Wednesday, September 14, 2016

MOOCs making an impact in developing countries

MOOCs have been criticised by many on the grounds that they have so far only attracted those who already have a university education and live in developed countries. Several studies have pointed in this direction and this has been used as evidence that MOOCs have largely missed their objective of making higher education more accessible to those who are for some reason unable to access traditional forms. However very few have so far actually studied MOOC participation and attitudes in developing countries to see whether they have made an impact or not.

A new study from the University of Washington, The Advancing MOOCs for Development Initiative: An examination of MOOC usage for professional workforce development outcomes in Colombia, the Philippines, & South Africa, has done just that. They have studied 1400 MOOC learners from Colombia, the Philippines and South Africa and looked at completion rates, attitudes and satisfaction as well as asking employers about their views on MOOCs as valid credentials on the labour market. What they found was in stark contrast to the commonly held view that MOOCs have missed their mark.

Many of the key findings of this study are surprising. They challenge commonly held beliefs about MOOC usage, defying typical characterizations of how people in resource-constrained environments use technology for learning and employment purposes. In fact, some of the findings are so contrary to what has been reported in the United States and other developed environments that they raise questions necessitating further scrutiny.

Around 80% of the learners studied had low or medium income and the vast majority had low or intermediate digital skills levels. Furthermore almost half of the respondents received a certificate for their MOOC participation, far above normal levels, and many saw MOOC participation as a step on the way to recognised professional qualifications. The employers in the survey were generally positive to MOOCs and awareness was fairly high. They were not seen as equivalent to traditional education but at the same time were not simply dismissed. This all suggests that MOOCs are indeed making an impact where they are most needed and in the conclusion of the article the authors recommend further studies in this area.

In closing, the authors believe this study has made a significant contribution to understanding MOOC usage in less-developed country contexts that both provides stakeholders in workforce development and education with insights and offers a foundation on which future research can be built. The potential for increasing MOOC uptake and improving employment opportunities, especially for more marginalized populations, is clearly there. This is promising, and urges action since the data shows that MOOC users are savvy in using the knowledge they’ve gained from MOOCs to advance their professional aspirations.

I hope we see further work in this area because there is enormous potential for open education and we need to challenge the negative image of MOOCs only attracting middle class graduates from developed countries. If there are signs that they are offering opportunities to people without access to traditional higher education they need to be encouraged and brought to light. It is particularly interesting that most of the learners in the survey did not see technical issues and lack of infrastructure as major barriers to learning from MOOCs. Those who want to learn find a way round such issues in general.

However I also believe that open courses (not all open courses are MOOCs and not all MOOCs are open) can benefit far more people in both developed and developing countries if we can also offer them the right scaffolding. Organisations such as libraries, learning centres, vocational training colleges etc can offer face-to-face and/or online support groups for open learners, providing academic support, technical support, Englsih language support or the opportunity to discuss the course in their own language. The massive open arena of a MOOC can be very intimidating to those new to online learning and so maybe we can provide them with safe havens, small restrictive groups, for less confident learners to discuss problems with peers and in a familiar environment.

Garrido, M., Koepke, L., Andersen, S., Mena, A., Macapagal, M., & Dalvit, L. (2016). An examination of MOOC usage for professional workforce development outcomes in Colombia, the Philippines, & South Africa. Seattle: Technology & Social Change Group, University of Washington Information School.

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