25 June 2014

Forum on MOOCs at UN Headquarters, 19 June 2014

MOOCs, which stands for Massive Open Online Course, is an online education course aimed at large-scale participation through free access via the internet. A number of web-based platforms supported by top universities and colleges currently offer MOOCs on a wide range of subjects. Experts say MOOCs can be key to promoting high quality education to people in places with internet access. However, as demand for MOOCs grow rapidly, experts also see reasons for concern. In order to explore these two perspectives on MOOCs – one for and one against - the United Nations Academic Impact held on 19 June 2014 a discussion forum, in collaboration with the Rockefeller Institute of Government of SUNY and the Institute for International Education.

Speaking in favour of MOOCs, Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, stressed that many countries are looking forward to launching national MOOCs platforms since decentralized and distributive model can be much more powerful in many developing countries, especially through open source platforms. Also, through licensing contents, many local institutions can translate the courses in their own language and offer them to their populations after paying licensing fee. Agarwal insisted that decentralization and non-profit, open source approach is forcing many developing countries to completely rethink their approach to education.

Philip G. Altbach, research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, defined MOOCs as neo-colonialism of the willing, since MOOCs curriculum and courses are mostly developed by those coming from Americans and western academic traditions, particularly in the area of social sciences and humanities. Pedagogical assumptions behind most MOOCs are largely western methodology. He emphasized that people should think what the central ideas are behind the courses and how they are being fundamentally adopted.

Barbara E. Kahn, professor of Marketing at Wharton, threw the question, who are taking MOOCs and why they are taking those courses. According to Ms. Kahn, many of those who take MOOCs do have graduate degree or doctoral degree. Also, a number of students are gaining a lot of help by studying MOOCs in terms of getting a job or starting their own businesses.

S. Sitaraman, senior vice president of the Ritnand Balved Educational Foundation, giving the example of India where many students are hungry for knowledge but do not have access to quality education, emphasized the role of MOOCs when it comes to allowing students to have opportunities to get the best and the latest knowledge. At the same time, he pointed out, there are three areas that require reform: registration, credibility, and language.

When asked by members of the audience about the technology behind MOOCs and its challenges for developing countries, panellists agreed that infrastructure is a serious problem but not insurmountable, if there is collective will to address the problem.

With regard to MOOCs in 15 years, Altbach said that MOOCs is a sea change in the way distance education and technology have merged. If current brand leaders can maintain the quality, MOOCs will be around for a long time. Both Agarwal and Kahn stressed that MOOCs are definitely helping to improve the quality of education. They asserted that MOOCs will be part of radical changes in future higher education. Sitaraman also agreed that within the foreseeable future, MOOCs will become a reality in the world of education. The event was webcast, an archived version of which is available at http://bit.ly/1iuGYhR

- Sujung Choi.