, 5 June 2013, Graphics: Is the Flipped Classroom really reinventing education? <>

Trucano, M, EduTech, 12 April 2013, MOOCs in Africa. <>


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One comment

  1. MOOCs are an excllent source for educating. However, only the educated can get access to the courses. I think MOOCs cannot help in bringing about an education revolution among the world’s poor and uneducated.

    A different method is required for bringing about an impactful change in the world’s large uneducated community. There is a method known as “project-based-learning”. A palpable impact can be made if some large development organizations like USAID / DFID etc focus on developing this method in developing countries.


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