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08 Jul 2014

DeMOOCratizing Higher Education? Massive Open Online Courses for Developing Countries By Clara Franco, Dilnoza Nigmonova and Wipada Panichpathom

By Clara Franco, Dilnoza Nigmonova, Wipada Panichpathom, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

MOOCIn the last few years, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been enthusiastically applauded as the initiative that will finally bring higher education to everyone, sparking in the media what some journalists and academics called “a MOOC hype”. However, just how “massive” can access to MOOCs actually be? And what kind of truly revolutionary change, if any, can they bring to the landscape of higher education in the world?

An initiative to provide free University-level courses to millions of users via the internet, MOOCs are seen by many as an alternative path for offering access to higher education and learning. However, the perspectives of those from developing countries – the very regions with the most people needing opportunities to access higher education or, in many instances, any education at all – have been lacking. For all the enthusiasm about MOOCs, many questions still remain unanswered; for example, regarding how “massive” can access truly be, or in what ways they differ from traditional instructor-led teaching (if they differ at all), or how can they foster educational access, development and social mobility in the emerging and least developed economies. These are only a few of the many pressing doubts (e.g. see here, here and here) that have resonated amongst the hype. Others are concerned about matters such as, for example, how will the MOOCs business be financially sustainable, or how can the MOOC students throughout the world find benefits that are directly applicable to the labour market.

A recent study (see below for details) found that most respondents from developing countries (including both instructors and students of MOOCs) tend to regard MOOCs positively; mentioning for example that they are an alternative path to truly massive access to education, or that they enhance the possibilities for better job opportunities, or even that MOOCs can help emerging economies’ development. However, some scholars and specialists have voiced concerns. Even though key players in universities see many promising possibilities and opportunities to use MOOCs as a tool to better address the needs of developing countries – for example, by creating partnerships with universities in developed countries, to produce MOOCs that address the specific needs of developing regions (such as public health, urban development, agricultural technology or the more basic levels of education), other motivations are at play as well. Some respondents are of the view that many prestigious universities have also jumped onto the MOOC bandwagon in an attempt to publicize their name and “brand”, to gain potential access to more (formally enrolled) students, and in general for the publicity gains to be had by putting their name “out there”. Or, conversely, to avoid the losses of being “left out of the game”, if in the near future MOOCs do turn out to revolutionize the educational landscape. Concerns have also been voiced about MOOCs’ pedagogical approaches, which may not always turn out to be “revolutionary”, or interactive, or even any different from traditional instructor-led teaching at all.

Interviewed instructors and stakeholders from developing countries, as well as surveyed MOOCs students, do not seem to always have in mind the barriers that still keep MOOCs out of the reach of most people in developing countries: limited personal broadband access; language barriers; and, the significant barrier of previous knowledge that the student must possess in order to grasp the concepts, which are often not easily understandable for someone who did not complete basic levels of education. In a survey of 391 MOOC students from developing countries (mostly Latin America and Southeast Asia); more than half of them held an undergraduate or Bachelor degree (52%). Holders of graduate degrees – Masters, PhDs or postdoctoral degrees – were heavily overrepresented, compared to the average rates of graduate degree holders in those regions. And only less than 1% of students claimed to have had no formal education at all. These results seem to indicate that MOOCs are predominantly reaching the people who already have benefited in some way from access to privileged educational opportunities, which continue to be scarce in their home countries. Interviewees and respondents seem to hold ambivalent ideas about MOOCs: there is a heavily prevalent feeling that MOOCs really do give access to higher education to people who otherwise could not have it; but at the same time recognizing that important barriers are in place. These barriers often mean that MOOCs are largely benefiting the people who have already had either advanced educational opportunities, or at least a privileged environment where learning about, signing up to, and actually completing MOOCs is feasible.


The aforementioned study was designed to collect up-to-date perspectives on MOOCs in the context of developing countries, specifically Latin America and Southeast Asia (with a moderately higher focus placed on Mexico and Thailand). It studied the perspectives of various players:

1) Students, through a survey distributed to 391 MOOC students from developing countries. The sample was largely self-selected among people who have signed up for MOOCs, and includes both students who finished courses and students who didn’t. Instructors of MOOCs from developing countries helped distribute and encourage the answering of this survey;

2) MOOC instructors from developing countries, through personal interviews; and,

3) MOOC providers (people who have developed online platforms for MOOCs, or people from universities who are in close contact with said developers), who were personally interviewed as well.


Dilnoza Nigmonova, Wipada Panichpathom and Clara Franco are currently completing a Master of Arts (MA) in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Emails: ; ;


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  1. Pingback : Who uses MOOCs and how? - ICEF Monitor - Market intelligence for international student recruitment

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