Translating MOOCs

11 Feb

By Stella Li

In May 2014, former HarvardX research fellow Sergiy Nesterko created an interactive map that showed learner registrants hailing from 195 countries—and, yet, the majority of them came from English-speaking ones. The same pattern, no doubt, exists for other open online courses.

Nesterko remarked: “we can further adapt HarvardX educational content to different cultures, languages, and student learning goals.” To expand the impact of MOOCs and improve the completion rate of courses, however, it is important to understand how the design of MOOCs and the platforms that deliver MOOCs can influence English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) learners.

According to a survey ( conducted in 2013 by, the largest online community of MOOC learners in China, language barriers are one of the top three reasons Chinese registrants list for dropping out of a course, if they enroll at all (17.5% indicated that they fail to register for a course because of a language barrier).

This led me to ask, how do MOOCs support English as Second Language Learners (ESL), and how do they not? I developed a project, part of the course “T-509 Massive: The Future of Learning at Scale,” at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to survey how MOOC providers are responding to non-English audiences.

To do so, I explored 20 courses across 10 platforms. Among the platforms, 7 of them were founded by universities or institutions in America; 2 of them originated in other English-speaking countries (UK and Australia); and the last came from a country where English is a second language (Germany). Among the 10 platforms, 5 of them already offer some non-English courses (edX, Couresra, NovoEd, Peer2Peer and iVersity).

All the platforms and courses have various features that could make it easier or harder for an ESL learner to engage and be successful. Based upon my personal experience (as someone who speaks Chinese first and English second), and information from the forum at, course developers should consider six important elements:

1) Homepage: The homepage of MOOC platform is the first element many learners encounter, and it should not be the first barrier. MOOC platforms should provide as much language support as they can to make it easier for learners to get familiar with the platforms. Providing easy, highly visible way to switch languages would be a very helpful function.

[ Full article available at Inside Higher Ed: ]

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Posted by on February 11, 2015 in Best Practices, MOOCs in the News


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