Monday, December 16, 2013

Response to "MOOCs as neocolonialism – Who controls knowledge?"

A colleague from INASP sent me a link to this article:

The author asks if students around the world are concerned about the American nature of MOOCs. He asks this because he is an academic whose field of research is education. Generally speaking, students are not like him: they don't get philosophical about education. They want to learn. They want skills, knowledge, jobs. And many students from the South want to go to the North.

MOOCs offer unprecedented opportunities for students in the South who want to make something of themselves and not be oppressed in a dull local education environment, which is unfortunately common (I'm speaking as an Indian). Telling them that MOOCs are not appropriate for them would be another kind of oppression. And anyway they won't listen!

I think the real issue is how universities in the South will respond to MOOCs. I don't think I've come across any positive or progressive responses such as integration of MOOCs in the curricula, providing local technological support for students to take MOOCs alongside classes, developing their own online courses inspired by MOOCs, etc.

I don't think MOOCs were created as part of a neocolonialist agenda. The author says as much near the end of his essay. But with essays such as this, I wonder if universities in the South are getting convinced, without good enough reason, that MOOCs are a form of neocolonialism and therefore consider them with apathy or scorn. I think this is already happening.

Friday, November 15, 2013

My interview with SciDev.Net

Last month I was at the World Social Science Forum in Montreal to speak about AuthorAID online courses in research writing for academics in developing countries.

Brian Owens, a reporter from SciDev.Net, attended my talk and interviewed me about our plans. His article has recently been published:

Monday, November 4, 2013

Open access and academic blogging

Open access and academic blogging are two ways through which the outcomes of scholarly research can reach the public.

Last month, I tweeted on these topics from the World Social Science Forum in Montreal, which led to an invitation to write a post on BMJ Blogs.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

An introduction to MOOCs for librarians in developing countries

A few weeks back I was invited to write a comment piece for LINK, the magazine of the ACU’s Libraries and Information Network, published by the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

LINK is available by subscription only, so I was delighted to receive permission to reproduce the comment on my blog. I have taken out the page containing my comment from the PDF newsletter (easy to do in Linux!), and here it is:

An introduction to MOOCs for librarians in developing countries

This article was originally commissioned for and published in LINK (Issue 18, October 2013), the magazine of the ACU’s Libraries and Information Network.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

MOOCs are about students

MOOCs are sometimes covered in unlikely places, such as the Scholarly Kitchen, the blog of the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

A recent post, MOOCs and the cycle of hype, was refreshing because of the candor of the author, but once again it was about how traditional higher education can make sense of MOOCs. I made a couple of comments under the post, the second one fueled by a response to my first comment, and I thought I would put them together here:

I think MOOCs in computer science, statistics, and other quantitative disciplines present amazing opportunities for learning. I completed a rigorous 12-week edX MOOC in biostatistics early this year and it was better than pretty much any course I took at a Big Ten university as a graduate student of engineering.

I suppose I like to learn online. If MOOC providers figure out how to improve their completion rates and student engagement (I don’t think these are enormous challenges), more people might find that they like to learn online. It might simply be a better experience than attending classes—unless those classes happen to be on par with MOOCs. So while debates go on about whether online learning can ever be better than face-to-face learning, students—the consumers—might soon begin to do the opposite: wondering if it makes sense to go to university instead of taking MOOCs or MOOC-based degrees.

Employers want skills, not degrees. Unless someone has a degree from an elite institution globally or nationally, the degree itself doesn’t matter much. Students at elite colleges have great networking opportunities, but elsewhere students can bank only on their skills.

How many students around the world study at non-elite colleges? How many have no intention of studying beyond a bachelor’s degree? How many start getting anxious about finding a job well before they graduate? And when they start looking for jobs and interviewing, how many become frustrated that their university experience gave them few skills to work in the “real world”?

I think the answer to any of these questions is—the majority. And maybe the majority of students around the world would say yes to ALL of these questions. So this is a pretty large population of people who’re ready for change (MOOCs) and who might give up—I'm not saying today—what they’ve been used to (traditional degrees).

