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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

The anecdote can be read two ways. One, an M.I.T. MOOC opened a fantastic window of opportunity for a young man living in central India, and two, MOOCs cannot fully replace traditional courses, as Bhave's highest aspiration was to fly to the U.S. and attend M.I.T. in person. The reasons Bhave craves the M.I.T. classroom experience are clear: for starters, it is difficult to study hard sciences, as Bhave would like to do, without being able to do hands-on research in a lab. More important, Bhave cannot get an M.I.T. degree from online studies, and a degree is key to pursuing a career.

The vast majority of Indians, in any case, may not have the drive or the smarts to do what Bhave did. He also had the benefit of coming from a family that was able to provide him with a computer and reliable Internet access. His father is an engineer and could afford to send Bhave to a private secondary school. Internet penetration is getting better in India, but it is still dismal: about 10 percent of Indians used the Internet in 2011. Reliable electricity remains a problem in much of the country, where the per capita annual income is less than $1,500. For hundreds of millions of Indians, a computer is an unimaginable luxury.

Yet technology is spreading and getting cheaper. Even a landlocked country like Rwanda is crisscrossed with fiber-optic cables and getting more wired by the year. Computing devices are becoming more affordable: at the behest of India, U.K.-based firm Datawind has produced a basic Android tablet for $40.11, and the Indian government has provided it to students for about half that price. The Aakash 2 cannot compete with top-of-the-line tablets. But for the price, it could be revolutionary. Datawind aims to ship a million of the tablets to India this year. “When I held that thing in my hand, I thought that this is going to change the world, and the world doesn't know it yet,” says Andrew Ng, who co-founded Coursera with Koller.

MOOCs are evolving, too. Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a think tank that focuses on education and health care innovation, likens today's MOOCs to the earliest moving pictures. “The first movies were films of stage plays, and they look silly and absurd,” he says. “MOOCs today are essentially filming the stage plays. They are filming the lectures and splicing them up.” It is partly for this reason that less than 10 percent of people who sign up for MOOCs actually complete them. Horn expects online lectures to steadily become more engaging. The aim is to produce interactive courses that will not only teach students but also learn from them, so the courses will adapt and tailor themselves to individual skills and needs.

Some educators even envisage a broad decoupling of learning and assessment: a student who takes MOOCs and then gets tested and earns a competency-based degree at a high level could become more competitive in the job market than a graduate with a traditional degree from a brick-and-mortar university.

That is still in a hypothetical future, however. For now, students do not often see a tangible benefit to taking MOOCs: in the developing world, probably more so than elsewhere, youngsters need to have confidence that a particular education will lead to a job and a paycheck. “Students need to see a clear continuum between taking a course, getting a certificate for the course and having employers recognize that certificate,” Aggarwal says. “The courses need to conform to what the industry is looking for. If that virtuous cycle is built and is clear to the student, then MOOCs can scale.”

MOOC providers are aiming to award credentials that will be acceptable to colleges and employers, but that is still in the early stages. Part of the challenge is to develop safeguards against cheating that are seen as reliable. One method requires students to go to testing centers; other methods are technological. “We have something called Signature Track, where we ask someone to show a photo ID from the start, and when you do homework, you're asked to take a photo and provide a typing sample,” Ng says. “Your typing rhythm is hardened to your being. It is very difficult for you to type like I type or for me to type as you do.” The process is called keystroke biometrics, and it can be used to ensure that someone completing an assignment is the same person who signed up for the course.

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