With ever increasing interest in MOOCs from the media, university stakeholders and academics alike, there is a need to step back a bit and critically evaluate some of the claims around MOOCs, especially with respect to the developing world. The ‘hype’ narrative of MOOCs as disruptor has largely been discredited in the West, through both media scrutiny as well as academic critique. However, a cursory search of media reporting of MOOCs in India within the last month alone reveals headlines such as “Can 2016 be the inflection year for MOOCs in India?” and “Huge Opportunity for Online Learning in India” – filled with hyperbolic quotes reminiscent of 2012, such as “Without a second thought, MOOCs are one of the most viable platforms for transforming the educational scenario in the country, especially in semi-urban and rural areas.”.
So why is it that despite all the evidence from research in MOOCs that suggests learners are for the most part, more educated and wealthier than average, that media reporting in the developing world has yet to catch up? One potential reason could be the fact that the outlook for most higher education systems in the developing world are incredibly bleak. Faculty is underpaid and as a result teaching quality is of a low standard; with a handful of notable exceptions, most universities are shamefully underfunded; most graduates lack employment skills, etc. There is a temptation therefore to appeal to the “technology will save us” narrative – where the technology, in this case MOOCs, can do no wrong, and only the potential positive benefits are highlighted, while proven challenges to MOOCs such as single digit completion rates, lack of engagement, flaky assessment and cheating, unrecognised credentialing, not to mention the various infrastructure-related challenges, are conveniently brushed under the rug.
In isolation, such media hype is largely benign. However, the hype is having a marked effect on policy, which is of concern. The Indian Government, for instance, is diverting funds away from traditional programmes to fund their MOOC project SWAYAM. The bold aims of this project are outlined in a previous post. There is a need for more empirical evidence to support some of the claims around MOOCs in the developing world – to inform the various stakeholders of not just the benefits, but also the inherent challenges to adopting MOOCs as part of broader educational policy.
Research on MOOCs in the developing world is slowly beginning to trickle in, but most existing papers tend to be opinion pieces and theoretical in nature. In its limited capacity, my PhD research hopes to provide evidence of MOOC learning in the Indian context. While a majority of current empirical research on MOOCs is focused on learner behaviour, most studies involve the analysis of trace and log data available on MOOC platforms. This approach can be useful in identifying patterns of engagement for example, however strict data-sharing policies mean that researchers from the developing world have no means of researching learners from their cultures without running a MOOC themselves (See more of my recruitment ranting here).
My research focuses on the learner perspective as well, but uses a mixed-methods approach instead to get a holistic understanding of Indian learner demographics and experiences. My research first utilizes a survey instrument to reach a wide number of participants and collect data on their demographics, motivations, MOOC preferences, and experiences/challenges they may have faced during their MOOC study – followed by rich qualitative interviews with select participants. Studies like mine could be used in varied contexts in the developing world, to compare learners from different cultures and see to what extent, if any, does culture play a role in learning in a MOOC.
Interestingly, in just the past week another report has emerged which mirrors my own research methods(also my PhD tentative title!), and looks at learners from South Africa, Colombia and The Philippines. My next blog post will look at this report in more detail.