Technology and Education: The Potential of MOOCs

August 20, 2013

The goal of developing countries has always been to reach the point where aid is no longer needed, and with new technology has come new optimism that emerging markets can “skip steps” and advance rapidly as never before. Technology, especially the internet, has raised expectations, and the international education sector is no exception— both in terms of using new technologies to reach students and in the IT focus of the education itself.

Technology is opening new doors for educational institutions and members of the wider education sector, particularly those in the Global North, to establish a presence in new markets where there is significant demand for quality higher education and skilled workers.

One new trend in the education sector is the introduction of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to fill some of this demand. Growing in popularity, MOOCs are offered exclusively on the internet and hold great potential for scaling up: a single course can enroll over 100,000 students at a time. Most are offered at a university level for free, which eliminates both the cost and location barriers faced by many students in the developing world. And there may be even more possibilities if such courses can be delivered in villages and communities.

It’s too soon to tell if the spread of MOOCs will truly be the game changer many hope. But if it is, the impact could be nothing short of spectacular given its scalability. Thanks to increasing connectivity and expanding access to technology worldwide, the availability of these kinds of “open” educational platforms and initiatives should only continue to grow.

The true impact of MOOCs will depend on a number of factors, including the overall quality of the courses, their local relevance, and the connection to other educational outlets. And, while real skills development is not guaranteed – or even designed to be at the same level as in-person courses—the sheer economics of wide-cast, low-cost education has the potential to positively impact societies on a global scale.

Finally, there is the question of access to MOOCs themselves. The spread of MOOCs thus far has been patchy, in part due to the concentration of MOOC providers in North America. This needs to change, especially since the potential benefits to business and developing countries cannot be over-emphasized.

Despite lingering questions, MOOCs and other internet-based education projects seem to have great potential to build global human capital. The international education sector can increase its consumer base and the private sector can build a better educated, tech-savvy workforce—all while addressing the host of development indicators are positively correlated to literacy and education level.

There’s also an opportunity here for corporate responsibility (CR) in the form of partnerships and collaboration between education providers, the private sector, donor institutions, and students. The private sector in the U.S. is already involved in educational philanthropy, including sponsoring specific programs at private and public universities and endowing professorships in key subjects. In some cases, accredited universities and institutions in the Global North, which may already have ties to corporations, already offer MOOCs and other online courses.

It would not be a huge thematic leap for companies to look towards MOOCs as win-win options for new CR and community engagement programs. This is particularly true for companies operating (or looking to operate) in new markets where increasing the cadre of educated workers with advanced computer skills is crucial to growth. Through sponsoring the improvement and expansion of particular MOOCs, the private sector can take a leadership role in building larger consumer bases and potential workforces.

Not surprisingly, donor institutions like the World Bank are recognizing the potential impact of MOOCs and are starting to get involved in their spread and development. MOOC-centric companies like Coursera are partnering with international institutions like the World Bank to expand their footprint in the Global South. Donors recognize that MOOCs don’t need to compete with existing higher education institutions—instead, MOOCs and internet-based coursework can supplement classes and degrees offered by local universities and new international initiatives, like Carnegie Mellon’s campus in Kigali, Rwanda.

The last few years have seen an explosion of interest in marketing to and designing development solutions aimed at the “Bottom of the Pyramid”(BoP). MOOCs may very well be the next wave in this trend, a disaggregated BoP solution bringing education to non-elite audiences around the developing world, providing the tools for economic growth on a truly massive scale. Working in partnership with educational institutions to help solve challenges that come with these new tech-education initiatives—logistics, quality improvement, outreach and marketing—companies could contribute to a true revolution in education: one that would be great for human development and for the bottom line.