Thilanka Subhashini Jayakody, a trainer at the Kakirawa Nenasala, helps patrons acquire basic computer skills, including using Microsoft Office programs, surfing the Internet, and communicating through email and social media. Can online education thrive in the developing world despite the weak digital infrastructure? Photo by: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

The hype surrounding massive open online courses in recent years has led to questions about whether teaching — and learning — through a lecture broadcast to several students at the same time could democratize education, which is becoming an increasingly expensive investment in many parts of the world.

In developing countries, where youths often have even more barriers to schooling, this debate seems particularly relevant.

edX offers university-level MOOCs, and CEO Anant Agarwal said it currently has more than 3.5 million students, 40 percent of whom come from developing countries. While Agarwal believes MOOCs won’t replace traditional on-campus teaching, he said these courses can be an alternative form of schooling for those who do not have access to education.

“Certainly for students who already have access to teachers and access to learning, online learning can improve the quality of their education by creating models in which we combine the best of online learning and the best of in-person learning,” edX’s chief executive told Devex. “That is why I like to say that online learning is like a rising tide that lifts all boats — it’ll increase access for those who don’t have access, and will improve learning for those who do.”

Still, that may be easier said than done. Poorer countries, after all, have a weaker digital infrastructure to support the bandwidth needed to even view MOOCs.

“It is true that developing countries cannot, at this stage, match the production capacity for MOOCs of industrialized nations, and yet, it is there where the demand for educational resources is greatest,” Barbara Moser-Mercer, founder and director of the University of Geneva’s Center for Interpreting in Conflict Zones, or InZone, told Devex.

Research potential

The vast amount of information gathered from student participation in online courses could give MOOC providers, teachers and researchers a peek into just how these are used, particularly in the developing world.

“How do students learn? How do we improve learning outcomes? What are the best ways to assess students’ knowledge? How long is the optimal video lecture length?” Agarwal said. “With these data points, we are able to improve learning both online and on-campus for students everywhere.”

But gleaning meaningful insights from large data sets is itself a challenge, according to Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who wrote a paper on how to reboot research on MOOCs.

For data on MOOCs to be useful, there is a need to shift the focus from “studies of engagement to research about learning, from investigations of individual courses to comparisons across contexts, and from a reliance on post-hoc analyses to greater use of multidisciplinary, experimental design,” Reich wrote.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, through an $840,000 grant, has invested in the MOOC Research Initiative, a project that aims to address the research gap in evaluating online courses. Last June, MRI released the first set of its findings on MOOC design, instruction and experience. But while the research provides a much-needed but nuanced look into MOOCs, it also exhibits the many data hurdles that remain in understanding how online courses could work across different contexts.

Refugee camps as classrooms

In gathering useful data on MOOCs, Moser-Mercer found refugee camps a surprising source of information on how to create courses that have what she calls a “human-centered approach” to education.

Refugee camps present a dual disadvantage to teachers and students alike: The problem of limited Internet access — if at all — is compounded by an environment that is not conducive to learning.

“The vastness of camps makes it difficult for [refugees] to access MOOCs if they have daytime jobs and no money for safe transport to reach a computer lab or an Internet cafe in the camp prior to curfew,” Moser-Mercer said. “This is a particular challenge for female learners who face additional cultural constraints regarding education in general.”

There is also a lack of incentives to pursue tertiary education in these settings. Moser-Mercer pointed out that while international humanitarian law provides for primary and secondary education to be offered to refugees by the host country, there are no legal provisions that exist for higher education for refugees.

But these didn’t stop Moser-Mercer, who has years of virtual learning experience in conflict zones, from setting up a miniature learning course with just two refugees in Dabaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, located near the border between Kenya and Somalia.

“There is extraordinary motivation among refugees to learn — for many victims of conflict, knowledge is their only possession and the only hope of improving their livelihoods,” she wrote on a blog post for Coursera, an MOOC provider.

InZone set up a miniature learning hub through the help of the Commonwealth Education Trust. The group then partnered with Coursera and CET to download lectures beforehand and save them in USB flash drives, which were delivered to Dabaab. It also worked with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees staff on the ground and Coursera personnel in Mountain View, California, in pinpointing technical issues and documenting the challenges — technological, cultural and linguistic, according to Moser-Mercer — that the two refugee students faced.

“While this does not initially meet the criterion of ‘massive’ in MOOCs, it favors the bottom-up approach to designing education spaces in fragile contexts,” Moser-Mercer said.

Tablets and smartphones, she added, are unsurprisingly not practical in these settings.

“With virtually no technical maintenance infrastructure in place in any of these settings, last-mile devices need to be extraordinarily robust — which is not the case for the vast majority of them,” Moser-Mercer said. “Digital learning hubs fulfill an important social function, they are more sustainable, [and] if designed right they can be almost maintenance-free, and as we at InZone see it, should be the cornerstone of higher education spaces in refugee settings.”

“That is why I like to say that online learning is like a rising tide that lifts all boats — it’ll increase access for those who don’t have access, and will improve learning for those who do.”

— Anant Agarwal, chief executive officer of edX

Locals as teachers

Many MOOCs are criticized for their inability to complement existing systems in developing countries and deliver locally relevant material to students. edX, an open-source platform that has been adapted as XuetangX in China and as Edraak in the Arab-speaking world, has often been cited as an example of how MOOCs could reach more students and at the same time blend with the local culture.

Another less-known example is the African Management Initiative, a social enterprise that according to cofounder and CEO Rebecca Harrison is the first online social learning platform in Africa. AMI offers management MOOCs, which it develops with African business schools, and combines these courses with in-person workshops for its students, who are mostly entrepreneurs, managers and young professionals.

“We believe management is a development issue, because poor management so often holds back the growth and development of African individuals, companies and broader institutions,” Harrison told Devex.

According to Harrison, the organization has reached more than 10,000 people across Africa online — most from Kenya and Nigeria — 1,000 of whom have attended the workshops.

“Like most MOOCs, completion rates among individuals hover in the single digits, percentage-wise,” she said. “But that rises to above 60 percent when we add an in-person element, and to around 95 percent in structured programs within organizations.”

Hamilton Research’s Africa Bandwidth Maps project shows that Africa’s international Internet bandwidth has increased 20 times between 2009 and 2014. By June 2014, 44 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population — or 410 million — was within a 25-kilometer range of an operational fiber optic network node. Fiber reach in the region could go up to 46.3 percent (431 million) when the network is completed and to 52.3 percent (487 million) once the network enters service.

Still, AMI has wisely built its platform for constrained bandwidth. Its courses, which are designed for mobile use, have animated audio instead of “talking head” videos, which require larger file sizes.

Perhaps more importantly, AMI has Africans themselves — mostly faculty from African business schools, such as the Gordon Institute of Business Science in South Africa and Lagos Business School in Nigeria — starring in their lectures.

“We're always striving to make the courses even more localized, and specific to business challenges that might be slightly different in an African context from a Western context,” Harrison said.

Want to learn more? Check out the Youth Will website and tweet #YouthWill.

Youth Will is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, the MasterCard Foundation and the United Nations Human Settlements Program to explore the power that youth around the globe hold to change their own futures and those of their peers.

About the author

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    Anna Patricia Valerio

    Anna Patricia Valerio is a former Manila-based development analyst who focused 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.