Published on 2016/06/24

MOOCs and the Global Democratization of Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | MOOCs and the Global Democratization of Higher Education
MOOCs are more than freemium and glamor projects for universities. These offerings are creating unprecedented access to elite postsecondary programming for students both at home and abroad who would traditionally be unable to access such material.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been on the postsecondary scene for years now. In the four years since 2012 was defined as “Year of the MOOC” this modality has travelled the length of the hype cycle while continuing to steadily grow offerings, enrollments and institutional partners. All three of the major MOOC providers—edX, Udacity and Coursera—highlight the global democratization of higher education as a central goal, but what does that really mean? In this interview, Anant Agarwal shares his thoughts on how MOOCs support the democratization of higher education and reflects on the impact MOOCs have had on higher education across the developing world.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How would you define the “democratization of higher education” phenomenon?

Anant Agarwal (AA): At edX, we are democratizing and reimagining education by fulfilling our nonprofit mission to increase access to high-quality education for everyone, everywhere. We currently have more than 7.5 million learners, with representation from every country on every continent. With our edX partners, we are providing truly world-class online courses to learners anywhere, regardless of social status or income.

Learners come to edX to improve their lives. Our courses provide the opportunity for learners to gain new and exciting knowledge that will empower, enrich and advance their lives, whether that means advancing their career, gaining credit to put towards attending university.

Let me share a few examples of students across the globe who’ve experienced exactly that. Akshay, a learner from India, credits his job at Microsoft to the experience he gained while taking edX courses. Akshay turned to edX after struggling to stay interested and engaged at his local college. After taking numerous MIT courses on edX, even participating as a community TA, Akshay’s level of experience and knowledge was impressive enough to secure him a job at Microsoft in India.

Another example is edX learner Khushbakht Awan from Pakistan. Khushbakht spent a year in the U.S. and was excited to attend a university, but had to move back home to Pakistan. Despite the fact she was not able to take courses on a campus, she was able to take edX courses that allowed her access to the very same high-quality courses, allowing her to expand her knowledge and learn new skills.

Evo: How have MOOCs helped to support this democratization process across the United States and globally?

AA: For higher education, MOOCs are the great democratizer. Up to now, higher education has been the privilege of the few, but with access to MOOCs, economics, social status, gender or geography no longer determine a student’s access to education or opportunity for success. Now, anyone can register and take courses from elite institutions.

The flexibility that MOOCs provide has allowed for a truly innovative effect on traditional approaches to education. We can make college an unbundled experience, with some courses taken online and others taken in classrooms. This tech-enabled approach has changed the access that learners across the globe, especially in developing countries, have to high-quality education.

MOOCs won’t replace universities, but rather enhance the quality of education by incorporating blended learning. In blended classrooms, the on-campus university course can leverage the power of MOOCs to free up classroom time for interactive collaboration and discussion, testing, and problem solving. EdX also partners with universities and institutions to use its platform to conduct research into how students learn in order to improve on-campus and online education.

Evo: The impact of MOOCs in the United States has been well-covered, but how are MOOCs supporting postsecondary learning across the developing world?

AA: In terms of our partners, we work with over 100 prestigious institutions and universities across the globe and offer nearly 1000 courses. Currently, approximately 44 percent of our students come from developing countries.

In addition to university and institutional partners, edX also works with open-source partners like Edraak, in Jordan, and Doroob, in Saudi Arabia. Edraak is a MOOC platform that is an initiative of the Queen Rania Foundation (QRF), which is determined to ensure quality education for the Arab world. Doroob is a major national initiative sponsored by the Human Resources Development Fund of the Saudi Ministry of Labor, and is committed to bridging the gap between education and employment. As a company, our goal is to use online learning to reach learners around the world who may not have access to traditional systems of education.

For learners in the developing world, MOOCs provide the skills necessary for economic empowerment and offer flexible and affordable education to learners who may otherwise not have such opportunities. This is part of the founding mission of edX—to increase access to education for everyone, everywhere.

Evo: How do you envision edX working with universities based in developing countries in the future on content delivery?

AA: Our vision for the future is to continue to work with universities, institutions, faculty, researchers and students across the globe to innovate and transform education and to make education accessible to everyone.  We look forward to building our network of the world’s top schools and institutions to offer the best educational experience to anyone who wants it.

We are also committed to continuously experimenting with online education, and exploring new opportunities such as the unbundling of content and time, credit, and credentialing. One example of this is our rapidly growing mobile app, which allows us to connect with learners who do not have access to the internet. We are also exploring synergistic partnerships with institutions like NIIT, who provide on the ground, in-person assistance to learners—from tutoring, equipment, etc. We continue to look to partner with organizations who can bring regional strength and support, to complement the high-quality content in online courses. We are excited to see where online learning goes in the next five, 10, 20 years and beyond.

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Key Takeaways

  • MOOCs are providing avenues for students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to take postsecondary courses from elite universities regardless of location, background or financial capacity.
  • Through strategic partnerships with organizations and postsecondary institutions globally, edX is working to close the skills gap on an international scale.
  • MOOCs are valuable for more than access; by tracking student activity and performance the courses provide partner institutions with valuable insights on how students learn.
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