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MOOCs as Neocolonialism: Who Controls Knowledge?

The following is by Philip G. Altbach, research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.
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Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are the latest effort to harness information technology for higher education. While they are still in a nascent stage of development, many in academe are enthusiastic about their potential to be an inexpensive way of delivering an education to vast audiences.

Yet one aspect of the MOOC movement has not been fully analyzed: who controls the knowledge. MOOCs are largely an American-led effort, and the majority of the courses available so far come from universities in the United States or other Western countries. Universities and educators in less-developed regions of the world are climbing onto the MOOC bandwagon, but it is likely that they will be using the technology, pedagogical ideas, and probably significant parts of the content developed elsewhere. In this way, the online courses threaten to exacerbate the worldwide influence of Western academe, bolstering its higher-education hegemony.

For the most part, MOOC content is based on the American academic experience and pedagogical ideas. By and large, the readings required by most MOOC courses are American or from other Western countries. Many of the courses are in English, and even when lectures and materials are translated into other languages, the content largely reflects the original course. The vast majority of instructors are American. It is likely that more diversity will develop, but the basic content will remain the same.

Approaches to curriculum, pedagogy, and the overall philosophy of education differ according to national traditions and practices, and may not reflect the approaches offered by most MOOC instructors or their providers. No doubt, those that are developing MOOCs will claim that their methods are best and reflect the latest pedagogical thinking. Perhaps. But there are a range of approaches to learning and many traditions.

Why is this important? Neither knowledge nor pedagogy is neutral. They reflect the academic traditions, methodological orientations, and teaching philosophies of particular academic systems. Such academic nationalism is especially evident in many social-science and humanities fields, but it is not absent in the sciences. While academics who develop MOOC courses are no doubt motivated by a desire to do the best job possible and to cater to a wide audience, they are to a significant extent bound by their own academic orientation.

Since the vast majority of material used comes from Western academic systems, examples used in science courses are likely to come from the United States or Europe because these countries dominate the literature and articles in influential journals. Modes of inquiry reflect the Western mainstream. While this knowledge base and pedagogical orientation no doubt reflect current ideas of good practice, they may not be the only approach to good scientific inquiry or content.

These issues come into even sharper focus in the social sciences and humanities. In fields such as literature and philosophy, most courses reflect Western traditions of knowledge, the Western literature canon, and Western philosophical assumptions. The social sciences reflect Western methodologies and basic assumptions about the essentials of scientific inquiry. Mainstream ideas and methods in fields like anthropology and sociology reflect Western trends, especially those of the American academic community. The major academic journals and the big academic publishers are located in the global centers of knowledge, like Boston, New York, and London. It is, under these circumstances, natural that the dominant ideas from these centers will dominate academic discourse, and will be reflected in the thinking and orientations of most of those planning and teaching MOOCs. MOOC gatekeepers, such as Coursera, Udacity, and others, will seek to maintain standards as they interpret them, and this will no doubt strengthen the hegemony of Western methodologies.

English dominates not only academic scholarship in the 21st century, but also the MOOCs. English is the language of internationally circulated academic journals; researchers in non-English-speaking environments are increasingly using English for their academic writings and communication. Major academic websites tend to be in English as well. Because English is the language of scholarly communication, the methodological and intellectual orientations of the English-speaking academic culture hold sway globally.

The implications for developing countries are serious. MOOCs produced in the current centers of research are easy to gain access to and inexpensive for the user, but may inhibit the emergence of a local academic culture, local academic content, and courses tailored specially for national audiences. MOOCs have the potential to reach non-elite audiences, thus extending the influence of the main academic centers.

Those responsible for creating, designing, and delivering MOOC courses do not seek to impose their values or methodologies on others; influence happens organically and without conspiracies. A combination of powerful academic cultures, the location of the main creators and disseminators of MOOCs, and the orientation of most of those creating and teaching MOOCs ensures the domination of the largely English-speaking academic systems. Once people figure out how to make money from MOOCs, no doubt corporate interests, largely based in the rich world, will seek to corner the market.

The millions of students choosing to participate in MOOCs from all over the world do not seem to be concerned about the nature of the knowledge or the philosophy of pedagogy that they are studying. Universities in the middle-income and developing world do not seem concerned about the origins or orientations of the knowledge provided by the MOOCs or the educational philosophies behind MOOC pedagogy.

I don’t mean to imply any untoward motives by the makers of MOOCs. I’m not arguing that the content or methodologies of most current MOOCs are wrong because they are based on the dominant Western academic approaches. But I do believe it is important to point out that a powerful emerging educational movement strengthens the currently dominant academic culture, perhaps making it more difficult for alternative voices to be heard.

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