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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

Coursera is also working with an outfit called ProctorU, which monitors exams by Web cam. ProctorU asks test takers to show one or more forms of ID and to use their computer to scan the room to be sure no test aids are posted. Students may also have to fill out a multiple-choice quiz about their personal background—based on information gathered from public databases—to verify their identity. A ProctorU employee then watches students by webcam during the test. The process is more difficult to conduct overseas, but it is doable.

MOOC providers also see credentialing as a way to monetize their services. Coursera courses are free on an individual basis, for instance, but credentials are not. At the moment, if a student opts to take a Signature Track class from Duke University on Coursera, he or she will pay a fee of less than $100. After completing the course and passing exams, the student gets a “verified certificate” of completion with a Duke logo on it. For a handful of Coursera classes currently accredited by the American Council on Education, credit recommendations from that organization—which are accepted at many traditional institutions—are available. The cost is $100 to $190. Coursera also offers financial aid to participants who cannot afford those fees.

Yet such high-tech solutions on a broad scale still seem far-fetched for parts of the world where clean water and proper sanitation are in short supply. For now, the primary focus in India is to explore the use of MOOC technology to enhance the quality of teaching within existing institutions. Microsoft Research is working on a pilot project to develop online classes in the style of MOOCs, taught by leading Indian professors, which would fit the existing curriculum at Indian engineering schools. The program is called Massively Empowered Classrooms, or MEC. “There is no single answer for everybody,” says Jhunjhunwala, who believes that most Indian students, because of language and culture issues, would have trouble comprehending online courses offered by American universities. He recalls being utterly perplexed while taking a chemistry course in college because he could not understand the accent of his American professor. “Just taking something from outside and importing it doesn't work,” he says. “It has never worked.”

MOOC proponents counter that top-notch textbooks are used all over the world and that online classes can be seen as a kind of digital textbook. Courses can be designed for a wide variety of audiences. Europeans are developing their own MOOC platforms, and the big American MOOC providers are signing up foreign universities to provide courses in languages other than English. “Online education is still in its infancy now,” says Bhave, who brims with teenage idealism. “But it certainly has the potential to change the face of the developing world.” Based on his own experience, he observes, “there is an education revolution waiting to happen in the coming years.”

A High-Stakes Experiment

The educators at Kepler are not waiting. To them, the only workable model is clear: delivering the best instruction from the best teachers online but with significant hands-on support and classroom interaction. “The idea of just dropping MOOCs on Africans or others without facilitation and without assistance is a nonstarter,” Hodari says. “A lot of students haven't been taught how to use a computer. Really simple stuff is complicated: launching a program, closing a program, even typing.”

The first teaching fellow to join Kepler was Christine Yarng, a former teacher at a Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter school in Austin, Tex. Emma Stellman, the co-founder of a premier charter school in Cambridge, Mass., is designing the curriculum. Both are working for nonprofit wages in a remote corner of the globe because they believe that quality education can dramatically transform lives and because they have a hunger for challenge and adventure. Stellman aims to use chunks of various MOOCs and combine them in ways that are most suitable to her Rwandan students. The emphasis, at first, will be on learning how to learn—particularly in a digital context—and on quantitative analysis and critical thinking. “Employers are dying because they can't find people who can think for themselves,” Stellman says. “And the students become very proud when they realize they can have their own ideas. You see these lightbulbs go on: it's a beautiful phenomenon and very empowering.”

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