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In Tanzania, MOOCs Seen as "Too Western"

BY Amanda Sperber | Friday, November 22 2013

A primary school in Arusha, Tanzania (Chris Gansen/flickr)

Isaack Lee, a 19 year old studying geology at the Earth Science Institute of Shinyanga, isn’t happy with the education system in Tanzania. “No. I am unhappy with it because it is low, it is almost the same as the ones in online courses,” he tells techPresident. He expands that he doesn’t see Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as vehicles that will be helpful to his country because both involve a speaker pontificating from a Western perspective, without engaging the audience in any hands-on learning. Catherine Tarimo, a 25 year old graduate from the University of Dar es Salaam, who is about to finish her Masters in Public Administration from Mzumbe University adds that what education is missing in Tanzania is teaching on an applied, not only a theoretical basis. She’s never used a MOOC and doesn’t anticipate doing so as she’s never felt she can offer her anything she can acquire through the current education system.

For many low income countries around the world, including Tanzania, MOOCs are being hailed as digital salvation, bringing “elite” education to the masses. Right now in Tanzania, a World Bank supported initiative is piloting in partnership with Coursera, a major online education company, to make MOOCs an ingrained part of their higher education efforts in the country by offering free courses at the university level. In conjunction with the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH), they are supporting the development of SMART Knowledge Hubs starting in the capital, Dar es Salaam. These hubs are intended to assist in forming a support system for the development of education in IT, and a broader set of 'new economy skills' in the country. This young initiative in many ways encapsulates the growing discord about the viability and legitimacy of making MOOCs a key part of education development.

The 18-year-old activist and author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School, Nikhil Goyal, says a major issue with MOOCs are that they don’t address foundational issues in education. Echoing Lee and Tarimo’s comments he says MOOCs utilize “the same pedagogical approach to learning.” He later adds, “It’s not very much different in college where we have the 5,000 [people] lecture hall. It’s pretty much the same, and that is an issue for me. If you’re just making what’s already bad enough in colleges and school today, I’m not sure you’re really contributing.” Goyal is a strident advocate for learning based on experience.

In an introductory blog post from April titled “MOOCs? MOOCs!” Michael Trucano, the World Bank’s Senior ICT and Education Specialist, explains the Tanzania project was prompted by laments from employers in the country who say the disconnect between the technical skills their companies require from the local labor market and their needs force them to make hires from outside Tanzania or limit them to the small pool of Tanzanians who were educated internationally.

Goyal also thinks the World Bank project is a big deal, but for different reasons. He later emailed, “It is concerning when you have Western-ideas just dumped onto these countries, without much agency or conversation.” Education activist Audrey Watters also weighed in over email, saying, “This is such an important topic. I definitely see MOOCs as being neo-colonial efforts (the wording in the Terms of Service of FutureLearn, the UK MOOC platform, that all classes and discussions are to be conducted 'in English' is just one blatant example).”

Coursera’s headline on its homepage says “Take the world’s best courses, online, for free.” That advertising in itself establishes a hierarchy of thought, and one that already exists in Tanzania education. When asked if he thinks pushing Western ideas through the lens of education is a problem, 19-year-old Lee shrugs and says that’s already how things are, this is nothing new.

Isaack Lee, 19, doesn't see MOOCs as helpful to his country. (image: Amanda Sperber)

Watters added, “In their current format -- 'the best courses from the best professors' -- MOOCs are troubling in many ways. Classes from [the] likes of Harvard and Stanford and Duke and MIT, MOOCs suggest that local knowledge taught by instructors at non-prestigious institutions is at best inferior, at worst irrelevant. As such, MOOCs don't seem to be about generating knowledge or knowledge communities, but about exporting content packages from elite universities in the Western world.”

In another post on the topic, Trucano establishes what the World Bank would probably see as the practical aspect of MOOCs. In thinking about the courses he says he was reminded of a quote from a senior vice president of a Fortune 50 multinational company who said:

We want to hire Africans to run our businesses there, and make investments in local ecosystems of African businesses to help grow strong partner companies in local markets, he said, but we just can't find enough people with the skills we need. What can be done to support education systems to produce more graduates with the types of skills -- technical, scientific, managerial -- that we are looking for?

