International Impact of MOOCs Still Up in the Air

Devon Haynie
July 1, 2014

Advocates and creators of massive open online courses -- the free courses open to anyone with an Internet connection -- have high hopes for how the classes can help those hungry for a U.S.-style education.

"We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education," Coursera, one of the largest massive open online course providers, says on its website. "We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in."

While the number of students taking MOOCs has exploded in the past few years, experts are divided on what impact the courses have had on international education opportunities.

[Top reasons international students should consider MOOCs .]

"There were big promises made about how MOOCs would democratize access to quality higher ed," says Ben Wildavsky, director of higher education studies at the State University of New York's Rockefeller Institute of Government and a policy professor at University at Albany--SUNY. "Over time people began to feel that the excitement was really just hype."

While MOOCs may have a range of benefits for people in the developing world, earning a recognized academic credential is not one of them. That's because legitimate accrediting bodies have yet to give them the nod, says Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

"There are no standards for what a MOOC should look like," he says. "There are no quality assurances." That could change, he says, once MOOCs become more standardized and providers develop ways of ensuring that students aren't cheating in courses

[Discover whether MOOCs will improve the quality of education.]

Even if colleges and accrediting bodies accepted MOOCs for credit, experts disagree over the extent to which the courses could help provide high quality higher education to those outside the U.S. who most need it.

Most MOOC participants already have degrees and live in developed countries. "These online classes aren't really reaching the poor," Wildavsky says. "They aren't reaching the uneducated."

Furthermore, Altbach says, MOOCs aren't currently being designed in a way that might be most beneficial to international learners.

"Most of the MOOCs are developed by American or British scholars and institutions that reflect the norms and values of our knowledge system," he says. "You can argue one way or the other if that's a problem or not, but there is a bias there."

Still, advocates of MOOCs say they have plenty of benefits for people across the globe -- and one of the most important is inspiration.

[Explore how online education could lower the cost of a degree.]

"Courses requiring extremely specialized or expert knowledge grant people access to ideas and concepts that they might not ever encounter otherwise," Curtis Bonk, an education professor at Indiana University, said via email. "With such new learning opportunities, one's sense of self or identity as a learner is enhanced."

International learners can also use MOOCs to help them advance in their careers, Wildavsky says, particularly if MOOCs end up leading to short-term practical certificates.

MOOCs can also be used in blended environments, in which local instructors use MOOCs in conjunction with face-to-face teaching. The U.S. State Department's MOOC camp is embracing that model, as is a nonprofit university launched last year in Rwanda, he says.

"It's easy to deflate the over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized the advent of MOOCs," Wildavsky wrote in a recent article. "But the developing world has much to gain from this new educational era."

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Devon Haynie is an education reporter at U.S. News, covering online education. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at