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MOOCs and the Future of Education in Latin America

Like many regions, Latin America and the Caribbean face a mismatch between what its educational system offers and the skills that are demanded by the market. A recent trend monitoring newsletter by FORO Nacional asks whether massive open online courses (MOOCs) could help to bridge this gap. Largely offered by U.S. educational institutions and covering subject matter ranging from global poverty to electrical engineering, MOOCs are free and open to anyone; in fact, two-thirds of users are reportedly based outside of North America.

FORO observes a growing practice of linking individual, online work via a MOOC with accredited programs in the region. For example, the University of El Salvador offers an Electrical Engineering course that draws heavily on an MIT’s edX class. Catholic University in La Paz, Bolivia is pioneering individual, online learning courses that are reinforced with in-person group discussions among fellow students and faculty. As MOOCs grow in popularity, they’ve also begun to emerge throughout the world in places as diverse as Rwanda, China, and Ghana. Innovators are hoping that linking MOOCs to in-person learning and accredited, local programs will enable struggling education systems to “leapfrog” forward, educating more students at a lower cost.

The term leapfrogging is commonly used to describe the experiences of lower- and middle-income countries in leveraging new technologies to skip the costly, ineffective, or harmful experiences that upper-income countries had during their development. In telecoms, for example, many lower- and middle-income countries skipped mass use of expensive land lines and have instead opted for mobile phones.

In the case of MOOCs, it would mean skipping more expensive and limited in-person education for cheaper education with significant online components. It might also mean skipping the costly, slow, and long-term investments and policy reforms typically needed to improve education systems and more fully link them with industry demand and a society’s view on the educating and training its next generation.

But what are the unintended impacts of skipping over the investments and policy conversations about higher and professional education in favor of an online approach? Could MOOCs unintentionally disincentivize lower-income countries from funding and expanding their own education systems, or drive out effective but highly local approaches to in-person education? Would overall course and learning quality be compromised?

Or, as FORO Nacional asks, is there a risk of creating a two-tiered, global education system in which a small number of the population can afford in-person education while the rest rely largely on online learning?

The answers to these questions are still unfolding. FORO Nacional’s work highlights the importance of closely monitoring this potentially disruptive innovation, which bears potential for both transformative positive impact and unintended harm.

Read FORO Nacional’s article on MOOCs and other diverse trends in Latin America and the Caribbean in their recent newsletter.

Read Agenda Suramerica

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