Students from the global south embrace open online courses

In conversation with Matt McGarrity, Senior Lecturer in the Communication Department at the University of Washington, whose Intro to Public Speaking course is one of the most popular MOOC’s. (Photo by Ranak Martin)
Think of all of the stress you might suffer applying to get into an Ivy League school — and all the money you’d spend to actually attend one.
Well believe it or not, these days the courses offered by these Ivy League universities are available free of cost in few clicks. These online courses have been hailed for “democratizing” higher education.
A typical MOOC — shorthand for “Massive Open Online Course”  — uses a blend of technologies like virtual classrooms, discussion forums, online texts and libraries, video lectures, wikis and web videos.
Leading platforms for online learning include Udacity and Khan Academy, as well as newcomers Coursera and edx.
From my home in Nepal, I took “Introduction to Sociology” with Princeton Professor Mitchell Duneier in 2012, and was eventually invited to visit Princeton University (in person) because of my active participation in the online course. Ever since then, MOOCs have been a subject of great interest to me. I’ve taken more than a few MOOCs myself and always enjoyed them.
But I wondered about the experience of other students from the global South.
How did they find out about the courses? What motivated them to take the course, and to stick with it? What platform did they use for the course? What struggles did they face while taking the course?
“I read about it in the news and then decided to go for it,” says Ankur Jhunjhunwala, 25, a student of Faculty of Management Studies (FMS) at Delhi University, in India explaining how he first found out about MOOCs. “I took the course before joining MBA because I had free time; I take the courses today because I can add them to my CV.”
Jhunjhunwala has completed three courses on Coursera: “Understanding Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity,” “Introduction to Philosophy” and “What Managers can Learn from Great Philosophers”
Referring to the wide range of the availability of the courses Jhunjhunwala adds, “Why should I have any confusion in tapping the opportunity to learn world class content residing in the third world?”
However, not everyone who signs up completes their courses — not by a long shot.
“I signed up for 15 courses and completed five courses,” says Tara Ballav Adhikari, a government employee from Nepal.
“I completed one of the courses on economics and I was not motivated to complete the coursework in second course because I took this course out of curiosity,” says Dikshya Dhakal, a student of Economics at North Seattle College.
“I would be more serious about the course if I would get the credit for it,” Dhakal adds with a faint smile. “I would be even more serious if I had to pay for it.”
Dhakal’s subtle humor reminded me of Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX talking about “active learning” — where a learner has the control of the learning pace and constantly interacts with the content — in the Harvard Edcast: edX Marks the Spot.
I wondered how educators like Agarwal will be able to meet the aspiration of students like Dhakal.
Coursera, one of the leading MOOCs providers. (Photo by Saifullah Muhammad)

Coursera, one of the leading MOOCs providers. (Photo by Saifullah Muhammad)
A recent Coursera blog claims to have 7.5 million learners from 190 countries on its website and offers courses from more than 100 renowned educational institutions.
Another platform, edX has several courses offered by prominent universities ranging from the computer sciences to law and literature. The user base of the platform has increased to over 1.6 million.
But a study done by Harvard and MIT earlier this year showed that only five percent (43,196) of the total signups in the first 17 courses offered by edX actually earned the certificate by completing the coursework.
This horrifying statistic has forced many people to consider MOOCs a failure. But on the other hand, with so many students signing up, even that low completion rate is yielding huge numbers of certified students who might otherwise never get an opportunity to learn that material.
“Comparing a small classroom with MOOCs is wrong!” says Matt McGarrity, senior lecturer in the communication department at the University of Washington who has reached over 300,000 people with his public speaking MOOCs on both Coursera and edX. “It is like comparing a novel with a movie adapted from that very novel. Novel is a different genre and the movie is different. Standards from one can inform the critique of the other but should not dictate it.”
But Adhikari says no matter what the critique are, he will continue taking the MOOCs.
“Despite the poor internet service and 16 hours of power cut every day, having the access to world-class courses free of cost gives me a sense of privilege.”
(This article originally appeared in on August 6, 2014)

Surfing in the dark: Nepal’s need for economic reforms

[Myself, Daphne Koller and Professor Duneier]
More than a year has passed since I visited Princeton University in October 2012. I was there to participate in a panel discussion organized by the university. I was among the 40,000 students around the world who had been taking the online ‘Sociology’ course on Coursera and I had been chosen to visit the university and participate in the panel discussion because of my active participation in classes. I still vividly remember the excitement amidst the nervousness that had engulfed me at being on the stage, in-front of faculty members and students of the university presenting about how internet and online courses were helping students from developing countries like me. It was the moment I realized Thomas L. Friedman is indeed right when he says the world is getting flatter. The information communication technology revolution has indeed leveled the playing field for people across developed and developing societies. An Ivy-league education is at the finger tips of students around the world. Economic reforms undertaken by Nepal in early 1990s are also to be thanked for this wonderful opportunity I got. Nepal opened up its economy to the world and liberalized a few sectors (internet and telecommunications being one of them) during the reforms. And thanks to it, today more and more Nepalese have access to telecommunication services as well as the internet. Thanks to the increased competition among telecommunication service providers as well as internet service providers, the cost of access to internet have come down significantly and almost one-fourth of Nepalese are estimated to have access to the internet. I am sure the numbers will go up significantly in future and the day when every Nepalese will have access to internet is not far away.
However, when I look at some other aspects of lives of ordinary Nepalese, I find that the future that I dream of is nowhere as near as I would want it to be. Till date around 63 percent of households in Nepal lack access to electricity. Even the rest who have access to electricity suffer from power cuts during dry seasons lasting up to 16 hours daily. Ironically, Nepal is said to have a potential of generating more than 43000 Megawatt of electricity from hydro-power alone which would be enough to make Nepal a middle-income country through electricity exports. Power sector was among the sectors not addressed by the economic reforms of early 1990s and we still have a state-owned monopoly Nepal Electricity Authority which controls the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity in Nepal. It amazes me how Nepal Electricity Authority manages to incur huge losses despite being a monopoly and how could it hire 11000 plus employees when it has already accumulated so huge amount of liabilities. While 63 percent of our households are reeling in darkness, Nepal Electricity Authority has become a preferred avenue for corruption and nepotism for politicians as shown by the recent arrest of a number of Nepal Electricity Authority officials for their possible involvement in a multimillion-dollar transformer purchase scam.
It has been less than two decades since internet came to Nepal and yet around one fourth of the population already have access to it and the number is increasing rapidly. On the other hand, Nepal got its first hydro-power plant more than a century ago in 1911 in the form of Pharping hydro-power plant. But even after a century later, about two-thirds of Nepalese households do not have access to something as basic as electricity. It infuriates me to see that politicians haggle over who to recruit as managing director of Nepal Electricity Authority or whom to award a certain hydro-power project while general public is suffering under power crisis. I believe Nepal is in dire need of economic reforms, especially in basic utility sectors like hydro-power. There is a need to introduce and encourage competition in this sector which will eventually not only result in better delivery of services but also encourage innovations. The government should break the monopoly of Nepal Electricity Authority and make it more accountable to the consumers it is supposed to serve by opening up the sectors for private players. The government should also restructure the organization under a private-public-partnership model so that it becomes more effective and efficient without losing the sight of its objectives. Only then, we can dream of a day when we will be taking energy as granted like many of us do to internet