MOOCs as Neocolonialism: Who Controls Knowledge?

04 Dec

The following is by Philip G. Altbach, research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are the latest effort to harness information technology for higher education. While they are still in a nascent stage of development, many in academe are enthusiastic about their potential to be an inexpensive way of delivering an education to vast audiences.

Yet one aspect of the MOOC movement has not been fully analyzed: who controls the knowledge. MOOCs are largely an American-led effort, and the majority of the courses available so far come from universities in the United States or other Western countries. Universities and educators in less-developed regions of the world are climbing onto the MOOC bandwagon, but it is likely that they will be using the technology, pedagogical ideas, and probably significant parts of the content developed elsewhere. In this way, the online courses threaten to exacerbate the worldwide influence of Western academe, bolstering its higher-education hegemony.

For the most part, MOOC content is based on the American academic experience and pedagogical ideas. By and large, the readings required by most MOOC courses are American or from other Western countries. Many of the courses are in English, and even when lectures and materials are translated into other languages, the content largely reflects the original course. The vast majority of instructors are American. It is likely that more diversity will develop, but the basic content will remain the same.

Approaches to curriculum, pedagogy, and the overall philosophy of education differ according to national traditions and practices, and may not reflect the approaches offered by most MOOC instructors or their providers. No doubt, those that are developing MOOCs will claim that their methods are best and reflect the latest pedagogical thinking. Perhaps. But there are a range of approaches to learning and many traditions.

Why is this important? Neither knowledge nor pedagogy is neutral. They reflect the academic traditions, methodological orientations, and teaching philosophies of particular academic systems. Such academic nationalism is especially evident in many social-science and humanities fields, but it is not absent in the sciences. While academics who develop MOOC courses are no doubt motivated by a desire to do the best job possible and to cater to a wide audience, they are to a significant extent bound by their own academic orientation.

[ Full article available at The Chronicle of Higher Education: ]

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Posted by on December 4, 2013 in MOOCs in the News, Op-Ed


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