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.