Another Step Forward for Arab MOOCs

This commentary is an edited and updated version of one that appeared earlier on Maha Bali’s blog, Reflecting Allowed.

We just had a couple of energizing and inspiring days at the American University of Cairo, as the makers of the first non-profit Arab “massive open online course,” or MOOC platform, Edraak were visiting us.

I had first met the people behind this initiative (online) when they read an article I had written about MOOCs, where I said that while MOOCs were a great development in openness and access, they were not really benefitting the whole world because:

  1. They privilege English-language speakers.
They increase the (colonial) Westernization of knowledge.
They privilege people who can get online easily, because they have good Internet access or technology skills.

Well, with the forthcoming launch of Edraak we are on the way to solving the first two of these issues, at least in the Arab world. First, Edraak will offer MOOCs in Arabic and second, it will provide knowledge from the Arab world to give more voice to Arab scholarship worldwide. It was an energizing two days.

Current Western-based MOOCs do not represent multiple cultures well. (See this blog by an Australian media historian about the use of an image of an Aboriginal in a MOOC lecture). If teachers want the content of their course, whether in person, online, or “massive online” to be truly representative of multiple cultures, they need to include individuals from those cultures in the course design. At the very least, course designers need to include individuals closely familiar with those cultures. An even better way, for those who don’t have access to diversity, is to draw participants in and ask them to create their own content for a course using their own context.

Back to the Arab MOOC: There are three different kinds of courses that will be offered. (I use a different categorization than the Edraak use themselves. See a note at the bottom of this article.) I start with the one that excites me the most: Courses by Arab for Arabs in Arabic. This gives voice and space to the Arab world in the “MOOCverse.”

Yes, Arab higher education is sometimes supposedly free (but see this article on why it is actually costly). There is something to be said for the potential of Arabs of all kinds (including some women who cannot leave home) to have access to educational opportunities.

Another thing Edraak is planning to do is to offer some already-existing EdX MOOCs in Arabic. They will be adapting and re-contextualizing them for the Arab world. Still, this is my least favorite idea, but I can understand how some Arabs may find it beneficial. It sounds impressive to be able to take a Harvard or MIT MOOC. I never thought it was particularly impressive, since the MOOC doesn’t—in any way that I can see—approximate a real Harvard or MIT education and offering these MOOCs (in whatever language) branded that way may deceive people into thinking they might be experiencing something close to the real thing. I am not saying MOOC providers are dishonest. Just that the hype around MOOCs can be deceptive.

The third option Edraak plans to offer is English-language MOOCs taught by Arab instructors. Such courses will better present an Arab voice and help address an issue with Western MOOCs.

My enthusiasm is tempered by several important cautions:

1. I hope the Arab MOOC does not recreate the cycle of privilege of Western top-tier universities, by offering courses only by Arab professors from the top-tier Arab (and often also Westernized) universities. This is likely to be the start, but hopefully not all there is to it. Again, doing a MOOC with a prestigious university of any kind is not similar to studying at that university for credit.

2. Arabic as a language is very complex because the written form (Modern Standard Arabic) is completely different from the spoken (colloquial) form, which in turn is very different for each country and even sometimes in different areas within a country. These colloquial dialects are often incomprehensible to Arabs not usually exposed to them. This means a possible “imperial dominance” of the Egyptian or Lebanese dialects that are common in popular media. But using Modern Standard Arabic throughout could also create barriers. First, few people—at least in Egypt—are comfortable speaking it accurately—so this might pose a problem for lecturers. Second, Modern Standard Arabic feels “distant” to learners—imagine, for instance, a calculus course taught in Shakespearian English—and is more difficult for the less educated.

3. What about connectivist approaches to MOOCs? First of all, let me explain that a connectivist MOOC is one where the learning and content come from the learners connecting with each other via social media—Twitter, blogs, Facebook, Google plus—with the teacher as facilitator rather than actually providing content. I am hoping some courses will take this approach, or a mixed approach where content is not lecture-based but a combination of relevant readings and videos already online, or content created and curated by the participants themselves. Arab youth are already quite engaged with social media, as the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions showed. The MOOC instructors might not be, though, but I think this should not stop the participants from harnessing social media for learning.

4. Open online education is less “open” than we like to believe. An Arab option does not solve these two problems: First, the need for technology infrastructure, that may be absent in some areas. For those who have weak infrastructure, principles of universal design may help ensure alternatives are considered (such as written transcripts for videos that may take too long for those with slow Internet to play or download). Second, learners need to have the technical skills to access the learning material and the disposition to learn online. For many learners, the online context is associated with aimless web browsing, socializing on Facebook or gaming.

5. Some women are privileged, some are not. Some women in the region can do all manner of things including traveling to learn abroad. Others have some privilege but are restricted by responsibilities or circumstances, such as caring for their children. This second group can benefit greatly from the flexibility of a free MOOC. However, there remains a portion for whom getting online remains an issue (even if the household continues to have access).

I don’t even think I have begun to cover all the issues here. But I have tried to make a start to both recognizing the potential empowerment of MOOCS and critiquing the hype and possible pitfalls.

Note: Some of these ideas came out of conversations with the Edraak providers as well as conversations on Facebook with participants in an open course about rhizomatic/community learning best known by its Twitter hash tag “#Rhizo14”.

The way I have categorized the courses in this article is different from the way Edraak categorizes them. Their three categories are (1) Arabic language university MOOCs (either original content from Arab professors, or translated and re-contextualized from existing EdX MOOCs), (
2.) Arabic language vocational MOOCs taught by Arab role models who are not academics
 (3.) English-language MOOCs by Arabs presenting the Arab perspective to the world.

Maha Bali is Associate Professor of Practice 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 holds a PhD in Education from the University of Sheffield, UK. Follow Maha on Twitter: @bali_maha.

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