Will the Latest Generation of Online Courses Help the Arab World?

Despite all of the hype about Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, particularly in the United States, the idea of offering regular university courses online for free is the natural progression of three older phenomena: online education, which has been around for over 10 years; the idea of open educational resources, which is also well-established, and the concept of free knowledge on the Internet, which is as old as the Internet itself!

In my dual roles as faculty developer at the Center for Learning and Teaching, and a teacher of educational technology at the American University in Cairo’s Graduate School of Education, I decided to experience MOOCs firsthand. I took four courses this summer. I started thinking about the potential of MOOCs in our region, whose youth have demonstrated they can mobilize the masses for political action through technology.

MOOCS hold many pluses for the Arab region: The ability to reach the unemployed, women, and eager learners of all ages. MOOCS can reach schoolteachers who don’t have access to continuing education. But there are also many possible negatives, one of them being the loss of local knowledge and the local context of knowledge. More importantly, despite their reputation for reaching the masses, MOOCS might reinforce the privileges of the elite. Let me elaborate on both the negatives and the positives.

In a region where some women are not able to study abroad, whether for conservative, religious, financial, or practical reasons, online education has provided unprecedented opportunities. MOOCs have the potential to multiply these opportunities, as the courses are offered for free. This becomes particularly beneficial to professional women who are on maternity leave and who would like to learn something new, but are unable to make huge investments of money and time. MOOCs with flexible deadlines are particularly helpful to these women, as they can fit the courses in between family commitments.

Unemployment is obviously difficult, but during times of political and economic instability, it is even more trying. MOOCs offer an opportunity for professional development in the meantime. They can give someone a glimpse of a different field altogether, in a region where switching careers is still not widely accepted. Although MOOCs don’t normally give college credit for free, most provide statements of accomplishment. I wouldn’t put too much weight on those statements, though, because most MOOCs don’t test deep learning.

In a region that has a “foreigner complex,” or عقدة الخواجة, where everything foreign or Western is uncritically assumed to be superior, a trait that is possibly a remnant of its colonial history, MOOCs risk reinforcing the global dominance of Anglo-based education, particularly brand-name universities. MOOCs tend to give the impression of the benevolent, elite university sharing its superior knowledge with the rest of the world for free, when doing so may actually be at the expense of local, contextual knowledge.

It is impressive to watch the Harvard course on Justice delivered by Michael Sandel, the professor of government, to an audience of Harvard students, and hearing their critical discussions. I already use parts of his lectures in faculty workshops, and would consider using them in classes I teach. But it is important to consider the implications. This online course serves to market the Harvard education without really offering a real Harvard education. It serves to foreground the Western knowledge offered in these courses, further marginalizing relevant regional knowledge. Our elite students are already seeking college education in Westernized institutions such as the American University of Cairo and the American University of Beirut, but those universities at least have a mix of Arab and Western faculty members, and some degree of localization of knowledge.

MOOCs can also serve to reproduce inequality within society. MOOCs privilege those who have better access to technology and can stream high-quality video, those who are comfortable using the technology and can benefit from interacting with others on discussion forums, and those who have had previous experience learning online. Also, access to technology in rural areas is still often limited. Even within one home, access to technology can be uneven, with access restricted for younger or female family members. Young males may also have better access to technology outside the home in the form of Internet cafes.

Even in cities, technology access is not ideal. In 2007, I was in the United States and scheduled to run a synchronous online session that involved students from both the U.S. and the Arab region. An Internet blackout in many Arab countries caused the session to be postponed. More recently, I had to convert one of my face-to-face class sessions to an online one due to political instability that affected mobility. I was unable to hold a synchronous class session on Skype due to some students’ slow Internet connections, and some students were forced offline mid-session by electricity cuts.

Another obvious way MOOCs benefit the privileged is the common use of the English language. Video lectures can be difficult for some non-native speakers to follow, so some MOOCs provide written transcripts, which some students prefer. Some non-native speakers have translated lectures for each other. I have also seen students use online translation tools in order to participate in discussion forums, although the results are often quite incomprehensible!

Coursera, one of the most popular MOOC platforms, has made a deal with translation companies to translate courses into several languages including Arabic. I’m not sure how that will pan out, whether it will be automated or done by humans, whether it will encompass discussion forums… but I definitely look forward to finding out!

In a region where certification and accreditation are often given more importance than actual knowledge and learning, and where MOOCs only offer statements of accomplishment to those who complete them, it is unclear whether MOOCs will become very popular. But their potential in the years to come will be interesting to watch with cautious, and even skeptical, optimism.

Maha Bali works at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching, and is an adjunct faculty member at its Graduate School of Education. She is working on a doctorate in education at the University of Sheffield.

Also see the article: 5 Reasons Teachers Should Dip into MOOCS for Professional Development.


  1. Dear Maha:
    I read with interest (and liked) your thoughts on MOOCs and the Arab World. I think you have narrowed down the two most important “negatives:

    a) “the loss of local knowledge and the local context of knowledge” and of course b) the usual “digital divide” i.e. access to and limitations of technology.

    My immediate thoughts:

    a) I still think that MOOCs can be of benefit to those who are really interested. The lack of local context has its advantages in that it forces one to see through the eyes of the “other”, or to get acquainted with the “other”. I think this always sharpens our own thinking. And of course this can be overcome when, through a filtering process and adaptation of the experience, we can produce our own MOOCs – in Arabic. My sense is that the interest in the Arab world will be focused mainly on the technical fields (unfortunately) in which “context” may be of lesser importance. (??)

    b) In the event that some pioneers adapt some of these MOOCs to a local setting, or even take some modules that are relevant, I would think that part of “adapting to the local setting” also means being pedagogically creative and using lower levels of technology.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Dr. Ellozy. I agree with most of what you said, particularly with your point about the important added learning of interacting with the “other”. I had initially written this as one of the benefits of MOOCs (especially with regard to intercultural learning in the discussion forums, where in one course, I learned more from learning with diverse participants’ personal experiences than the professor’s theoretical lectures), but we had to edit it out to keep the article length appropriate.

    Having said this, intercultural interaction itself is fraught with power struggles and other difficulties (e.g. sometimes native English speakers in the forums react in aggressive ways to non-native speakers who are unable to express themselves eloquently). But that is another topic altogether!

  3. You’re prompting a useful conversation Maha. One other possible benefit you don’t mention is that institutions and individuals in the Arab-speaking world will hopefully also produce MOOCs, both for the benefit of learners there and for “export.” Ivy League schools in the U.S. may have the most prestigious faculty, but they don’t have the only faculty with valuable knowledge and teaching skills. Free online education for the world will be enriched when Egyptian literature courses are available from Egyptian teachers. For that matter, there’s room enough on the Internet to see what a course on American literature from an Egyptian teacher is like. Why not?

  4. Robert, thanks for your post, and yes! this is defnintely something Egyptian/Arab universities should consider… Maybe also courses in Egyptology, or Arab history, from the local perspective (vs. e.g. orientatlist). I just read your latest posts on “MOOC News & Reviews” relating to two relevant news items for Arab univs/profs interested in trying this out. First, the Indian MOOCs… I get the feeling that we here in the region think if it has been done in India, then we should be able to do it, too. The second thing I thought others considering MOOC development might find helpful is your article on tactical questions univ admins need to ask about MOOCs.

  5. I fully agree that MOOCS hold many pluses for a lot of people, all around the world. Online education is great when you want to either have the flexibility to study at your own pace, just want to learn something new, or physical attending an education institute is not practical. I believe the internet have come to stay…

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