Translating MOOCs

Beyond just language.

February 11, 2015

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 (http://mooc.guokr.com/post/610667/) conducted in 2013 by mooc.guokr.com, 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 mooc.guokr.com, 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.

2) Course list: It is helpful to have language filter, as in what languages a course supports, when searching.

3) Course introduction page: Providing information on the language of lectures and available subtitles is incredibly helpful. It also helps to attract students. While this and the prior recommendation seem obvious, I was often hard pressed to find even these most basic features on MOOC platforms.

4) Course information/announcement page: Too much text on one page can be overwhelming for ESL learners. It is best to break the information into smaller pieces.

5) Video: As ESL learners are more likely to replay the videos, provide a high-level of control through features such as speed control and the ability to turn on and off interactive transcripts. If a video is of the “talking head” style, offer adjacent transcripts elsewhere on the screen (in addition to whatever might be overlaid or burned into the video itself).

6) Discussion forums: For forums, often the heart of interactivity for an online course, ESL learners need additional support and resources from the instructor and teaching assistants. For some certain types of courses, having sub-forums or specific study groups for ESL learners would be ideal, promoting both community and engagement. In short, instructors should let ESL students know where they can go for native language options. 

Some of these features are dependent on the design of the platform (homepage, course list, and video player). Others, especially non-technology based, are in the control of the course developers and instructors. Given the diversity of topics and learning approaches, there, however, there is no “one-size-fits-all” template for all the courses or platforms.

This begs the question: How much effort should be invested in adjusting a MOOC course/platform to meet the needs of ESL learners? The answer depends on the goal of platform providers and course developers. Translating everything into various languages, while ideal, is a huge investment. It turns out that such mass translation may not be always necessary.

For example, a survey by mooc.guokr.com, http://mooc.guokr.com/post/610674/, indicated that 13 percent of Chinese MOOC learners indicated that learning English is one of their goals for taking courses on MOOC. This suggests that platforms and instructors should think of MOOCs as often serving a dual purpose: learning about a subject as well as learning about how to approach a subject in English (the terminology, etc.).

With this in mind, it is not only the language in which the content is offered that impacts an ESL learner’s experience. The style of a course also matters. In some MOOCs the content is delivered in an “American university style”: having readings before classes, organizing online workshops instead of delivering lectures, and having assessments afterwards.

This approach itself could be a barrier to those not familiar with the American higher education system. Chinese college students, and many others, seldom have classes in this way. Likewise, people who never attended a traditional college or taken a residential course may not be used to studying in this way.

Consider my own personal experience. As an undergraduate, I majored in Chemistry at Peking University. Most of my courses (if not all) contained only two parts: on-site lecture and homework. We did not have required readings or materials to go through before the course, and seldom had official discussions in classroom or after class. By contrast, my learning experience at Harvard has been completely different and I have, in essence, had to learn how to learn.

Ultimately, it may not be necessary or even possible to adapt a course or platform to some kind of universal cultural standard to fit the increasing variety of MOOC learners. Course developers and platform providers should, however, strive to be hyper-aware of where students are coming from (in all ways), giving clear guidance and support from the start.

The big take away is that supporting ESL learners means more than simply translating the language of instruction. That’s just the beginning.

Stella Li is an Ed.M. candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is studying education technology. 


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