WASHINGTON — One narrative that has driven widespread interest in free online courses known as MOOCs is that they can help educate the world. But critics say that the courses mostly draw students who already hold traditional degrees.
When Coursera, the largest provider of MOOCs, published a blog post about how a professor had used one of its online courses to teach refugees near the Kenya-Somalia border, it sounded to some like a satire of Silicon Valley’s naïve techno-optimism: Hundreds of thousands of devastated Africans stranded in a war zone? MOOCs to the rescue!
Still, details of the experiment paint a more nuanced picture, highlighting the challenges that MOOC providers face in trying to make sophisticated online courses work in deprived settings.
Barbara Moser-Mercer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Geneva, ran the refugee experiment and wrote Coursera’s blog post about it. But in an interview, as well as a more formal article she wrote about the experiment for a European conference on MOOCs, she expanded on the logistical issues encountered.
Ms. Moser-Mercer’s background is translation and interpretation; she still sometimes serves as an interpreter for the United Nations. Mostly, though, she works in conflict zones. She is founder and director of InZone, a group that tries to intervene in “higher-education emergencies.”
Professor Moser-Mercer downloaded lecture videos and quizzes from a Coursera course to a USB drive and brought them to Dadaab, one of the world’s largest refugee camps. There she handed the drive to officials at a compound run by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which was one of the few places around that had computers.
[ Full article available at The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/18/world/africa/the-challenges-of-higher-education-emergencies.html ]