Although online education has been evolving in the last few years, few people in developing nations have been able to benefit from it. It is not the content, its quality, or the delivery mechanism; rather, it is the effect of sociocultural dynamics on how students in these countries learn.
I have been both an online student, advancing my academic stream of interests, and a professor at universities in Nepal in engineering and project management courses. Students seem to learn more effectively in groups than individually and independently. This way of learning may have stemmed from the communal setup in some developing nations’ societies—most things are taken care of more effectively when there is a group doing it.
Another factor in learning seems to be the language. In developing countries, high-context language is part of the embedded high-context culture. In such cultures, communications are engaged through fewer words or use of silence—often a prolonged one. In contrast, developed nations use comparatively low-context language, which involves explicit and low-level usages of words. Online course content is written in low-context language because that specificity is needed to communicate effectively, as opposed to the ambiguity that we find in high-context language. Thus, students from low-context cultures are better positioned to interpret online course materials.
Additionally, as anthropologist Edward T. Hall identified in his 1976 book Beyond Culture, high-context cultures will be relational, collectivist, intuitive, and contemplative. They place a high value on interpersonal relationships, thus knitting the community members into a very close group.
This is where MOOCs can really impact learning in high-context communities. First and foremost, within the user-based learning, MOOCs allow interaction amongst the students, forming a virtual group where they engage as if they are in the real-world classroom. When students get to do this in an environment where world-class learning content is offered and interactive direction from the domain scholar is present, this platform becomes hard to resist. As a result, MOOCs may begin to address underpinning challenges to online learning in developing nations with, as said earlier, high-context culture.
Second, as we all can relate to, the substantial reduction in cost is a plus. The course is free, and associated costs of commuting, text books, etc. are not nearly as much as when taking a classroom-based course. In the context of the countries in question, the low or zero cost is highly relevant and a much-needed element for overall growth of the community through online learning.
Third and final is that the platform also provides an opportunity for local scholars to start providing lectures and virtual classes without having to go through an institutional arrangement with the local universities and institutes. On the other hand, this change overflows not only into degree- and curricula-related lectures but also beyond that—to anyone who may be interested, whether in the country or across the globe.
Engr Tikajit Rai
President of Project Management Association of Nepal
Founder/CEO of Magnus Consulting Group, Nepal
Visiting Professor at Kathmandu University School of Management, Nepal