Are MOOCs not as ‘open’ as we think?

Imagine this … its 2001 and you go to the local library to find some information to learn about a new important topic. But you discover that the majority of the books are not written in the local language you know. The best content is in an unfamiliar foreign language and hence not accessible to you!

This would not have been a problem 20 years ago, because the local library mostly stocked information in the local language – and you did not know what else was out there.  The local information was all you had, and you had to do with it. But now, this is no longer the case. With access to a simple device and stable internet connection, you can access so much more information from all across the world – the wealth of knowledge is at your finger-tips! But there is only one problem, what if you do not understand the language of this vast content?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are platforms that provide free education to the masses. MOOCs bring together experts in a field of study, free online resources and interested learners all across the world. The majority of MOOCs are produced and teach their content in English. According to Shah (2017), more than half of the 9,600 MOOCs available are produced in English. More specifically, 80% of the courses currently advertised on the Coursera website are in English.

Keeping with that trend, English makes up 60.3% of content on the internet and continues to be the dominant scholarly language. So, if English has always dominated content on the internet and academia – then why are majority of MOOCs being produced in English such a problem?

MOOCs claim and represent a change in the way we view education. No longer is education restricted by proximity, income, race, gender, class etc. These accessibility factors are encapsulated in their mission statements edX: “everyone everywhere” and Coursera: “anyone, anywhere”.

People in developing countries are in theory the greatest benefactors of MOOCs. But the dominance of English creates an inequality in who is able to gain knowledge and skills from MOOC courses, as a learners  proficiency in English is the main predictor of course completion on such platforms.  This amounts to significant barriers to entry for those who are not proficient in English.

As a result, the MOOC claim to serve ‘everyone’ and ‘anyone’ diminishes as large chunks of the developing world population are excluded from the use of MOOCs. The democratization of education and subsequent social mobility that MOOCs aims to provide, is undercut if it is not reaching those who would benefit the most.

Learners from native English-speaking backgrounds or countries that have adopted English into their education curriculums are the ones most likely will benefit the most from MOOCs. This interactive graph, shows the spread of English around the world. In 142 countries (blue) English is a mandatory part of public education, illustrating the global pull of English.

So, should more countries adopt English into their curriculums/societies? Or should we resist the global pull of English?

A neo-liberal perspective would argue that the emphasis of English is logical – given its dominance in the higher education market. It also gears students for the global labor market. However, this view was relevant when access to education was limited and scarce. Keen learners would adapt accordingly, ie. travel abroad, learn a new language, learn new cultural norms etc. to access what was only available in few parts of the world.

But now, MOOCs are democratizing education and making it widely available to people everywhere in the word. We should not let this important development be limited by factors such as language which are in our control.

Local languages, embody a society’s culture and heritage – to be robbed of that is to lose a “language’s memory bank as well as its conceptual frameworks“. This reduces the diversity of our global knowledge and results in monolinguistic knowledge base – that is self perpetuating. To resist the global pull of English and cater to a larger sect of people – MOOCs should be accessible to non-English speaking populations as well.

This can be achieved in two ways, through translation of existing MOOCs or the creation of new MOOCs in a local language. Translation is a more cost effective and ‘quick fix’ method of increasing an existing MOOC’s global reach. However ‘the methodological and intellectual orientations of the English-speaking academic culture’ remain, as teaching methods, practices, and concepts reinforce Western knowledge as ‘normative models“. On the other hand, national content production not only requires time, knowledge and funding but the dominance of established English MOOCs may overshadow smaller nationally tailored MOOCs.

For example “various ‘regional’ MOOC platforms have emerged since 2015, supporting other countries and languages: e.g., XuetangX (China), MiríadaX (Spain), MéxicoX (Mexico), France Université Numérique (France), EduOpen (Italy), ThaiMOOC (Thailand), SWAYAM (India), and Edraak (Jordan)”. While this is a step in the right direction, these platforms are still noted as ‘regional’ or ‘country specific’ whereas the much larger and English-speaking USA and UK MOOC providers are deemed ‘global’. This reinforces the facade that to be ‘global’ is to be Western.

So, who’s responsibility is it to ensure that MOOCs are truly accessible to all? Do MOOC platforms bare the weight to translate and/or provide national MOOCs? Or is it the government’s responsibility to boost the education sector by encouraging local academics to produce MOOCs for national audiences?


What does the future look like?

The most widely spoken language in the world is Chinese, with 1197 million speakers. This, coupled with China being the fastest growing economy and a dominant player in the advancement of AI it is no surprise that China has taken off in the EdTech space. In 2013, Coursera Zone, by Coursera was launched where Coursera’s existing courses would be offered, but combined with Chinese language discussion forums and other Chinese language course materials. Similarly, XuetangX was a modification of OpenedX and the platform was tailored to the local Chinese speaking community, offering a community and channel for local content production. According to Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera “Almost any way you slice it, China is the No. 1 country in terms of the potential for growth and impact on students,”.

So, If China continues to dominate in AI and create advanced cutting-edge content in Chinese – will that disadvantaged the English speaking world?