The language of MOOCs

When examining barriers to openness in MOOCs, the issue of language and localisation has long been ignored or brushed aside. Yet, online education cannot deliver on its promises without facing the fact that a one-size-fits-all, American style education is not going to cut it for most of the world.

What’s going on?

At first, MOOCs seemed like a dream come true, the realisation of technology’s potential for greatness: everybody would have access to a high quality university education, wherever in the world they may be. MOOCs would address the demand for higher education at a time when few could still afford it.

Except, this is not what is happening. If you look closely enough, you’ll soon find out that English-speakers in rich countries top the charts in terms of registration numbers. It doesn’t mean that learners from developing nations aren’t joining in, but the picture certainly doesn’t speak of a revolution.

One of the issues with this vision of universal online education is the assumption that the world speaks English. Well, that’s just not the case. Things are starting to change, slowly, but the language of instruction in MOOCs is still predominantly English.

Why this is a problem

Fears that educational resources produced in rich developed countries will be once more pushed onto educators (pdf) in developing nations are very real. There is a risk of entrenching a unilateral north-south, producer-consumer model of education.

Pr. Tel Amiel of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Brazil) said in a Skype interview with Ry Rivard that he thinks language is “a huge barrier and it’s not something we can deal with trivially”.

While remixing resources into an informative booklet about Open Educational Resources for teachers in Brazil, he and his team faced many challenges, among which the question of language and cultural bias. It is not enough to simply translate the English text into Portuguese: one must also adapt the content to a context including “a computer laboratory that had been closed for three months, limited printing and photocopying in school, and students with limited access to computers at home”.

Reporting from Tanzania, Ian Attfield holds similar views. He feels that for local students to really reap the benefits of MOOCs, there is a dire need for localisation of content and adjustment of delivery models:

Internet access is erratic and expensive, but perhaps more of a barrier will be language and cultural issues for students who may be unaccustomed to student-centreed, but independent and at the same time collaborative, learning.

What we can do about it

To overcome the challenges of delivering education in a stubbornly multilingual world, several initiatives are already under their way.

  • Translate existing courses

The most obvious solution to address a multilingual audience is to translate the material into as many languages as possible.

Among the big players, Udacity has pioneered crowdsourced translation thanks to a partnership with the collaborative subtitling platform Amara. Participants can create subtitles in their language and have been active in 63 different languages, most notably Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese. The course How to Build a Startup is now fully available in Ukrainian.

Somewhat late to the party, Coursera has taken the institutional route: as a result of partnerships with various organisations, a handful of courses will be available by September 2013 in “many of the most popular language markets”, namely Russian, Portuguese, Turkish, Japanese, Ukrainian, Kazakh, and Arabic.

  • Extend the network of partner universities

Another idea is to invite universities from around the world to join the network, thus diversifying the linguistic and cultural landscape.

Screenshot of Coursera website on 09 August 2013. By hardcorekancil, under CC BY license.

Screenshot of Coursera website on 09 August 2013. By hardcorekancil, under CC BY license.

Some universitites outside the US such as Taiwan National University, Univerdiad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Ecole Polytechnique de Lausane, Technische Universitaet Muenchen and Sapienza University of Rome are thus offering a total of 29 courses at Coursera in languages other than English. (See snapshot)

I also came across a search engine that helps students find courses in a few European languages (Spanish, French, Portuguese, German). ‘Encuentra tu curso! (find your course), says the tagline 😉
  • Develop ad hoc courses

Translating existing courses and involving universities across the world in MOOCs are steps in the right direction but nothing can replace solutions developed by people possessing a deep knowledge of the context in which students learn.

On such bridge person is University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) professor Ragib Hasan. About a year ago, he created Shikkhok (meaning ‘teacher’ in Bengali), a free MOOC specifically targeting Bengali-speaking students, which now has close to 40,000 registered users and probably twice as many following classes informally (registration is not mandatory).

All this was made possible by an initial budget of 15$ : $10 for the web host + $5 for the domain name + 0$ for hours upon hours of hard work put in by volunteer teachers who agreed to record, edit and upload lessons that would be culturally significant to Bengali-speaking students from primary school to university level.

Since computers with an Internet connection are far from being a mainstay in rural Bangladeshi households, Hasan designed a model integrating offline distribution channels:

  • Lectures are uploaded onto Raspberry Pi computers which are then shipped to rural schools where they can be connected to TVs.
  • The video lectures are accessible from mobile phone shops for use on mobile devices which, unlike computers, are ubiquitous in the region.
  • Shikkhok videos are also distributed to cable TV operators who can broadcast them.

Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi and shipping box by Ayaita (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite being barely one year old, this project has already won a Google RISE Award, a Deutsche-Welle Best of Blogs award (Users’ Choice Best Innovation) as well as the Isif Asia Awards 2013 in the category ‘Innovation on learning and localization’.

Final words

Whoever cares about openness in education cannot afford to overlook the language issue. Translation – crowdsourced or otherwise – is one way of managing multilingual audiences but grassroots innovation will have to emerge to really address educational needs on a local or regional level.

