MOOCs Are No Longer A Cultural Export Of The West

From China to Saudi Arabia, nations are translating, adapting, and creating MOOCs to fit their own unique needs.

MOOCs Are No Longer A Cultural Export Of The West
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

At a recent event at the United Nations about education accessibility in the developing world, Anant Agarwal, CEO of the open-source online-learning platform edX and a former MIT computer scientist, heard one word too much for his liking.


“The most-used word was ‘hegemony.’ MOOCs are criticized: Is this U.S. hegemony in action?” he says.

The early wave of massive open online courses that began around 2012 was propelled by the excitement that anyone, anywhere could sit in on a course from some of the most elite universities in the United States. People from all over the world–especially from nations where access to higher education is limited–signed up in droves to participate in virtual classes like “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” from Stanford University or “Justice” from Harvard.

Among the inevitable cascade of criticisms that followed the initial hype was this: online-learning platforms were peddling yet another blunt cultural export of the West, shoehorning ill-fitted course materials into societies where education access was clearly in high demand, while not really helping them develop or even undermining their homegrown education infrastructure.

Whether you believe online learning is going to save or sink higher education, at least this particular criticism is losing ground today. A much wider array of nations are now become MOOC adopters and providers.

On edX, a non-profit founded at MIT and Harvard in May 2012, a total of 1.2 million students from non-Western nations have signed up, and now non-English language courses are offered from universities in 20 countries, including as India, Mexico, France, and Hong Kong. Using edX’s open-source codebase, 12 Chinese institutions launched their own platform, XuetangX, which Agarwal says has already signed up some 300,000 users since last year. When the Queen Rania Foundation in Jordan opened up a similar portal, Edraak, to provide Arabic language content from three Middle Eastern schools, it adapted the edX code base so it could display text from right to left.

Currently there are almost a dozen other countries working to launch their own versions of edX, according to Agarwal. Most recently, last week, Saudi Arabia’s ministry of labor announced the creation of a portal focused on teaching vocational skills to the emerging workforce. When courses begin in September, the labor ministry will run a pilot program with women and rural youth–two demographics increasingly seeking employment–in which Saudi instructors will help students through the online content in skills such as financial literacy, English, and information technology.


“Fifty percent of our population is under 25. They are extremely tech-savvy,” says Maha Taibah, an advisor to Saudi’s labor ministry in Riyadh, noting that Saudi Arabia’s population are the most avid users of YouTube in the world. “We do believe that through these MOOCs, we will have a larger impact than in the traditional classroom.”

Taibah says that the government will be focused on providing relevant content to a local audience. “What works in Saudi will be different than what works in the States. . . . Obviously there is cultural adaptation.” Some courses will be developed from scratch, others licensed from edX from other universities. The hope is to maximize the economic and social impact in the country and region as young people flood cities looking for jobs. “We’re after scale and definitely after quality.”

In the U.S., many MOOCs have been used as one-off adult enrichment and the overall “drop-out” rate globally is higher than 90%. Ultimately, the adoption of MOOCs into formal education systems, perhaps mixes of classroom and online learning, may proceed more quickly in the developing world, where demand for education outstrips supply. Ben Wildavsky, director of higher education studies at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, State University of New York, says a new breed of homegrown courses and providers in developing countries could help resolve serious issues around language and pedagogy that arise when U.S. content is used in a more cookie-cutter model.

“I find some of the criticism [of MOOCs] ideological in a way that doesn’t really focus on first on the needs of students. I think we should think about what’s best for people in developing countries,” he says. “If you let a thousand flowers bloom, then people can pick and choose. We’re in a period of experimentation, which is great, because it means that providers and universities will try different things, and students will figure out what works.”

Other major platforms, such as Coursera, are also expanding quickly around the world and adding more international universities. In Rwanda, a $1,000 MOOC-based university is using in-person TA’s to help students learn with the assistance of online, Ivy League lectures. In that country, edX will also be launching a pilot project with Facebook, Nokia, Airtel, and the government of Rwanda to see how to integrate mobile and social technologies for learners that don’t have larger screens.

A thousand flowers indeed. “When we opened up the technology, that’s just absolutely something we had not dreamt about, these widespread adoptions,” Agarwal says.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.