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This article is from the In-Depth Report Learning in the Digital Age
See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 2

Free Online Courses Bring "Magic" to Rwanda

An inside look at a daring global experiment: using freely available online courses to bring top-tier instruction to the neediest parts of the planet

Uwituze has questions about the online approach, including concerns that the experiment will falter or that her credentials will not be widely accepted, but she is confident that she will learn more with Kepler than in a traditional Rwandan university. “Most of the students here are very poor,” she says. “You don't have a choice when you get a chance like this.”

Where MOOCs Matter Most

Bringing the world's best college courses to some of the world's most disadvantaged people is certainly the hope—and some would say the hype—of the MOOC movement. Leaders of big MOOC platforms such as Udacity and Coursera, for-profit companies co-founded by Stanford University professors, and edX, the nonprofit platform jointly run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, are explicit in their ambition to knock down the class and geographical barriers to an advanced education. Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller laid out her world-changing goals in a TED lecture in June 2012 that was viewed more than a million times. MOOCs would “establish education as a fundamental human right, where anyone around the world with the ability and the motivation could get the skills that they need to make a better life for themselves, their families and their communities,” she told an enthusiastic audience. “Maybe the next Albert Einstein or the next Steve Jobs is living somewhere in a remote village in Africa, and if we could offer that person an education, they would be able to come up with the next big idea and make the world a better place for all of us.”

Nobody can argue with a goal like that. Yet educators who work in distance and online learning do argue that the MOOCs evangelists tend to oversell themselves and their product. They point out that online learning began well before MOOCs arrived and that MOOCs often do not incorporate the best, most up-to-date teaching methods. They also note that most of the developing world is not connected to the Internet and that MOOCs require skills and motivation possessed by only the very top students. “You have to find a solution that actually fits the reality of the Third World,” says Tony Bates, a Canadian consultant who specializes in online learning. “Yes, content will be free in the future, but what students really need is the kind of services instructors provide. How to study, where to find information, critical analysis, learning to have original ideas in what you do, discussion and high-level thinking: all have to be supported and developed by interaction with teachers.”

That is where an experiment like Kepler comes in: blending free content from the best professors in the world with low-cost instructors who can provide personalized help and prodding. The model particularly suits a country like Rwanda, where only a tiny fraction of the population has a college degree and the number of young graduates from secondary schools is soaring. “You could build 50 universities and not meet the rising demand for college here,” Hodari says. “There are people who don't go to college here, who, in an American context, would be going to Princeton.”

In the U.S., the fevered discussions about the potential of MOOCs mainly center on containing or reducing the soaring cost of a college degree. Koller noted in her TED lecture, for instance, that tuition at American colleges has risen at almost twice the rate of health care costs since 1985 and proposed MOOCs as a solution. Yet in the developing world, the much larger issue is quality. The facilities and level of instruction in many countries are pitiful, and college degrees often have negligible value to globally competitive employers. Rwandans who have taken computer-programming courses, for instance, often have little experience using computers. “It's like you have a degree in swimming but learned it in a book and never jumped in a pool,” says Michel Bézy, who is associate director at a small brick-and-mortar graduate program for Carnegie Mellon University in Kigali.

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