The number of students signed up for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) reached an astronomical 17 million in 2014. But are these free online courses truly fulfilling their promise of democratizing education?
Most discussions about how MOOCs are making education accessible to the masses focus on numbers — numbers of students and of countries where students are from. Multiple efforts have been launched to make online learning accessible in poorer countries. In Rwanda, the Kepler project provides online courses to students who lack access to quality higher education, and in Tanzania, the World Bank supports MOOCs to equip quip students with marketable IT skills. But what about citizens right here in the US?
Last spring, I taught a MOOC called “Reclaiming Broken Places: Introduction to Civic Ecology.” For me, teaching the MOOC was a chance to spread the word about something I care deeply about — how people in cities around the world are reclaiming trashed out lots, polluted streams, and even earthquake induced landslides. And how they are transforming these “broken places” into something of value for the environment and their communities—like community gardens or pocket parks.
Most MOOC students in the US are white, well-educated, and well-off. But here was my special opportunity because the very people MOOC developers want to reach—those less privileged who don’t have access to expensive college educations—are often the people who create a community garden or pocket park in their neighborhood. I wanted to understand why these folks were not taking MOOCs.
So I started what is known in the business as a “LOOC” or Local Open Online Course. Actually I started multiple LOOCs. Two for women living in public housing in Washington DC, one at a community center serving Hispanic senior citizens in Providence RI, one sponsored by the non-profit Sustainable Queens in New York, and one at a center for people with disabilities in Yakima WA. I hired local professionals to adapt the MOOC for these small groups of learners who normally would not sign up for—let alone have heard of—MOOCs. The ideas was that the local professionals would show the video lectures and guide the students in the course readings and discussions.
About half way into the six-week course, I stopped by to visit one of the Washington DC LOOCs. The women in the class met in the evening in a derelict school building. I brought along Thai carry-out for dinner, food that was new to them, but that they relished.
And there I was, a white college professor sitting in a room listening to the conversation of seven African American ladies who lived in public housing. Although I read about urban gun violence every day, now I was in the midst of people who experienced that violence every day. From what I could tell, everyone in that room had a child, a niece, a neighbor who had been killed by gun violence. And all but one had capitulated to recent ploys by developers that would force them to relocate to other public housing.
As I took in the conversation, my first thought was: why in the world would a Cornell professor like me even presume that a MOOC I designed would democratize education for these women?
But as the evening progressed, I started to hear conversation about the material covered in the MOOC. The woman who had not signed on the developer’s dotted line spoke about how important her neighborhood was to her—in the language used in the MOOC she was talking about her “love of place” or “topophilia.” And when the discussion turned to the class “civic ecology” project—they were planning a garden where residents would care for plants dedicated to lost relatives or friends—their love for plants, or “biophilia” became evident. It was obvious that the women got the idea of civic ecology practices—people like them caring for nature and community in troubled neighborhoods and hard times.
Akiima Price, the LOOC instructor, had told me that when she tried to show the lectures I had spent hours practicing and recording, the ladies showed little interest. But Akiima had created infographics and led lively discussions about the course content. In some ways, the women were all about civic ecology—eager to plant flowers in their housing project and eager to have me sign copies of the civic ecology book. But for them to engage with the course, they needed someone to present the material in a less traditional format. The same was true for the Hispanic seniors in Providence—they preferred a more interactive way of learning.
This brings us back to what MOOCs were supposed to do, and why they sometimes fail. Andrew Ng, former Stanford professor turned MOOC entrepreneur, commented in a radio interview: "we now have the technology for professors to teach not just 50 students at a time but 50,000." Yet so-called “one-to-many” MOOCs have been lambasted for their traditional style of teaching—lecturing with no thought given to how students learn from (and enjoy) interacting with each other.
It’s true that the ladies in that school room in Washington DC might not think to sign up for a MOOC--whether because they can’t access the technology, don’t like listening to video lectures, or never even heard of MOOCs. And it’s not cheap to fund the more intensive LOOCs—not every MOOC can hire local instructors. Yet that’s exactly what the Kepler project in Rwanda is doing—hiring local instructors who offer seminars and coaching sessions to supplement online learning.
From my perspective, the verdict is complicated. Online learning hasn’t yet revolutionized—or democratized—education. But as more and more people of all demographics come online (according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, 80 percent of African-Americans are internet users and 62 percent have home broadband access), we can design online learning experiences to reach learners of all ages, races, and income levels. This will mean not just thinking about the technology and the content, but listening to what whole segments of America’s population are thinking and doing.
MOOCs take on many different forms, and the ladies participating in the LOOC were interested in learning what they were learning. And they’re still looking for a site to plant their memorial gardens.
Marianne Krasny is the director of the Civic Ecology Lab at Cornell University and a 2015 Public Voices Fellow of The Oped Project.
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