Monday, February 18, 2013

Imperial MOOCs: Should We Be Worried?

Throughout this blog, I have tried to differentiate my experience in EDCMOOC and my experiences teaching in a capped, online course. While there are similarities, there are obvious differences. 
One significant difference I see is the MOOCs "coverage." While most online courses are offered through universities (to which students have to apply for admission [regardless of the specific admission standards], register for the class, and pay tuition and fees; there is, in other words, a gatekeeper), MOOCs are currently open to anyone - registration takes but a few moments. There are no gate keepers: in this sense, MOOCs are open to everyone and anyone who is willing to abide by the rules. In this sense, the openness of the MOOC is both appealing and utopian: anyone, anywhere, can receive the education offered.

The more I consider the utopian rhetoric of MOOC ambassadors, the reach and scope of the MOOC, and the audience (whether intended or actual), I grow increasingly concerned with levels of access to the technology and what that (lack of) access means to non-Western cultures. Like the British Empire - on which the sun never set - will the MOOCs' influence also never set. 

My Claim 
While MOOCs can provide students around the world with inexpensive access to education, the platforms in which they are delivered, the languages used, and the topics covered encourage traditional Western thought and the use of English as an international language of education. The MOOC's imperial imperative has the potential to strain the cultural and educational values of diverse societies.

Access to Language
In "Technology Enhanced Learning," one of the twelve key outcomes is "Include: Empower the digitally and socially excluded to learn with technology." The utopian MOOC seeks to "empower" those who are "digitally and socially excluded." But, what price do learners (both those included and excluded) pay?

The number of English speakers worldwide is on the rise, yet this map shows us that English is not yet ubiquitous. Most MOOCs I am familiar with are taught in English: lectures or materials are posted in English, instructions are given in English, and the students write and respond in English. The classes privilege Western thought, certainly through the peer review mechanism of the MOOC.

Interestingly enough, many in the targeted audience include the Indian sub-continent, not only a former imperial post, but also one of the largest English-speaking contingencies in the world where English is not a first-language. Yet, it is in the sub-continent where millions of people do not have access to English, to technology, to education. William Avery even suggests that the MOOC is India's solution to a poor, equitable education system

Those in India who (may) benefit from the MOOC, according to Avery and other evangelists, are not those who already speak English, who receive good educations, who leave the sub-continent for Europe and the United States. Rather, they are the impoverished citizens who do not have technological or linguistic access to current MOOCs.

Is it ethical to export our ways of thinking, our own expectations, and our own education to those who want to learn, but can only do so through a system that may not give them access to their own cultural values?

Access to Technology 
In addition to the use of English as the main portal of the MOOC, so to is access to technology necessary. The MOOCs final content addressed transhuman values. Namely, our bodies' inability to live longer and think better prevent us from evolving. Transhumanists argue we should strive, through science and technology, to live longer, learn better, and be more efficient. 
In his essay "Transhumanist Values," Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom notes some problems with the transhuman agenda: "widening social inequalities or a gradual erosion of the hard-to-quantify assets that we care deeply about but tend to neglect in our daily struggle for material gain, such as meaningful human relationships."  

N. Katherine Hayles echoes these sentiments when she notes "Transhumanist rhetoric assumes that 'we' will become citizens of a transhuman future....Who or what will be left behind, and what global conflicts might result from class and economic disparities, are seldom discussed."

Education is necessarily part of the humanist tradition, and through technology, it moves to transhuman, as we use technology in ways that seem to make us think better and more critically, though this itself is under scrutiny as some, like Nicholas Carr, suggest that the online world actually prevents us from this critical endeavor. Online education walks a fine line between transhumanist utopias and the destruction of humanist endeavors.   

The Colonizing Effect
MOOCs and online education encourage the individuality (the human nature) of the learner. Though we as students were encouraged to build networks and interact with our fellow students, it was not required, and as many people discuss, that interaction could be overwhelming and was not always productive. The individual (culture, person, language) is lost in the sea of thoughts and the majority. 

We may lean on utopian desires for equity and access, for technology to "include" those who have been excluded. Within this inclusion, however, we must also consider "who or what will be left behind" and what "hard-to-quantify assets" students lose when they participate in MOOCs.

Are these concerns valid? Who should we consider the MOOCs audience? If people in developing countries receive access to education, should we fault the possible colonization of that education? 

Updated: February  21, 2013


  1. Brilliant analysis, great questions, and definitely valid concerns. I am curious, though, what educational projects & innovations might be taking place in those areas represented in red on the map. Are educators and learners there merely glumming onto the models and even the very institutions created in the green areas (and why are the UK, US, Canada, and Australia always represented on these kinds of maps in green? I feel awkward saying "in the greener areas of the globe").

    I sort of know what's happening in India... that country is deeply influenced by its own colonial encounter with the Absentminded Empire, yet retains spectacularly the multiplicity of cultural heritages to which it is also heir. Indians have invested heavily in educational modalities that reflect the British influence, including the use of the English language as the language of education, but have discarded British conceits about the nobility and purity and humanism of the educational project, instead infusing it with a rugged pragmatism. India embraced digital and Internet technology with passion almost the moment those innovations emerged, and applied them to education assiduously. For those Indians who find educational technology within their reach, both native and global sources of learning have been more than welcome. What's more, Indian companies have even taken on the for-profit work of educating Americans (mostly in the area of supplemental services) using Internet technology (and American educations).

    But there are a great, great many in India for whom the technology is not within reach. The public school system is utterly broken. Tremendous inequality bedevils the nation, and women and children, typically the arbiters and receivers of learning, are foremost among the oppressed. Progress is being made through various efforts, but it is slow progress.

    But it is progress, and progress driven by those more fortunate Indians with the means and motivation - and technology - to help the less fortunate. To offer one example - a group of venture capitalists and CEOs of Indian educational businesses starting in the mid 2000s paid for the creation of content and the provision of computers to deliver that content to schools in drastically poor rural areas. I think they even helped make improvements to the buildings in which the children were to be educated.

    It will be interesting to see what India yields in the coming century. It won't be utopia, but it won't be Imperial, either, and it is bound to have a great deal of influence on us all.

    But what of China? Of Japan? Of Russia? Of South America? Of all the others? I am wholly ignorant, but I daresay there will in some places be alternative models pushing back against the Imperial MOOC.

    1. Hi Krissa,
      Thank you so much for your comments - you too have a lot of really good questions. The situation in India is very interesting right now, given the cultural diversity present in the subcontinent, the way in which they use technology, and the vast number of people who do not have access to that technology. Even within the slow progress, it still has hints of the imperial. Those who are learning in English, more than likely have had a history of contact with the Empire, for many, though certainly not all, are upper-class or upper-caste Indians. Enabling technological access throughout the country is important, such as the venture capitalists you mention.

      I too am interested in what will come out of China, especially. I think that in the era of so many people praising the global reach and access of the MOOC that there must be some of us who ask questions about its true impact beyond the information learned and shared.