New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, has always touted his enthusiasm for the MOOC, calling it a “revolution” to sweep the status quo of higher education. In January of 2013, he wrote that MOOCs have the ability to extend access to higher education to the most remote areas of the globe, going as far as to claim that MOOCs could have serious, positive effects on US foreign relations. He suggested that the US “rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic,” all for very cheap.
Coursera co-founder, Daphne Koller, seems to share this opinion, as she claimed in 2012 during a TED Talk (a non-profit series of online mini lectures which helped inspire MOOCs) that MOOCs could “establish education as a fundamental human right.”
There are many who don’t share Friedman and Coursera’s enthusiasm for the global reach of MOOCs. In September of 2012, Jason Lane and Kevin Kinser warned of the prepackaged and standardized format of the MOOC, calling it the McDonaldization of higher education, and Ghanashyam Sharma wrote last Monday, July 15, “The excitement about the unprecedented access that people around the world now have to education from places like Harvard and MIT overshadows what should have been a topic of serious conversation: the intellectual barrier in spite of technological access.” Both pieces, written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, warned that most MOOCs created in the US by US professors are only perpetuating a “wave of intellectual neo-colonialism,” in which geographical areas lacking in first-rate education are fed Western ideas that are in all likelihood incompatible with local cultural understandings and even methods of learning. Furthermore, online learning imported from the US could seriously damage progress of developing brick-and-mortar institutes of education and cultivating local teachers in third world countries.
An article by Inside Higher Ed from April, 2013 cites the efforts of the African Virtual University, which refuses solely to utilize online content from Western universities, but which seeks to build its own content. In the process, local teachers and IT staff are given critical support and training. “An online course beamed in from America doesn’t do this — even if there is enough bandwidth to access it.”
While it is undeniable that the prospect of opening higher education to the world is inspiring, these words of caution must not go unheeded. Is there a better way to democratize education than simply mass-distributing the opinions of elite American professors? Can some sort of collaboration occur between professors of American universities and universities around the world?
This post is part of a series on “Making History Online” that involves an examination of open online learning. Students and faculty at the House Divided Project at Dickinson College are collaborating this summer on a new open, online course called, “Understanding Lincoln,” taught by Prof. Matthew Pinsker and covering ways to teach Abraham Lincoln’s legacy using close readings of his most important writings. This new type of online course represents a unique partnership between Dickinson College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The course is available for both graduate credit and free participation. Registration for the course closes on Friday, July 19, 2013. For more information, go to https://www.gilderlehrman.org/programs-exhibitions/understanding-lincoln-graduate-course.