I attended a webinar on MOOCs today conducted by the National Institute for Technology in Education (my thanks again to Joey King and Michael Nanfito again for their time). Like other higher ed schools across the country, mine is wondering how to navigate the disruptive technology landscape. How do MOOCs fit in with our online teaching mission/strategy, how can they help students, faculty, and the institution as a whole? There have been many blog posts on whether the video delivery of a typical xMOOC, such as those delivered by Udacity, edX, and Coursera, allow for effective teaching so I don’t plan to add to the bulk that exists. Rather this blog post will address a graph displayed early on during the webinar, one that showed participant distribution by country. I am not including a picture as I have not asked permission; besides the PowerPoint hasn’t been emailed to us yet ;-).
As expected, the United States leads the way with 38% of MOOC participants comprised of US citizens. What surprised me was the number 2 position. Not India, not China, but Brazil. Given population comparisons this struck me as very odd so I decided to investigate further. I began by Googling “Brazil and MOOCs” and various combinations thereof to no success. I then decided to leave out the term “MOOC” and simply find out about the higher ed situation in Brazil. This led me to an online article in the Economist titled “The mortarboard boom”, Sept 2012. According to the article only 11% of the working population has a college degree. While the universities are public institutions in Brazil and free of charge (per Brazil’s constitution), typically only those students who were able to attend the expensive private schools wind up matriculating. Private colleges do exist but they are not the same quality as some of the better public institutions.
The article does not mention MOOCs, but it provided some background as to why so many Brazilians are drawn to free educational resources. Many experience difficulty graduating from private college as they are ill prepared from their earlier years in education. Perhaps MOOCs are a way for them to receive intermediary help with certain subjects. Yet others cannot afford the tuition at the private colleges (the Brazilian government is going to force the higher quality public institutions to use a quota system for admissions). Free MOOCs provide a way for underprivileged people to obtain knowledge needed for a better life.
By now anyone who has read about MOOCs knows the story of the young Pakistani Udacity student who had her YouTube access discontinued when the government blocked the site. Those in her class made sure she had access to the course materials. The reason I include this along with the information about Brazil is that MOOCs are more than a new method to produce college courses. They are a way to provide a more open and fairly distributed global education system. Rather than furthering the educational divide, MOOCs can help to close it. As long as they remain free.
Udacity now has an agreement with San Jose State wherein students will pay $150 per course and receive credit. I understand the desire and need to make a profit, particularly given the federal and state budget cutbacks in education. But I hope that Dr. Thrun’s expertise and others like him will always remain available for those who cannot afford $150. That MOOCs can be used to “give back” to the world community, and that those who are left out of the current system due to either lack of money or the political climate of their country will always have an opportunity to further their knowledge, an opportunity that MOOCs provide.