In 3 developing countries, an effort to deepen research on MOOCs

By Anna Patricia Valerio 18 March 2015

The U.S. Agency for International Development and CourseTalk launched a partnership that will look into online course enrollment in Colombia, the Philippines and South Africa. Photo by: Ministerio TIC Colombia / CC BY

While massive open online courses have seen some success in the developing world, the research needed to understand how these courses could be improved to adapt to both the capacity and culture of developing countries remains limited — a significant hurdle that prevents further use of MOOCs among students who need these programs most.

At last week’s SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas, the U.S. Agency for International Development and CourseTalk, a site for student-written reviews of MOOCs, launched the $1.55 million Advancing MOOCs for Development Initiative, a two-year public-private partnership that will look into online course enrollment in Colombia, the Philippines and South Africa.

Research will be conducted by the Technology & Social Change Group, a network at the University of Washington’s Information School that examines the use of information and communications technologies in addressing social and economic challenges, with the help of IREX, a nonprofit implementing mostly education and media projects.

All with relatively young populations, the three countries were chosen for the potential they held for MOOCs adoption, according to Anne Laesecke, who is with IREX’s Center for Collaborative Technology and is also the AMDI coordinator.

“We sought representative examples of regional development in the next five to 10 years which had relatively more favorable conditions for MOOCs use,” Laesecke told Devex. “For example, South Africa, the Philippines and Colombia all report levels of higher development compared with their neighbors. We also looked at Internet penetration rates, higher education levels and opportunities, and prevalence of English language knowledge.”

The dynamic workforces in these three countries were also a factor in the selection. IREX’s Scott Andersen, AMDI director, was in Manila, Philippines, recently for the program startup and told Devex that “the long-term purpose of the project is to help people find employment and to bridge that gap between what universities offer and what businesses want.”

The program, Andersen said, will have three phases. During the first year, research will be conducted on the issues that plague MOOC penetration. This could involve looking into low completion rates as well as finding the proper balance between designing a visually engaging course and ensuring that it does not take up too much bandwidth, for example.

TASCHA, with the support of IREX, will turn to initial analytics of CourseTalk data, an online survey of MOOC users and nonusers, and interviews with those whom Laesecke calls MOOC “super-users,” or key stakeholders, such as higher education officials, employers and government authorities, to form insights on MOOCs. Laesecke pointed out that in the Philippines, for example, IREX has potential partners in Davao City, the largest city in Mindanao, who could offer a more nuanced understanding of how MOOCs could boost workforce development in the country.

“We will be announcing calls for proposals for contracts with local research companies,” Andersen said. “We’ll have an open bid, they’ll provide us with a plan for how they plan to target focus groups, who they want to meet, how much they want it to be local, and based on TASCHA’s and IREX’s feedback, we’ll determine a plan for how we can do that.”

While there are no specific cities from the three countries to focus on yet, IREX is anticipating three areas that could influence research findings: awareness of the concept of MOOCs, affordability of Internet, and availability of locally relevant content.

“After that, we [go into the second phase,] make adjustments and make recommendations to the broader MOOCs community — how we can get people more engaged in MOOCs and what we have to change,” Andersen said.

The lessons learned from the yearlong research phase will be published to enable MOOC providers to tweak their products and platforms according to the recommendations, Laesecke said. But IREX will have a more visible role in the third phase, which will involve creating a campaign that will include policymakers, education officials and business communities in a dialogue on MOOCs, according to Andersen.

“We will conduct the analytics again at the end of the program to see if there has been any increase in enrollment or completion rates in the three countries,” Laesecke said.

The eventual goal of the project, Laesecke added, is to apply the same research methodology to other developing countries.

“One thing that we are trying to learn through this research is how much contextualization is needed to make MOOCs an effective tool for development in each of the three countries,” she said. “We want to replicate the research because we recognize that every country is unique and requires customized recommendations based on local experience and feedback.”

The prohibitive costs of higher education have opened up an opportunity for MOOCs, which have no enrollment ceilings and are often free, to equip students, recent graduates and even employees with the skills they need in their prospective or current jobs. But a host of challenges — the same ones that TASCHA and IREX will explore — has prevented these courses from taking off, particularly in the developing world.

“More and more people are going into lifelong learning; it’s no longer going to be enough to get a four-year degree and say, ‘Now I’m done and I have a job for life,’” Andersen said. “The world is too flexible now for that.”

What other challenges are preventing massive open online courses from gaining traction in developing countries? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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Anna Patricia Valerio

Anna Patricia Valerio is a Manila-based development analyst focusing on writing innovative, in-the-know content for senior executives in the international development community. Before joining Devex, Patricia wrote and edited business, technology and health stories for BusinessWorld, a Manila-based business newspaper.


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