How can MOOCs reach even more people

Participants learning together in a Beyond Silicon Valley Study Group, Düsseld0rf 2014

Recently, I interviewed Marianne Krasny about her efforts to start and facilitate local study groups for her MOOC Reclaiming Broken Places. One key topic was how MOOCs can extend the reach of higher education, and open it up to people who haven’t had access before. Not just in poor or developing countries, but also in our own, developed-nations-communities of North America and Europe. This blog post is based on a reply I sent her, on her question on what my thoughts are about opening up education. You can read the full interview with Marianne Krasny in the upcoming edition of The MOOC Mail Newsletter.

I certainly think that MOOCs, and LOOCs or study groups, are a great tool for opening access to higher education for people who hadn’t had that before, for whatever reason. I also think, based on what one could call the anecdotal evidence of the experience of Marianne Krasny, my own study group, the other efforts around Michael Goldberg’s MOOC Beyond Silicon Valley, but also what Edraak is doing for refugees in Jordan, or the Kepler project in Rwanda and the Kiron University in Germany, and actually much more cases like this, that MOOCs are in fact being used to bring higher education to a wider audience. For that to become even more evident, and reach even more people, I believe two things must happen first: addressing learners in their own language, and showing that MOOCs reach more people than just the ones who enrolled on a platform, and their impact in underreported and under-researched groups.

Addressing people in their own language, does not primarily mean using German for Germans, French for the French and Spanish for Hispanics in the US. It’s about more than that. To take from an example out of the Reclaiming Broken Places LOOC, I think educators must talk about concepts such as topophilia and biophilia in a way that resonates with the audience. Let’s not use these terms, but talk about how people love their neighbourhood, their cats, the park, trees, plants. On top of that comes the issue of the language of education: we — both educators and those of us passionate about bringing higher education to people who did not have access before — must help the people who have never learned to learn, to understand the content of courses, and to translate it into practice in a way that they can benefit from this new knowledge.

Secondly, the architecture of MOOCs is such that there is an incentive to have many people register for the courses through the platforms. It’s also an easy thing to measure. But as the experience with the Reclaiming Broken Places LOOCs, and my experience with Beyond Silicon Valley, shows, if you really want to reach more people, it will mean that not all of them will actually register for a MOOC. For many of the learners, or people impacted by LOOCs or study groups, there might not be an incentive to do so. Reclaiming Broken Places is a perfect example: the impact it has on the learners and their communities is very tangible and visible, but probably only a handful of these people will want to show off a certificate later in their lives. For them, the result of taking part in the course is immediately apparent, and there might be no drive to pursue a career in civic engagement. Same goes for the study group I did: we were discussing how to strengthen our local startup ecosystem. Actions speak much louder than certificates in that respect.

I see a role for local groups and organisations here, such as community colleges and local charities. But also informal groups, such as Social Bar, which is a meetup of tech people aimed at making a difference in their communities. In our interview, Marianne Krasny makes a valid point, that in a way, MOOCs might not be directed at the learners, but at those who help facilitate the learning.

We need to find a way to leverage those people, groups and organisations, and ensure that their reach, and with that the reach of the courses, can be attributed to the educators and platforms as well. It’s a lot of effort, but it also always amazes me, how much people will do for others, without being paid for it. And how much can be achieved when they are supported with the right tools and infrastructure.

Coming back to that enrolled learners are easy to measure, I believe that most of the research, articles, posts and comments about MOOCs not reaching the people who need free and open education most, are based on data that not fully represents reality. As said above, in the Reclaiming Broken Places LOOC probably, and in my study group certainly, people who did register for the course were a minority. But when discussing who is taking MOOCs, this is always based on the people who have registered for the course, and taken the effort to fill out account info or demographic surveys. That’s simply not the whole population of those actually affected by the course, and likely also not a representative sample of that population.

Anyway, a lot to think and talk about. And I’m sure we’ll see this develop further, especially with efforts like the Reclaiming Broken Places LOOC and the study groups forming around Beyond Silicon Valley.

The interview with Marianne Krasny will be published in the upcoming edition of The MOOC Mail. Subscribe here.

I help small businesses to find their story and tell it through new services and stories. Dad, poet and dot connector. Creator of the Tritriplicata. POM Poet.

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