INTERNATIONAL HIGHER EDUCATION
as Neocolonialism: Who Controls Knowledge?
by Philip G. Altbach
Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are the latest effort
to harness information technology for higher education. The
concept takes advantage of the significant advancements in technology
that permits much more interactive pedagogy as well as more
sophisticated delivery of content. While MOOCs are still in
a nascent stage of development, their sponsors as well as many
commentators and policymakers are enthusiastic, and see them
as an inexpensive and innovative way of delivering content to
vast audiences, while others see potential for profits.
One aspect of the MOOC movement has not been fully analyzed:
who controls the knowledge. Considering where the content and
the technology that support MOOCs originate, the answer is clear.
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. The main providers are also
in the technologically advanced countries. The technology in
use was developed in Silicon Valley, Kendall Square in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, and other hubs of information technology innovation.
Early adopters have a significant advantage in this arena. While
globalization has increased the sway of the academic centers
in economically powerful countries, MOOCs promise to enhance
this higher education hegemony by harnessing technology to the
Others, in diverse and less-developed regions of the world,
are joining the MOOC bandwagon, but it is likely that they will
be using technology, pedagogical ideas, and much 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.
Two of the original MOOC sponsors, Coursera and EdX, are American
initiatives.the first founded by Stanford professors and based
in Silicon Valley in California and the second established by
Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institution of Technology.
Many other top universities, mainly in the United States, have
joined these efforts. Coursera offers 535 courses in many fields
of study; 24 percent of the courses originate from outside the
United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia; EdX
provides 91 courses, 19 of which are from outside North America
and the United Kingdom. Some of these courses enroll as many
as 300,000 students, with average enrollments of approximately
20,000. The large majority of students come from outside the
United States. Completion rates seem to be low - most less than
13 percent. Many in the MOOC movement are seeking to earn profits
from MOOCs, a goal so far unmet.
WHO CONTROLS KNOWLEDGE AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
The large majority of MOOCs are created and taught by professors
in the United States. Companies and universities with the funds
to develop good MOOC courses.and with high development costs.are
American. Udacity, an American MOOC provider, estimates that
creating a single course costs $200,000, and is increasing to
$400,000. The University of California, Berkeley, estimates
development costs at between $50,000 and $100,000, with access
to sophisticated technology required.
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.
Approaches to the curriculum, pedagogy, and the overall philosophy
of education differ according to national traditions and practices,
and may not reflect the approaches provided by most MOOC instructors
or the companies and universities providing MOOC content and
pedagogy. No doubt, those developing MOOCs will claim that their
methods are best and reflect the most advanced pedagogical thinking.
Perhaps, there are a range of approaches to learning and many
Why is this important? Neither knowledge nor pedagogy are 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 orientations.
Since the vast majority of material used comes from Western
academic systems, examples used in science courses are likely
to come from America or Europe because these countries dominate
the literature and articles in influential journals, and are
taught by well-known professors from high-profile universities.
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 from anthropology to
sociology reflect Western trends, especially the American academic
community. The major academic journals, editors, and editorial
boards, 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 theyinterpret them, and this will no
doubt strengthen the hegemony of Western methodologies and orientations.
English not only dominates 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 Web sites 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 access
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 nonelite audiences, thus extending the influence of
the main academic centers.
THE NEOCOLONIALISM OF THE WILLING
Those responsible for creating, designing, and delivering MOOC
courses in all fields are in general part of the academic culture
of major universities in the English-speaking countries. They
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. 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 do not mean to imply any untoward motives by the MOOC community.
I am 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, the Massive
Open Online Courses, strengthens the currently dominant academic
culture, perhaps making it more difficult for alternative voices
to be heard.
G. Altbach is research professor and director of the Center
for International Higher Education at Boston College.