Beki Grinter

MOOC Participation: Diversity and Assumptions of Development

In computer science, discipline, empirical, research, social media on February 12, 2013 at 11:30 am

Continuing my series of posts about MOOCs. Today’s is about a type of open/development rhetoric I keep hearing associated with MOOCs. It’s well meant I am quite sure, but I’ve heard the following sentiment: MOOCs will allow anyone from any continent to access content. And that in turn leads to increased education, skills for all.

I have a number of problems with this argument.

Starting with the obvious, this sentiment makes important assumptions about access. That access to the Internet and its content is uniform across the world. But it’s not. The Internet is a very different experience if you have a smartphone as your only means of access, versus if you have a laptop. Behind the hardware, there are questions of corporate policies and pricing mechanisms that influence access. Bandwidth caps, bandwidth pricing can influence how people use their phones, and in many parts of the world also how they use the wired network.

Behind these crucial practical questions of access lurk other assumptions, which warrant questioning. Is the content we create relevant or useful for everyone? What assumptions do the producers of content make about, say, what has been previously taught? What assumptions are made about the types of hardware and software the students have access too? And most critically, what assumptions get made about why the person is taking the course and whether that content will ultimately be most useful?

Although its not used too much, I have heard the word “Africa” used to describe diversity. I do think its well meant but it has the danger to collapse all of these questions into a stereotype of a person. Africa is not a person, nor is it a country, it’s a continent of great diversity in all senses. A person from Africa may well contribute to diversity in a MOOC setting, but so might a person from America.

Like others, I see this as being part of understanding the participation divide that shapes the Internet today. Some of that divide is the question of access, its costs, modalities, and so forth. But that’s not all that shapes the participation divide. When we overly simplify an entire continent we close down the question of what shapes participation in very problematic ways. If we are really committed to understanding how online education might help more people learn, the participation divide is precisely the question we ought to open up, to really take account of the highly diverse population of people that have some reach to the Internet. Because it’s only when we actually take diversity seriously that we have any shot at getting to something better than more education for the already well educated.

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  1. […] States is offering MOOCs for “the developing world” such as “Africa.” As she points out in her blog post, even that phrasing ignores the complexity of languages and cultures in the enormous continent of […]

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