The Language of MOOCs

Can providers of massive open online courses achieve their goal of educating the most possible people when their offerings are overwhelmingly in English? No, Roberto Rey Agudo argues.

January 9, 2019
 

If you were of internet age in 2012, you probably remember the gushing coverage that welcomed platforms like edX or Coursera. Media interest has fizzled considerably since The New York Times declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.”

While the hype has faded, colleges and universities have actually begun using MOOCs to alter how they operate in subtler and more lasting ways. Most colleges and universities are now, in one way or another, in the business of online education. Just last fall, the University of Pennsylvania became the first Ivy League institution to offer a fully online bachelor’s program, while Columbia University launched a MOOC to prepare veterans’ to transition to university life. Even disciplines that have traditionally relied heavily on lectures have warmed up to the idea of the flipped classroom, a feature of online education.

Much has been made of the global nature of MOOCs, and the fact that these courses are enabling students from many countries to learn together. Coursera has 181 partners in 27 countries; edX has 130 partners worldwide. In spite of their international reach, English is the language of instruction for over 80 percent of their courses. In contrast, English makes up about 50 percent of internet content, and English speakers 30 percent of the total users. Can edX and Coursera be global platforms and be functionally monolingual?

From a neoliberal perspective, the answer is of course yes. Universities in Europe, Asia and Latin America are increasingly adopting English as the medium of instruction for both online and on-campus programs. If we think of higher education as a global marketplace, English as the dominant medium of instruction is a perfectly logical choice. In the interest of preparing graduates for a competitive global labor market, universities from non-English-speaking countries vie for students by switching their classes to English.

However, if the goal is providing access to high-quality education for the greatest number of people, these platforms should resist the pull of global English. Remember, this is the ideal that MOOC providers hold themselves to. At the time when Coursera and edX debuted their first courses, MOOCs came to represent an unprecedented democratization of knowledge, a boost for social mobility for resourceful, striving, motivated learners everywhere, regardless of geographical, cultural, gender or socioeconomic barriers. This laudable goal still informs the mission statements of edX and Coursera, both of which aim to serve “everyone, everywhere” and “anyone, anywhere,” respectively.

By the numbers, English is certainly the shortcut to the largest number of worldwide learners. And to be fair, both edX and Coursera are largely American enterprises -- the former nonprofit, the latter for-profit -- with most charter and partner universities from English-speaking countries. It makes sense that a majority of their courses are taught in English. Why should it be on organizations like them to diversify the languages of their course offerings?

For one, English creates a barrier of inequality for many. Worldwide, proficiency in English is a marker of socioeconomic privilege -- as is access to a stable internet connection or the digital literacy required to navigate online courses, for that matter. It is true that MOOC platforms bring high-quality educational content to learners anywhere, particularly in the developing world, but they do so by catering mostly to a selective sliver of the population.

There is evidence that engagement increases when learners access content in their native language. When DartmouthX included Portuguese as one of the languages of instruction for a course on the philosophy of science, more than 6,000 students in Brazil signed up, increasing the course’s enrollment by 50 percent. If you are edX and you want to make inroads in, say, Indonesia, you are more likely to reach a wider audience if you have materials in Javanese or Bahasa Indonesian than in English.

Moreover, monolingualism flattens the variety of human experience, and that should be a concern to any organization concerned with knowledge. When institutions adopt English as the language of instruction, they do so to the detriment of -- not in addition to -- local languages. Dutch universities, for instance, are moving to protect Dutch from the encroaching threat of English in tertiary and post-tertiary education. They are worried that once Dutch stops being a language of instruction and scientific inquiry, it will lose vitality.

This trend is more pronounced in MOOC platforms. If you search for Java programming courses on edX, you will find 60 courses from institutions in Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Guatemala, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United States. English is the medium of instruction of 56 of those 60 courses. Four are offered in Mandarin. None in Spanish, Cantonese, German, Dutch or French.

Here is what edX and Coursera can do to expand their slim library of courses in languages other than English. Hint: it is not a web 2.0 approach to user-generated translations. The simplest way is to stipulate that institutions offer courses in their local language(s) as medium of instruction. Universidad Carlos III de Madrid could offer Java courses in Spanish (and English if it wanted to), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology could do the same in Cantonese, and so on. Better yet, instead of 59 overlapping courses on the same topic, all in English, MOOC platforms could provide incentives for partner institutions to design courses collaboratively -- and multilingually -- from the start, or to recycle existing ones.

Unmoved by the argument that relying on global English runs counter to the core mission of MOOCs? Consider this. We know that edX and Coursera work great for language learning because millions use the platforms to acquire a foreign language -- English. They apply on their own what in language education is called content-based instruction: the principle behind dual-immersion schools by which you can learn, say, history in German in order to learn both German and history at the same time.

A truly multilingual MOOC platform would become a major repository of content-based language instruction, especially for less commonly taught languages. Wouldn’t it be nice if MOOCs could be conscripted into bridging the notorious gap in language education in the U.S.?

MOOC platforms have subtly changed how course content is delivered. Can MOOCs help change the language of instruction as well?

Bio

Roberto Rey Agudo is language program director in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and a 2018 Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.

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