MOOCs: walking a fine line between global educational opportunities and digital divide

How would you like to study computer sciences, chemistry or philosophy at an elite university such as Princeton, Harvard or Berkeley? What was inconceivable just a few years ago is seemingly becoming a reality through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which are opening up new opportunities for anyone around the world who is interested in learning. Could this be the means of achieving and sustaining a future of equal educational opportunities for all, or are we seeing a digital divide opening up here?

The internet has revolutionised conventional teaching methods in higher education. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are being offered free of charge by universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard with their edX platform, as well as by German platforms such as iversity. These web-based teaching units are open to everyone. Proponents see them as a tremendous opportunity to provide groups that are currently disadvantaged, such as students in developing countries, with long-term access to education. MOOCs also offer universities an opportunity to open up to a broader public and to work together with other institutions. A number of universities are already developing concepts for combining online courses with face-to-face classes.

MOOCs – promoting equal opportunities and democratisation in education?

‘Amazing talents can be everywhere. Maybe the next Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs is living somewhere in a remote village in Africa,’ says Daphne Koller, founder of MOOC provider Coursera, painting a hopeful picture for all those who have so far been unable to gain access to prestigious universities. For her and others, MOOCs provide a solution for democratising higher education, offering courses free of charge to people all over the world.

Daphne Koller: What we're learning from online education

Salman Khan is one of the pioneers of equal educational opportunities and education for all. When his cousin was having difficulty with maths at school in 2006, he produced his own short videos to tutor her. The easiest way for him to get the videos to her was to upload them to YouTube, where they proved unexpectedly popular among school pupils from around the world. This led to him setting up the Khan Academy, one of the most well known online academies in the world. It primarily offers courses in all school subjects for pupils, effectively providing private tuition free of charge. This saves time for teachers and pupils in the classroom, time that can be spent exploring topics in greater depth, and engaging in more discussion and interaction rather than using frontal instruction methods. The success of Khan's academy proves his point that the underprivileged can access education, provided they have an internet connection, a stable line and a computer that can handle multimedia content.

Criticism of MOOCs: digital divide

For all the enthusiasm of MOOC proponents, there are many critics who do not share their outlook. The main area of criticism in international debate is that users require an internet connection to access the courses. If their hardware is outdated, their internet connection poor or they cannot afford to pay for a flat rate, then their opportunities for accessing content are more limited than those of more materially well-off users with the latest technical equipment.

Debates on this issue often refer to a digital divide. According to Bielefeld University, this divide has become even wider with the advent of Web 2.0. The concept of a digital divide has its origins in the knowledge gap hypothesis developed by Philip J. Tichenor, George A. Donohue and Clarice N. Olien at Minnesota University in 1970. This hypothesis asserts that more economically prosperous social groups with a higher level of education absorb the growing flow of information from the mass media more readily than less economically prosperous groups with a poorer level of education. This tends to lead to a widening of the gap in knowledge between these two groups.

Deutsche Welle: Learning at the Khan Academy

MOOCs: opportunity for or threat to smaller universities?

If well put together and widely used, MOOCs also provide an opportunity for smaller universities to hold their own in the educational sector. Christina Maria Schollerer from the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam, who runs the English-language MOOC 'The Future of Storytelling' on the online platform iversity, explained in an interview: 'We didn't create the course to extend the reach of the university and become as large as Stanford. However, it is important to prevent the monopolisation of knowledge transfer, and MOOCs can help in this regard.'

Nonetheless, this does raise the question of whether students will even be interested in smaller institutions any more if MOOCs allow them to study at elite universities such as Princeton. After all, it is questionable whether smaller universities will be able to afford MOOCs. According to ‘Digitales Lernen’, a digital learning publication of the Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia (LfM), a worst-case scenario would see MOOCs threatening the very existence of smaller institutions.

Universities could also be adversely affected by a reduction in face-to-face teaching and cuts in the number of lecturing posts as MOOCs become more popular. In this case, only well funded universities would still be able to afford 'real professors'.

Open Educational Resources

Another term heard frequently in connection with MOOCs is Open Educational Resources (OERs). OERs can be accessed quickly and easily, and are free of charge. UNESCO sees open access to educational resources as an opportunity for promoting education and knowledge for all. A related presentation on OERs and MOOCs is available in the 'Zukunftsthema Nachhaltigkeit / Sustainability' group’.


March 2014

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