Think of students around the world who have limited exposure to the Internet as passengers on a captainless ship. They have no idea where they are going, and they’re unaware of the perils that lie around them.
Then think of the most recent version of free college courseware, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), as Knowledge Islands. Not only are they safe places to land and learn, but they also point you toward other Knowledge Islands – resources like gapminder, khanacademy, free statistics software, free ebooks, and soon they’ll even grant you access to copyrighted textbooks. After visiting enough of these islands, the passenger understands how to navigate the sea, transforming from passenger to captain.
Sounds nice, but the infrastructure needed to take a MOOC doesn’t exist in the places where these courses could be most beneficial (i.e. least developed countries). You can’t take online courses with inconsistent electricity, unreliable or non-existent hardware, slow or no Internet access. The students are on leaky rafts, not ships.
To address these issues, local government and aid agencies should support MOOC initiatives. There are many ways this could take shape. For example, existing colleges could create blended courses – use MOOCs to supplement courses already being taught. This model would allow instructors to adapt the MOOC to the local context and use the college’s computer labs and technical support. Retention, which is at less than 10% for MOOCs overall, should improve because students would have an instructor to engage with and keep them on track. And students could earn college credit.
Alternatively, by-pass the traditional college model and create workforce investment boards to analyze trends in the local job market, develop certification exams based on skills sets local businesses request, and recommend MOOC courses for applicants to prepare for the exams. Add an internship program, a computer lab with someone to assist with technical issues, and you have a mini-MOOC university.
Either approach, or a combination of the two, would allow more people to build strong educational foundations, develop problem solving skills, and access research that pushes on the edge of human knowledge. Ultimately the goal isn’t just to go from passenger to captain, but all the way to Knowledge Island creator.
Conzolo Migliozzi is an international education consultant. He is a Center Fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development and a graduate of the M.A. degree program in international relations at UMass Boston.