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As online education platforms like Coursera, edX, and Udacity burst onto the scene over the past year, backers have talked up their potential to democratize higher education in the countries that have had the least access (see “The Most Important Education Technology in 200 Years”). These ambitions are now moving closer to reality, as more people begin to experiment with their setup, although significant challenges remain. 

Students in countries like India and Brazil have been signing up in droves for these massive open online courses, or MOOCs, offered for free from top-tier universities, such as Stanford, MIT, and Harvard.

Yet in the world’s poorest regions, where even reliable high-speed Internet access capable of streaming course lecture videos is hard to come by, delivering a useful education to the masses is clearly not a straightforward operation, and experiments in doing so in an organized way are only just beginning (see “Online Courses Put Pressure on Universities in Poorer Nations”).

One of the major challenges for MOOCs—which so far mostly come from U.S. universities—is to tailor the content of courses to a diverse worldwide audience with any number of combinations of language, educational, motivational, and cultural backgrounds. Critics fear the rise of big box education from only a few elite institutions in Western nations, and worry these may not fit the different learning styles in different nations.

Purely in terms of courses offered, this is starting to change, as these startups expand offerings by partnering with international universities. For example, in February, edX, the nonprofit platform started last year at Harvard and MIT, added Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne as a partner. Though its first courses will be in English, the school is now thinking about offering a civil engineering course designed for Francophone regions in East and Central Africa, according to an edX spokesman.

As MOOCs cast their eye to the developing world, very minor tweaks matter a great deal, such as the ability to allow students to download, rather than only stream course videos. But even more major ones are coming, including edX’s plans to start open-sourcing its platform in the next few months, which could allow even more universities to post online courses, and software programmers around the world to experiment with customized interfaces.

“What we have today is a very nice first step,” says Anoop Gupta, a distinguished research scientist with Microsoft. “We need to make sure we are making tools that make it easy to create new content, so it’s not only someone at MIT or Stanford who creates.” Relevance, as he notes, is one of the biggest motivators for students.

Many are now already looking to the next phases of these online courses in the developing world, a future that may look more like a blending of online and traditional college work than one existing entirely on the Internet.

In India, for example, Microsoft Research, which has offices in Bangalore, is working with universities on “massively empowered classrooms” that provide online lectures, forums, and quizzes to engineering undergraduates at many different schools taking the same computer science course. Another idea of interest in India is a Microsoft research project that scans the content of e-textbooks and pulls out the most important concepts that could be paired with online instructional videos. So an Indian professor, for example, could talk about electromagnetic fields next to a diagram from a physics text. Another project, called VidWiki, allows anyone to annotate a video with comments and text in their own language.

For the MOOCs themselves, there are more immediate practicalities, such as how to provide real-world certifications, regardless of location. To help with this, Coursera is experimenting with ways to verify student identities. Udacity, on the other hand, is simply working with physical testing centers around the world run by the company Pearson.

However, the biggest plans may not even come from the technologists.

Right now, in Rwanda, a nonprofit called Generation Rwanda is getting started on an ambitious experiment that is likely among the first of its kind: an entirely MOOC-based university.

Though it is only entering pilot stages later this year, its eventual goal is to create a 400-person university in Rwanda, with MOOCs providing the lessons and teaching fellows guiding students through discussions and problematic areas. To start, the first students will try out a Harvard University course on Justice, and a University of Edinburgh course on Critical Thinking and Global Challenges, says executive director Jamie Hodari. Already, the program has struck a partnership with Southern New Hampshire University to test and certify associates degrees as its startup university gets off the ground, he says.

Hodari believes that as MOOC providers get better at mining their student data to see how an individual is stumbling, the less expert his TA facilitators will need to be in a particular topic, which will help to save costs. The nonprofit’s ambition is to offer full-year tuition for about $1,500 a year or less.

Hodari’s not waiting, though, for online course technology to improve, with only 1 percent of Rwandans holding a college degree. Referring to the amount of attention MOOCs have gotten in the news over the last year, he says, “It’s hard for us to read these op-eds all the time, saying now a student in Sudan can get a first-rate college education for free. It’s just so far from the reality of what could happen for all but just a few right now.”

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Credit: Tomi Um

Tagged: Business

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