MOOCs Could Prove Disruptive to Latin America Higher Ed

Higher education systems in developing countries might find themselves under threat from the growing popularity of online education, according to the MIT Technology Review. It’s been less than two years since some of the most prominent American and international universities began offering free college-level courses over the internet, and already more than half of the [...]

Higher education systems in developing countries might find themselves under threat from the growing popularity of online education, according to the MIT Technology Review. It’s been less than two years since some of the most prominent American and international universities began offering free college-level courses over the internet, and already more than half of the students who sign up are located outside the United States.

One of those who was instantly won over by the potential offered by these massive online open courses was University of El Salvador professor of electrical engineering Carlos Martinez. When edX, a MOOC consortium put together by MIT and Harvard University, started offering a course in electronic circuits, Martinez enrolled and henceforth considered himself a MOOC convert.

His experience convinced him that online education offered by some of the best colleges and universities in the world could prove to be the future of higher education in his own country. Convinced of this, he started traveling around El Salvador to recruit converts and documenting his journey as a self-appointed “MOOC Advocate,” – the first one in El Salvador and Latin America.

It’s an adventure because Martinez doesn’t have the backing of his university. This fall, on his own initiative, he signed up 50 students—about one-tenth of the electrical engineering majors at his school—to take the edX circuits class. Since he’s not assigned to teach this subject, he communicates with the students on Facebook, and once a week he sets up an experiment in a hallway to accompany the class.

Martinez explains that when it comes to MOOCs and online education in general, he is “like a carnival barker,” offering his assistance and encouragement to students who choose to give the new approach a try. He says that what he is doing goes beyond drawing people’s interest in online education. His ultimate goal is to force the higher education system in his country – which he believes has grown stale and complacent – to embrace the future, which, in effect, means embracing technology.

The University of El Salvador, located in San Salvador, is the only public university in the country. It spends $60 million a year to teach 50,000 students, and its budget is so limited that it can only accept about one-third of applicants. (By comparison, the University of Michigan, which has a similar number of students, spends $1.6 billion on its core academic mission, not including sports teams, dorms, and hospitals.)

Protests over the shortage of spots regularly shut down the campus. Semesters don’t end on time. The university doesn’t appear in international rankings.

It’s hard to deny the potential of the new approach to instruction, but that doesn’t mean that Martinez’ colleagues don’t have concerns. Especially when they confront the future of higher education as is envisioned by MOOC pioneer Sebastian Thrun, who predicts that in 50 years there will only be ten mega-universities around the world.

That worries some academics. Jason Lane and Kevin Kinser, two education studies professors, warned in the Chronicle of Higher Education of an impending “McDonaldization” of higher education: the exact same stuff, just served everywhere.

But what will happen that far into the future doesn’t worry Martinez. What worries him is that his university still teaches computer science as if programmers regularly code using punchcards. University of El Salvador wasn’t inclined to get with the times on its own, but facing down the threat from MOOCs that could render the whole institution irrelevant might make them more inclined to embrace change. And it will, if Martinez has anything to say about it.

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