As US Remains Skeptical, Latin America Embraces Online Courses

As millions of students around the world enroll in massive open online courses (MOOCs), online education is booming in regions like Latin America, Tim Johnson writes in CS Monitor.

Dan O'Connell, a spokesman for MOOC provider and platform edX, said that about "10% of the 1.3 million people on the edX platform come from Latin American countries." In addition to populous countries like Brazil and Mexico, people from nations such as Haiti, Belize and Uruguay are also taking online courses, he noted.

In the United States, MOOCs are labeled either the future or the downfall of higher education and are shaking up academia. Some professors favor online courses and are committed to developing content for online education. But some see these courses as a threat, believing that this dangerous fad will shrink faculties, turn existing professors into glorified teaching assistants and replace meaningful classroom discussion with message boards and student-led forums.

According to some U.S. academics working with online courses, one of the benefits of online learning is the ability to reach undiscovered bright students in the developing world where it can have a tremendous impact.

"Nobody would disagree that, by and large, intelligence and ability are distributed equally around the globe," said Armando Fox, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of a lab there studying online courses. "It's in everyone's best interest to find and cultivate that talent."

According to Fox, online courses also have the effect of raising the bar for university professors, many of whom have ambivalent reactions to online courses.

"You look at another person's lecture and you think, ‘Wow! That person has a really great technique or ideas. Can I emulate that?'" Fox said. "The other way is to say, ‘Uh oh, I'm in trouble because the other teacher is making me look bad.'"

The professors at the University of El Salvador, the nation's largest public university, have been impressed by online courses offered by edX, Coursera and Udacity. Carlos Martinez, an electrical engineering professor and strong advocate for online ed, has convinced scores of students and a handful of faculty to take online courses.

The leading MOOC providers are edX, Udacity and Coursera, who bear the brunt of costs, as taking a MOOC is free for students but isn't cheap for those who create it. Building a MOOC with professional cameras and video editing can cost up to a quarter-million dollars. MOOC providers are still looking for a viable business model that meets the needs of both education and business and will ensure sustainability in the sector.

Recently, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that it will offer a free online course sequence with a tangible certification at the end. Students who complete one of these XSeries sequences can earn a special verified certificate from edX, the platform on which the courses are offered, after taking a test to prove competence.

The first course sequence offered is Foundations of Computer Science that is designed at the introductory undergraduate level. The second is the Supply Chain and Logistics Management XSeries that has been developed at the graduate level.

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