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Response to Coursera is not a Panacera by Theresa Barnes

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By Rory McGreal November 9, 2012 - 7:07pm

Below is my response to Theresa Barnes post re: Coursera

RORY>>> Please do not take my comments as being some kind of blanket support for Coursera. I have my reservations. But, I applaud any initiative that moves us forward in addressing the issue of how can educate 100 million and more students globally in a cost-effective manner.  Coursera is at least trying. Traditional universities are hanging on to their elitist views. See the discussion below.
1.       Although Coursera course registration may be free, access to the internet in most of the world is not. So people who spend time doing their coursework in the internet café in their village in rural India or in Harare or Karachi or Lima are paying that café by the minute for their course time. Are they assessed the same as people logging on from the US or Europe where the internet is free or very cheap?

RORY>> 1 out of every 3 people now access the internet using mobile devices. Mobile access now reaches 90% of the world's population. More and more people in developing countries are accessing the internet using mobile phones or tablets. Many people in both developed and developing countries access the internet at cafes. Go to Starbucks and look around. Also, I am sure that the students at Dr Barnes university in the USA are assessed the same even if some have to commute for two hours and even if they are otherwise disadvantaged. Why would this be different anywhere?
2.       I taught for a long time in South Africa, I was a graduate student in Zimbabwe, and I’m teaching now in the United States. The names of my courses- “The History of Southern Africa,” for example - may be the same but I have learned that I have to teach differently with different materials according to my audience. Cultures are different, preparation is different, likely responses and questions are different. How does Coursera handle those issues?

RORY>>> Tailoring courses is laudable, especially in arts courses like history. But computer courese and many science courses are not specifically tailored in the US or anywhere else.  You have learnt to teach differently. Wonderful. Most professors in the US and elsewhere  have had no teacher training and don't teach differently. Are you comparing the case of Coursera courses against your high  standards or the standards of typical universities in the developed world. I would argue that Coursera courses may not be as good as those of our best professors, but I would bet that they are comparable to the average of courses taught in many universities. Students themsselves handle the cultural differences in Coursera courses. They have spontaneously created study groups in many cities. And, perhaps many students cannot handle the cultural differences, but I dare say that there are many students who can handle them and for them at least they have access that they would not have otherwise.
3.       South Africa has banned international private universities (except for one, Monash University from Australia) from setting up branch campuses in the country. South Africa has a tradition of being burned by “fly-by-night” schools that are here today and gone tomorrow, take students’ money and resources and disappear. The higher education authorities also wanted to ensure that South African students learn according to the new, national post-apartheid standards that were being implemented after 1994. Nothing wrong with that. How does an initiative like Coursera affect those efforts?

RORY>>> This is a mute point. There are many fly by night private universities.  Coursera is not taking student money.  Coursera may or may not address the post-apartheid standards. Does South Africa have different standards that the rest of the world for computer science and the hard sciences? If so, I feel sorry for them.  By the way does your US  university address those standards? The point is that some students want to learn and are able to learn on their own given the opportunity. Coursera provides them with that opportunity.  Instead of criticising Coursera, why not look at what they are doing and find better ways of doing it to increase accessibility and quality of courses in South Africa and elsewhere.

4.       The global South has some mighty universities of its own. Is there any discussion about the tremendous scholars and scholarship of Africa and Asia being integrated into Coursera teaching? And it may be news to Americans, but the elite universities of the South are much more academically rigorous at the undergraduate level than most US universities. Ask anyone who has experienced the institutional culture of the University of Delhi. How does Coursera negotiate these different student experiences and expectations?

RORY>>> I agree with your comments about the quality of courses in the South. South universities should be included.  There are discussions, perhaps not with Coursera, which is a private US-centric  initiatve, but with other global initiatives. We are actively working with UNISA, the African Virtual University and others supporting Open Educational Resources and the OER university to provide online courses freely to students worldwide with roads to assessment and accreditation.

5.       The History Department at the University of Illinois has been grappling for more than a year now with the tremendous intellectual and pedagogical challenge of the topic “world histories from below” under the leadership of Professors Antoinette Burton and Kathy Oberdeck. Anyone who has been to one of our reading groups can testify to the stimulating challenges of trying to figure out whose perspectives, whose data, whose problems, whose evidence, whose stories, whose voices qualify as being “from below” – let along how to manufacture meaningful comparative narratives across national boundaries. This is the kind of painstaking work that has to be done, to my mind, before one can stick the label “global” onto intellectual content and market it as such. Is Coursera having discussions like this about the content of its arts and humanities offerings?

RORY>>> Perhaps MOOCs are not the best way of delivering courses of this type. I can assure you that the painstaking work you are doing at your university is NOT being duplicated in many if not most developed world universities. Your opinion seems very subject centric and does not take into account other subject areas that perhaps need to teach basic concepts, skills and facts. And perhaps MOOCs are a good way to do so. Many universities have large classes of 100s of students. These are hardly different from MOOCs.

6.       Engineering, math and the sciences have right and wrong answers. Can untutored peer grading, even with a good marking rubric, really negotiate the difficulties of cross-cultural essay writing on topics where right and wrong are entirely subjective? For example, would a Mexican student who is adamantly opposed to abortion be able to fairly grade a Finnish student’s reflective work on a woman’s right to choose – and vice versa?

RORY>>> Perhaps cross-cultural essay writing is difficult to negotiate, but I can assure you at our open university this is happening all the time. We have faculty from more than 40 countries and students from or in  more than 85 countries. Of course, we don't do peer gradingv--you have a good point.

7.       Do the professors who organize and teach MOOCs get paid? By whom and how much? How are they assessed?

RORY>>> Some of our professors are doing MOOCs. We get paid by the university with normal salaries. We are assessed the same way as any faculty. Coursera is a consortium of universities. One can assume that they will pay their faculty according to their own procedures and rates.


8.       The people who were involved in that terrible stampede in Johannesburg were precisely the people at the bottom of the higher education food chain who did not have the resources to apply online. How does a MOOC help them? How do MOOCs not simply benefit those who already have access to resources, elites either in the global North or the global South? How do the people who do not have access to those resources not get left behind?

RORY>> The MOOC may or may not help them. The students themselves choose. I would guess that at least some of the students who did not succeed in the stampede do have access to the internet even if it means finding an internet cafe. If Mandela can do it from gaol then some others can do it from an internet cafe. Also with the rising ubiquity of mobile access to the internet, more and more access is becoming possible.

You are missing the point about elites. It is your traditional approache to education that is elitist. We cannot afford this system for the mass of students even in rich countries. Coursera points one way out of  your elitism. I believe there are better ways, but maintaining the status quo is NOT the answere.


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