The key phrase in this argument is “around the world.” MOOCs have been for the world from the beginning. To take this a step further, Coursera has recently partnered with World Bank to make MOOCs more relevant for the developing world.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Paying for MOOCs: A problem for young adults in developing countries?

There's a great graphic on MOOCs at It's called "How will the MOOCs make money?" (embedded below) and it reminded me of an email from a colleague in Somalia, whom I know through the AuthorAID project, about his disappointment upon learning that Coursera was going to charge for some courses. I'm given to understand that most people don't have credit cards in Somalia, so he can't pay for the courses although he said he can afford them. In my reply to him I said that a lot of young people in India also don't have credit cards. I got my first credit card in India when I was 29 (I had 5 in the US as a graduate student). Coursera allows PayPal payments, but the problem remains: young adults in developing countries may not have their own bank accounts.

Charging $30 or $50 for really high-quality courses, which many MOOCs are, is very reasonable, but I think this might make them inaccessible to many young, college-age adults in developing countries who are not quite connected to global financial networks.

Source credit:
How the MOOCs Will Make Money

Monday, August 26, 2013

Oral cultures and online learning

Some of my colleagues in Africa have told me that because they're from oral cultures they find it difficult to express themselves in writing, and this comes in the way of collaborating with people elsewhere. So when I began to work on introducing e-learning in the AuthorAID project, I was worried whether the participants, most of whom would come from Africa, would feel comfortable asking questions and sharing views through writing. We have been conducting workshops in Africa and other developing countries for more than five years, and we usually see a lot of lively interaction. Would the online medium suppress expression because people have to write and not talk?

After facilitating four AuthorAID online courses in the past year, I'm happy to say that has not happened. Instead, I see hundreds of posts in every online course and sometimes I find it hard to keep up!

Edith Wakida, a research administrator at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda, was one of the most active participants in a recent AuthorAID online course, and a forum post of hers led to a recent post on the AuthorAID blog, which is read by many researchers in developing countries. Her advice on the importance of following grant instructions has thus reached not only her fellow participants in the online course but a great number of developing country researchers through the blog.

So I think the online learning format, far from suppressing interaction or sharing, can facilitate greater and fuller expression of ideas and experiences even when the participants are from oral cultures and don't have much experience with e-learning. But creating the right virtual environment for such interaction to take place can be a challenge.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Online learning: Where are the voices from developing countries?

The founder of Udacity, one of the three major initiatives offering MOOCs (massive open online courses), has made the controversial prediction that in 50 years there might only be about 10 universities left in the world. In May 2013, the first MOOC-driven master’s degree program in computer science was announced by Georgia Tech and Udacity.

Anyone in the world can take MOOCs. From my home in India, I completed a free 3-month MOOC taught by professors at Harvard University. This experience led to a series of blog posts and also the realization that there are few voices from the developing world on MOOCs. An article on the World Bank EduTech blog adds support to this view. It’s not just about MOOCs but about ICT in higher education: I don’t see any blogs from developing countries in the top 50 higher education technology blogs.

I don't think ICT in higher education has to cost a lot of money. Based on my experience creating and teaching online courses on AuthorAID Moodle, I'm convinced that ICT can be hugely beneficial in a higher education context in developing countries, even under a tight budget.

I hope to find more voices from the developing world on learning and teaching online. For the time being, I'm happy to see a blog post on MOOCs from a Nigerian researcher. (Incidentally, she was one of the participants in a recent AuthorAID online course.)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Online training is THE thing!

"Is online training THE thing?" Vanesa Weyrauch, a member of the Politics & Ideas team asked in her blog post a few months back and presented an empirical account of the advantages of online training in the context of international development and capacity building.

