Opinions

“MOOCs – a must, not a luxury”

1280px-Cairo_University-6With the launch of the Knowledge Bank, Egypt has established itself as an African leader in open education. No surprise then that the subject of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) should be coming in for close scrutiny in Cairo. Dr Zeinab El Maadawi, an Associate Professor and Expert in eLearning and International Education Management at the Faculty of Medicine, Cairo University, has been studying how learners in Egypt interact with MOOCs, and shared some of the lessons she has learnt with the eLearning Africa News Portal.

 El Maadawi is no stranger to MOOCs, having participated in many herself, on subjects as diverse as management and leadership skills, biomedical sciences and “Quality in digital learning”. She has also used them in her own teaching – and in rather remarkable circumstances. In 2013-14, when Cairo University was forced to suspend regular classes on campus for a few weeks, the only way of getting education to medical students in this time was by way of an online course – it was “a ‘must’ rather than a luxury”, as she puts it.

There is, though, a more general lesson to be learnt from this specific instance. That is, that MOOCs should not be seen as a “luxury” but as an educational imperative. Where traditional universities cannot reach, online courses can help to fill in the gaps. Africa’s burgeoning youth faces high levels of unemployment, so the search is on for ways of giving them the skills they need. It is here that MOOCs could prove to be the solution of the moment.

“The available open educational resources such as MOOCs, developed by leading universities, could be used, adapted and customised according to learners’ needs, culture and context,” El Maadawi explains. “In this case MOOCs can be utilised either as a stand-alone model or be integrated in a blended learning format coupled with traditional in-campus teaching.”

Egypt already has the most active MOOCs community of learners not only in the Arab region but also in Africa, making the country an ideal place to investigate the success of the model. El Maadawi has been studying the learning analytics of Egyptian participants and will present her findings at this year’s eLearning Africa conference. And while the success of the format in Egypt can be clearly recognised, she has identified several obstacles impeding the format’s growth in Africa as a whole.

Chief among these are the perennial problems of connectivity and localisation, in both language and context. Mobile devices are helping to solve the first, El Maadawi says, with most MOOC providers enabling access in this way. Localisation is a trickier problem, with most material being produced by European and American universities and offered in English, while educational studies referenced by El Maadawi suggest that “learners become more engaged and participative if they learn in their mother tongue.” Engagement also suffers if the content does not “fit the African context. For example, in a MOOC about entrepreneurship, it would be reasonable to use case studies and highlight success stories that are really compatible with the local African environment and culture.”

The solution, El Maadawi says, is to “[get] the government and universities involved while utilising MOOCs in a more customised format, with careful consideration of intellectual property issues.” The collaboration of public institutions with the platforms that deliver MOOCs will hopefully produce better courses with more viable and relevant applications in local contexts. And of course it is essential that the learning process gained from online courses, and indeed the opportunities they provide, are recognised. This is the message El Maadawi would like to share in Cairo this year.

“Having the eLearning Africa conference in Egypt this year will be a unique opportunity to disseminate the message and to develop multinational, cross-industry contacts with learning professionals, high-level government representatives and business leaders from Egypt and other countries.”

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