When told about sentiments from this Fortune 50-er, however, Professor Laura Czerniewicz who founded the Centre for Educational Technology at the University of Cape Town and now runs Open UCT which aims in part, to engage with the higher education openness agenda from the perspective of the global south, responded, “That’s so interesting because it’s the global companies, its also a way of socializing people into the kinds of languages and discourses that those global companies [use]. So it's not just giving them the competencies they need.”

Those in support of MOOCs, however, often argue that in developing countries, something is better than nothing. But that is like putting a band aid on a much larger illness, like the underlying social issues that generate and perpetuate extreme poverty and global income disparity.

Emanuel Bujashi, for example, who describes himself as a former “street kid” has been sponsored through a local nonprofit in Tanzania to take a US$500 dollar course in English from American Online Cal Campus. Bujashi displayed admirable hustle, working with the organization to create the scholarship for himself. To attend the universities he wants to go to, he has to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language Exam) and this course is the most cost-effective way for him to work his way through. He studies daily, a worn Swahili-English dictionary next to him, on a computer borrowed from a friend, and appreciates that online learning allows him to work during the day (he helps out around a guesthouse, opening the gate) while he studies. His parents are dead. He lives with his aunt and struggles to pay the 400 Tanzanian shillings (25 US Cents) for the bus each way to get to work and the computer.

Though Bujashi, who also wants to write a short book to encourage others in Africa, views MOOCs as the most efficient path forward, his example raises questions of how accessible these online courses are at $500 and when he struggles himself to access a computer. In addition, according to a World Bank report published in 2010, only 13.9 percent of the country has consistent electricity and World Stats show that there is only 12 percent Internet penetration in Tanzania.

There are also numerous logistics to take into account. MOOCs are only accessible to Tanzanians who speak English, have access to a computer - or money to spare for lots of time at an Internet café - and regular electricity. An article in Think Africa Press titled “Language of Instruction in Tanzanian Schools: Creating Class Divides and Decreasing Educational Standards,” raises the issue that with Swahili used in primary-school and English only taught in secondary, many Tanzanians who don’t go on past primary school are at a grave disadvantage. Among others, this includes an inability to access MOOCs, that "elite education," which are often offered in English and at university level, in the first place.

When asked about what purposes MOOCs serve, Czerniewicz’s first response is to say they exist to address the crisis of higher education around the world, creating new markets. Watters puts it more bluntly, “the venture capital-backed MOOCs simply seem to be about 'open for business.'” Despite what many of the MOOCs advertise, any accreditation for the course requires payment. This comes with a risk for people like Bujashi, who said many employers in Tanzania don’t trust the certificates from online courses and question their legitimacy as compared to ones from physical universities - especially universities in the West.

Shyam Sharma, a Professor at the Stony Brook University in New York (SUNY) who has written about MOOCs for the Chronicle of Higher Education emailed, “Yes, MOOCs may be helping people in developing countries catch up to and embrace the global market system and knowledge economy, thereby providing economic and social/cultural benefits as well. However, joining the club only gives you membership, not necessarily a guarantee of respect, equal footing, and equal access to the new and connected economy.”

Kavita Watsa, a Senior Communications Officer for the Africa Region of the World Bank would not elaborate when pressed numerous times to respond to the various charges against MOOCs, saying that Tanzania wants to try out the MOOC approach as a small pilot and that what COSTECH is beginning now is a very small-scale exercise with approximately 100 final-year science students, to help them enhance their skills. She explained it was too early in the project to respond to any other questions.

Editor's Note: This article has been revised to reflect a correction made on December 3, 2013. The original version of this article misstated that Professor Shyam Sharma writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the subject of MOOCs. Professor Sharma has written for the Chronicle of Higher Education on this subject.

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