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Online Courses Put Pressure on Universities in Poorer Nations

How a teacher in El Salvador became an advocate of massive open online courses, and why hardly anyone listens to him yet.
November 12, 2012

When prominent U.S. universities began offering free college classes over the Web this year, more than half of the students who signed up were from outside the United States. Consider the story of one of them: Carlos Martinez, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of El Salvador.

Last spring, Martinez enrolled in a class on electronic circuits offered by edX, the $60 million collaboration between MIT and Harvard to stream “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, over the Web. He thought it was so good that he began traveling around El Salvador to convince others to join the class and launched a blog in English to document his adventures as his country’s first “MOOC advocate.”

It’s an adventure because Martinez doesn’t have the backing of his university. This fall, on his own initiative, he signed up 50 students—about one-tenth of the electrical engineering majors at his school—to take the edX circuits class. Since he’s not assigned to teach this subject, he communicates with the students on Facebook, and once a week he sets up an experiment in a hallway to accompany the class.

“I’m like a carnival barker,” Martinez says. “It’s all very chaotic. There’s no obligation. No grade. It’s ‘How are you, don’t give up, can I help you?’”

In fact, he’s more or less thrown down the gauntlet before a system he says is antiquated and out of touch with technology. “I want to let the new ideas in, raise the bar, and change the curriculum,” says Martinez, who has taught at the school since 1994.

The University of El Salvador, located in San Salvador, is the only public university in the country. It spends $60 million a year to teach 50,000 students, and its budget is so limited that it can only accept about one-third of applicants. (By comparison, the University of Michigan, which has a similar number of students, spends $1.6 billion on its core academic mission, not including sports teams, dorms, and hospitals.) Protests over the shortage of spots regularly shut down the campus. Semesters don’t end on time. The university doesn’t appear in international rankings.

Martinez says the arrival of MOOCs is adding to an already “huge pressure” to improve the university. And early data on the new Web classes suggest they may have similar impacts elsewhere. Coursera, the largest MOOC company, reported in August that of its first million users, 62 percent were from outside the U.S., led by students in Brazil, India, China, and Canada.

So far, students are coalescing around such classes in ways that are improvised and ad hoc. Some are using online bulletin boards to arrange study groups at cafés in cities like Shanghai and Madrid. “We do hope that people grab these classes and build on them,” says Anant Agarwal, the head of edX and the teacher whose voice is heard narrating the electronics class. He even imagines overseas “educational dormitories” springing up, where some entrepreneur might charge for food and a bed and perhaps supply a teaching assistant to help with classwork.

In several cases, enterprising teachers have taken the lead. A U.S. graduate student, Tony Hyun Kim, used edX last spring to teach high school students in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. A dozen passed the course. After hearing about it, the National University of Mongolia sent several deans on a mission to visit Agarwal at edX’s offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

While MOOCs could be an opportunity to improve education in poor regions, they’re also profoundly threatening to bad professors and to weak institutions. Sebastian Thrun, the Google R&D chief who also runs educational startup Udacity, has predicted that within 50 years there might only be 10 universities still “delivering” higher education.

That worries some academics. Jason Lane and Kevin Kinser, two education studies professors, warned in the Chronicle of Higher Education of an impending “McDonaldization” of higher education: the exact same stuff, just served everywhere.

Martinez, who teaches wireless communications and Internet telephony, doesn’t see things that way. During the last 20 years, Martinez says, his university’s electrical engineering classes “developed a very bad reputation.” Students get stuck and professors don’t help. Only 7 percent of incoming majors ever graduate, and those who do get a degree take an average of nine years, about twice as long as they should.

One problem is out-of-date coursework. Martinez says computer science is still taught using the waterfall model, a programming approach that dates to the punch-card era. “A computer science student here spends the first six months doing flow diagrams, because that’s how we did it in the 1970s in El Salvador when we didn’t have any computers to work on,” he says. MOOCs, by contrast, are teaching a new technique known as agile software development in classes like edX’s CS169.1, which focuses on how Web-based programs such as Gmail are created.

Martinez has been buttonholing other professors and trying to get them to sign up for a MOOC, too. So far, he says, the reception to his ideas by other teachers has been “very chilly, very distant.”

“I’m trying to tell them the world has evolved and you have to do something in a different way,” says Martinez. “The youngest professors can face the change. The older ones, I think it’s impossible.”

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