11 thoughts on “The language of MOOCs

  1. I think the barriers to MOOC uptake and openess – in terms of open access – are multiple.

    The language aspect documented here is key, And the suggestions, limititations, and workarounds are, to me, new. Crowdaourced translation offers a lot of opportunities for participants – access, metacognition, task based learning in terms of translating the mateirals.

    It does make me think of Gutenberg’s press though, and the idea that the most printed book was not the bible, but was actually (apparently) instructions for making a printing press.

    Providing translations as part of the course is one path (as well, presumably, as providing connection mechanisms, hubs and forums for different languages perhaps…). But replicating the experience in the target language completely is another.

    There’s some weaknesses there – there may not be the same expertise available in the subject area, for example – but the advantages are potentially considerable. From modelling ( courses where we have a similarity to the instructor in some way sometimes benefit from this similarity effect), I’m guessing as well that the creation of a completley new course, rather than a translation of another, is going to benefit in terms of cultural positioning and translation – the contextual issues, the intangible aspects that are difficult to translate, the sensitivities and specific knowledges are going to be easier in a new rather than translated course…

    hmmm…I need to think more here…

  2. Thanks a lot for discussing the Shikkhok project.

    As I have stated in many places, direct translation fails to capture the emotions, teaching emphasis, cultural context, and many other things. So, even crowdsourced translations of many English language MOOC often fail to attract students. I remember that back in 80s when I was in school in Bangladesh, we had science textbooks which were likely to be translated from some good quality English textbooks from US or elsewhere, with nice experiment section at each chapter. (titled “Esho nije kori” – let’s do it). However, that often was laughingly ineffective. Imagine the comic scenario, where my teacher was narrating one such section: let’s take this test tube (he was holding a pencil to simulate a testtube), and pour some xyz solution in it (he pretended to do that using invisible solution). Can you see that the solution has turned green? blah blah blah. We had to pretend that yes, the invisible solution has changed colors!!

    When you design a course for a Western audience and talk about rockets, even cars, such examples make sense. However, to a rural student in Bangladesh, a rocket is as alien as martians! So, indigenous development is a must-have when creating MOOCs for a global audience.

    • This science lab anecdote sounds funny in retrospect but it’s appalling that such situations still exist today, and not just in Bangladesh.

      Do you know of similar projects elsewhere in the world?

  3. I think the great beauty of free, libre and open licensing is that course providers don’t have to translate their courses at great expense and uncertain demand – it becomes legal and useful for the community to make translations themselves.

    Free, libre and open licensing also makes it possible for the community to then profit from the translations, giving them an incentive and further support.

    I liked the article – particularly the strategic use of screenshots to decorate as well as illuminate.

    • Hi Sanglorian!

      Thanks for the compliment ! From a multilingual perspective, FLO licensing is definitely the way to go for course content.

      I wanted to try and look at different perspectives though, see what solutions were being developed. MOOC are still young so it’s quite likely that all sorts of initiatives are going to flourish in different parts of the world.

      Have a lovely day and weekend…

    • Yeah, localisation of English Law doesn’t sound extremely useful. Maybe there are applications I haven’t thought of though. What do you think non-English speaking participants came for?

  4. I agree with the challenges that language, culture, and local resources (like students pretending the pen is a test tube) present to the use of American MOOCs across the globe. For me, based in the US, one of the fundamental challenges with MOOCs is that they aren’t attentive to many of the twentieth and twenty-first century developments in pedagogy and learning. Watching a video of a star American professor and then answering multiple choice or short answer questions that can either be graded by computer or peers ignores what we now know are different learning styles. Some students are great at rote memorization. Some students aren’t and that does not mean any group is any more or less intelligent than the other. Like you, hardcorekancil, I think American MOOCs are still in their early stages, and its not clear what they will look like even five years from now. What concerns me is that most of the hype is about how large the classes are and whether the model is profitable, which is why global scale is important. As some one who teachers, the core questions about any teaching model: Is this a sound pedagogical approach? What are the aims in terms of teaching and learning of this pedagogical model? In a learning environment, both the teacher and the student are presented with an opportunity to learn. The American MOOC model assumes that the teacher shares her wisdom and the student absorbs it. This brings me to another meaning of open. Isn’t the traditional nineteenth-century model of education closed? What about a more open model, meaning without restrictions on assumptions about position and where knowledge and skills reside. I learn so much from my students and as a result become a better teacher every year. Teaching and learning are skills that improve over time and practice. Those of us in the world of education should be open to this dynamic.

    • Of course, I focused solely on ONE issue that’s less talked about when it comes to MOOCs but there are other questions to be raised. I am equally concerned about the flaunting of economic models that take precedence over any kind of sound assessment of the quality of the education offered in these programs.

      The expert delivery model of teaching was already closed when applied to a classroom of a few dozen students, it’s all the more closed now that thousands of students watch a talking head, often without much hope of ever interacting personally with the instructor. This increased distance between the one-who-knows and the one-who-learns is something I find utterly disturbing. It also goes against the current trends in communication across physical spaces and status boundaries afforded by the internet.

  5. Pingback: Brainstorm | The blindspots of a STEM-focused education reform

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