I was fortunate to be invited by Vanesa to contribute a post, and it has just been put up. Read it here.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

WordPress LMS versus Moodle

A few weeks back I met Vasumathi Sriganesh, a medical librarian who runs a fascinating non-profit called QMed Knowledge Foundation in Mumbai, India. We shared our experiences with the problem of availability and access to scholarly journals in developing countries. We also spoke about e-learning and how to run online courses. Vasumathi knew about Moodle but she had recently heard that WordPress has its own LMS or LMS-like features. This was news to me and I wanted to find out more.

A quick online search led me to this comparison of some options to make an LMS in WordPress:

The advantages of WordPress seem compelling, but not this one: “[WordPress is good if] your courses are independent learning courses and your users don’t have to interact with each other or an instructor”.

And here’s a pro-Wordpress piece from the makers of one of the plugins:

One of the lines in this piece caught my attention: “…you would author all of your content within one Experience API (Tin Can API) compatible software packages such as Articulate or Captivate.”

Apparently the plugin is compatible with “Experience API”, a recent standard for e-learning content. But it sounds like one would need expensive authoring tools such as Articulate or Captivate to create modules in this standard. I don’t know if there are any free authoring tools for this purpose. Of course, one option is to present simple text and multimedia content, but then it may not be possible to track what learners have done.

Obviously more research is needed, but I've often noticed that people considering e-learning don't know enough about Moodle's constructionist philosophy of education, where students have the ability to share and create knowledge. When one has seen this happen, as I have, it’s hard to look at e-learning as just content.

When I wrote up a report following the recent AuthorAID online courses, I found a statistically significant correlation between a participant’s forum activity and whether they completed the course. For example, all participants who made more than the median number of posts completed the course. Then, two-thirds of the participants said that both the forum posts and course content were equally useful for their learning.

So I’m a firm believer in the value of interaction in an online course and I try to look to the heady Moodle philosophy ( for inspiration.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ten tips for learners taking MOOCs

This post is related to my series of posts on the INASP blog on MOOCs and educational development. The tips below are especially for learners in developing countries.
  1. Coursera, Udacity, and edX are the major providers of free MOOCs as of mid 2013. Check out their websites to find out which MOOCs could be right for you.
  2. Most MOOCs are video-based. As soon as you enroll in a MOOC, try opening a few videos to see whether they stream properly. If not, see if there are downloading options or text alternatives to the videos. If you can't see or download the videos and if text alternatives are missing or insufficient, the MOOC is probably not going to be a great experience.
  3. If you're going to be given access to a software application during the MOOC, check whether you will be able to use or buy this software after the MOOC ends. If not, the potential to apply what you learn could be affected.
  4. When the MOOC starts, give yourself a couple of weeks to try the content and assignments. You'll then know if the MOOC is right for you. If it's not, feel free to quit the MOOC. Most MOOCs have completion rates around 10% and one of the likely reasons is that a lot of students enroll in MOOCs without knowing if it's right for them. Don't feel bad about quitting a MOOC, but this is best done early. If you quit a MOOC, don't assume that MOOCs in general don't work for you. Maybe you need a different course, more spare time, or something else.
  5. Most MOOCs have weekly schedules. Once you join a MOOC, set aside time every week for going through the content, working on assignments, taking part in discussions, etc. Without a study schedule that you can stick to, it might be hard to keep up.
  6. MOOCs often have tens of thousands of students, so the discussion forums can be daunting if you've never taken a MOOC before. Don't worry about getting on top of the posts at the start of the course. Usually, whatever you need to do in an assignment is covered in the preceding course content. But keep an eye on the discussion forums: students may have pointed out technical problems with the course that may affect you too. Once you settle into the course, you might find it easier to use the discussion forums to make posts.
  7. Some MOOCs have group exercises and peer assessments. Follow instructions closely and be polite and positive as you work with other students.
  8. It can be difficult to keep up your motivation to complete a MOOC especially if other commitments get in the way. One way to motivate yourself is to discuss your MOOC with your family, friends, and colleagues, as well as on social media.
  9. Celebrate once you complete a MOOC! Tell people about it and add it to your CV.
  10. Look into ways to apply your learning soon after you complete a MOOC, otherwise you might forget what you've learned.