August 1, 2014 by Steve Kolowich
[Full article here.]
One narrative that has driven widespread interest in free online courses known as MOOCs is that they can help educate the world. But critics like to emphasize that the courses mostly draw students who already hold traditional degrees.
So when Coursera, the largest provider of MOOCs, published a blog post about how a professor had used one of its online courses to teach refugees near the Kenya-Somalia border, it sounded to some like a satire of Silicon Valley’s naïve techno-optimism: Hundreds of thousands of devastated Africans stranded in a war zone? MOOCs to the rescue!
Details of the experiment paint a more nuanced picture, one that highlights the challenges MOOC providers face in trying to change the lives of downtrodden people.
Barbara Moser-Mercer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Geneva, ran the refugee experiment and wrote Coursera’s optimistic blog post about it. But in an interview with The Chronicle, as well as a more formal article she wrote about the experiment for a European conference on MOOCs, the professor expanded on the logistical issues that come with trying to make sophisticated online courses work in deprived settings.
Ms. Moser-Mercer’s background is translation and interpretation; she still sometimes serves as an interpreter for the United Nations. Mostly, though, she works in conflict zones. She is founder and director of InZone, a group that tries to intervene in “higher-education emergencies” without being culturally tone-deaf.