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Virtual Universities Abroad Say They Already Deliver ‘Massive’ Courses

physics_of_donkey_carts

The Virtual U. of Pakistan developed a video lecture titled “The Physics of Donkey Carts.”

Cambridge, Mass. — Since long before anyone uttered the word “MOOC,” virtual universities in many countries have been using technology to teach thousands of students at a time. Even so, leaders of those online institutions, who gathered here this week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said they were watching massive open online courses closely.

One key takeaway from the event, though, was that virtual universities in other countries have no plans to add lectures from famous professors at MIT or other American colleges to their own online institutions.

“Transferring education from the United States to Africa wouldn’t work,” argued Bakary Diallo, rector of African Virtual University. “Because we have our own realities,” he added, “our own context and culture.”

Naveed A. Malik, founding rector of the Virtual University of Pakistan, echoed that sentiment. “This is something that we learned very early in our virtual-university experience,” he said. “We couldn’t pick up a course from outside and then transplant it into a Pakistani landscape—the context was completely different.”

Both universities have been teaching courses to students on a large scale for more than a decade. An introductory computer-science course at the Virtual University of Pakistan typically has about 12,000 students, Mr. Malik said. And both universities say they will continue to build their own course materials. One example is a video lecture, taught by Mr. Malik himself, called “The Physics of Donkey Carts.”

“Look, it is physics—it is Newton’s laws—but let me show you something that you have seen in your own real-world experience,” said Mr. Malik, as he described the video.

The two leaders spoke on a panel this week as part of the annual meeting of the Learning International Networks Consortium, an MIT-managed project devoted to the spread of online learning.

Mr. Diallo said that MOOCs may hold potential as an approach to organize and deliver courses, and that his institution might try its own at some point. But he also identified challenges in Africa to using MOOCs because they rely so heavily on video lectures. “In Africa you don’t have bandwidth to download videos,” he said.

He also noted that some African countries still face intermittent power disruptions and other technological challenges, so his virtual university still produces a range of traditional course materials, including texts and DVDs for students who lack easy access to the Internet.

“Today we’re talking about MOOCs, but maybe two years down the line it could be something else,” he said. “What is really important for an online university is a capacity to adapt and evolve.”

In another session about MOOCs, Sir John Daniel, a senior adviser at Academic Partnerships, argued that the first MOOC-like institution was Britain’s Open University, which was founded in 1969. It now has about 250,000 students.

Sir John suggested that such long-running virtual universities offered a better way to reach underserved students than do MOOCs created by Ivy League institutions.

Sanjay Sarma, MIT’s director of digital learning, helps coordinate the university’s involvement with edX, the nonprofit MOOC provider founded by MIT and Harvard University. He acknowledged that most students who succeed in edX courses are from well-educated families. “We could probably do better in reaching students who have fewer resources,” he said.

Mr. Sarma, a mechanical-engineering professor, stressed that a major goal for MIT in experimenting with MOOCs is to reform teaching on its own campus.

“Already we have over 10 courses using the edX platform not for external courses but for internal use,” he said. Professors are also experimenting, he said, with “flipped classrooms,” in which they assign lecture videos for homework and use class time for more-interactive exercises or discussions.

“We didn’t do this because it’s a fad. OK, we did it a little because it’s a fad,” he said, eliciting a laugh from the audience. But he argued that technological developments from MOOCs could greatly improve what happens on the campus. “Professors,” he said, “need to know how to dance with this technology.”

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