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International Reach of MOOCs Is Limited by Users’ Preferences

Washington — Do massive open online courses offer countries around the world an affordable way to democratize higher education? Maybe, speakers said at an event on Monday here at the Embassy of Norway, but at best such a possibility is a long way off.

The discussion was part of Transatlantic Science Week, an event sponsored by the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research that looks for solutions to problems shared by Norway, Canada, and the United States.

Torbjorn Roe Isaksen, Norway’s minister of education and research, said MOOCs have the potential to “give people all over the world access to education.” But he said he knew of no MOOCs reaching into developing countries in South America and Africa.

He said that data from companies that provide MOOCs show that most of those who enroll in the courses have already completed degrees and are looking to further their learning. MOOCs aren’t necessarily attracting people who have never had a formal education in the first place, he said.

Dag Rune Olsen, a professor of biomedical physics at the University of Bergen, said using MOOCs as a path to educational equality around the world would not work unless countries and the MOOC companies could find a way to draw in those students. “If MOOCs are going to contribute to the democratization of society, they need to reach new learners,” he said.

Using digital tools like MOOCs, he said, can help countries reach higher-education goals they have set for themselves—in enrollment, completion, and so on—but he warned that countries, and specifically universities, cannot just clutch technology and tools.

“A fool with a tool is still a fool,” he said.

In Norway, citizens receive free postsecondary education, and education is key to development, Mr. Isaksen said, adding: “The digitization of education is of utmost importance for Norway.”

Berit Kjeldstad, pro-rector for education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, said she was a member of a task force on MOOCs that will report to the government next summer on its findings. It will be interesting, she said, to see if a country where university students don’t pay tuition or fees can be sold on the idea of massive online courses.

Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, said that even in China, where overcrowding in colleges forces many students to seek education abroad, people aren’t yet sold on the idea of MOOCs. He recently attended an education exposition in China that was packed with students, wall to wall.

All the people he spoke with there, he said, understood that they could enroll free in courses from top universities, but they still wanted the college experience on a campus, even if it wasn’t at Harvard or Princeton. “People would rather spend $250,000 in U.S. than take a free course from Stanford,” he said.

Mr. Goodman added that when he sees Chinese tour buses here in Washington, they aren’t just stopping at the Lincoln Memorial—they’re also stopping at Georgetown University and American University. “These aren’t national monuments,” he said. “They’re campuses.”

Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, noted that he previously worked at George Mason University, where many students are commuters who several times a week leave work, sit in traffic, and then go to class for hours in the evening. He understood that education and a degree were their goals, Mr. Dede said, but he couldn’t explain why they continued to brave rush-hour traffic rather than take the classes online.

Whatever the attraction is for those students, Mr. Dede said, is what MOOCs and MOOC developers need to harness if they want to succeed both in the United States and abroad.

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