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.
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 www.Seattleglobalist.com on August 6, 2014)
Years ago, on a long distance train ride in India, I asked a young man sitting next to me if he’d ever traveled to the United States. He mentioned a 48-hour layover in Los Angeles so I inquired about his sightseeing–imagining a whirlwind tour of the La Brea Tar Pits and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“I stayed in the airport,” he said, “I was afraid of getting shot.”
This very violent month in Seattle has me remembering that conversation. I’ve been preparing to teach a class about American journalism to a group of South Asian students visiting the University of Washington.
In the three weeks it’s taken me to finalize my syllabus two young men were shot and killed on Capitol Hill (one of them, Dwone Anderson-Young, was a recent graduate of the UW Department of Communication where I teach), a shooter at Seattle Pacific University killed one student and wounded two more and a man was arrested for threatening to shoot women on the UW campus.
As all this horror hit the news I wondered about the international students arriving this week to start their program: Did they know about these recent tragedies? Were they scared? What did they think about coming to a country where the threat of gun violence seems increasingly normal?
“We read about it in the news and my mother freaked out,” says Medha Kohli, 19, of India, referring to the SPU shooting, “We knew that shootings are pretty common at universities in America but then it was happening in Seattle that was very scary for my mother.”
Visiting students from South Asia — seen here visiting The Seattle Times — say the US’s reputation for mass shootings looms large in their home countries. (Photo by Catherine Cheng)
Kohli and her classmates have grown up watching American school shootings on TV and they casually rehashed some of the bigger ones (“the one with the Kindergarten students,” “Adam Lanza,” “Virginia Tech”) while navigating new American breakfast foods (the tater tots are popular, the reconstituted scrambled eggs are not).
There are a lot of stereotypes about guns in America clearly perpetuated by Hollywood, from the ubiquitous handgun in the bedside drawer (one student, from Nepal, assumes all Americans have one of these) to references to “cowboy movies.”
But mostly there’s genuine confusion about why guns are so easy to access in the United States.
“We don’t see these kinds of things happen in South Asian countries,” says Dipendra K.C., 24, of Nepal–a country where guns are tightly controlled by the government.
There’s a moment of thought before his classmate, Simran Bhui, 20, of India, pipes up to add, “We have other kinds of terrorism.”
Bhui’s use of the word to describe gun violence in America seemed extreme. But it got me thinking about how our sense of fear and awareness of risk is heightened when traveling to a foreign country. It also got me wondering if I’ve become desensitized to violence in my own country.
Maybe Americans are being terrorized by gun violence.
President Obama visits victims of the 2012 movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Pete Souza / The White House)
“You do think of it,” says Thilini Kahandawaarachchi, 31, of Sri Lanka describing her decision to become a graduate student of International Studies at the University of Washington, “It has happened in so many universities, in so many schools and it keeps on happening…So it’s one of the things that are talked about.”
UW recruiters often hear about concerns over guns in America when in other countries says Kim Lovaas, Associate Director for International Admissions at The UW.
“Safety and gun violence is a general question, especially in countries where guns are outlawed,” says Lovaas, “I’ve been doing this 14 years and have probably been asked [about this] every time.”
Lovass is quick to point out — to me and to prospective students — that violent crime on the UW campus is low and that students should be more concerned with theft.
The South Asian students I spoke with had mixed opinions regarding whether or not the threat of gun violence would color their time to the U.S.
But K.C. says it won’t be on his mind at all.
“I won’t be thinking about it because I’m not used to the idea that someone will suddenly come up to me and shoot me,” he explains.
Hopefully someday American students will be able to say the same.