Can online classrooms help the developing world catch up?

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Auteur : Adi Robertson
Date de l'info : 15 février 2015


In 2012, a 15-year-old named Battushig Myanganbayar aced a circuits and electronics course designed for sophomores at MIT — from his school in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Myanganbayar had watched lectures in English, a second language, and worked through the course material online with the help of a visiting Stanford Ph.D. candidate, Tony Kim. “If Battushig, at the age of 15, were a student at MIT, he would be one of the top students — if not the top,” Kim told The New York Times. In fact, Myanganbayar went on to MIT a year later — crediting the online course as a “watershed” moment.

Myanganbayar’s success is a testament to the power of online educational programs: thanks to revolutionary technology, a prodigious student has access to the education of his dreams. Today, Myanganbayar is even working with edX, the Harvard-MIT joint partnership behind the original course he took from Mongolia, to improve the experience for future students. Behind the student’s story, though, is a larger question: can online classes be used to help not just a few exceptional students, but the developing world at large?

In his foundation’s 2015 annual letter, Bill Gates describes a future in which world-class education is only a few taps away, for anyone in the world. “Before a child even starts primary school, she will be able to use her mom’s smartphone to learn her numbers and letters, giving her a big head start,” he speculates. “Software will be able to see when she’s having trouble with the material and adjust for her pace. She will collaborate with teachers and other students in a much richer way.” Career paths, Gates speculates, will be built into this new education system — students will be able to lift themselves out of poverty by figuring out the requirements for their chosen field and fulfilling them with online classes. And software will connect students to distant teachers and each other.

While the concept of remote learning is as old as correspondence courses, today it’s often discussed in the context of massively open online courses, or MOOCs. Organized by companies, universities, and nonprofits, MOOCs provide education in the form of online lectures, quizzes, and projects, allowing large numbers of students to learn at a flexible pace.

There’s no single definition for what constitutes a MOOC: some academics have split the term into “connectivist”  cMOOCs — which emphasize learning among a loose network of students — and more centralized xMOOCs, which are often traditional college courses expanded to fit tens of thousands of remote pupils. And researchers still aren’t quite sure how to measure MOOCs’ overall impact. “We’re the World Bank, so we like to have data on all the stuff we say, right?” says Michael Trucano, a World Bank technology and education specialist who writes frequently about MOOCs. “There frankly isn’t a lot of good data on this, at all.”

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