Can Facebook’s Massive Courses Improve Education For Developing Nations?

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Facebook is on a mission to prove that social media-empowered education can help some of the poorest nations on Earth. It recently announced a big industry and Ivy League alliance to bring experimental educational software to Rwanda, providing Internet access and world-class instructional resources to their country’s eager students.

However, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) aren’t yet proven to work at scale even in the most well-resourced nations, let alone in a country with uneven access to technology and arguably limited educational opportunities.

We took a look at what experts and evidence had to say about the prospects of Facebook’s education project. The most realistic outcome for such an unpredictable endeavor is that Facebook will unearth naturally talented students whose contributions never could have been realized without the opportunity. But educating the masses will be an uphill climb.

Diamond Catchers And Super-Charged Classes

MOOCs burst onto the educational scene in the last five years; they quickly ramped up from a small buffet of passive streaming video lectures from top universities to becoming a central part of actual classes at the largest education systems in the U.S. MOOCs come in two broad categories: blended and purely online.

In the blended models, students watch video lectures from renowned professors at home, which gives teachers the ability to free up class time for hands-on learning and direct student engagement (the so-called “flipped classroom” model).

The pure online versions can amass hundreds of thousands of students who complete all assignments at their own pace, aided by their peers and voluntary TAs that monitor message boards for questions.

Neither Facebook nor its partner, the Harvard-MIT MOOC consortium edX, have decided how their project will exactly play out in Rwanda.

“At the very minimum, there will be a robust mobile experience with social tools available that could be used for either online or blended models,” said edX researcher Rebecca Petersen.

The blended model had a lot more success in American schools. San Jose State University, part of the massive California State University system, began partnerships with MOOC providers by piloting both edX’s blended model and a series of purely online courses.

However, SJSU’s purely online pilot, conducted by for-profit MOOC provider Udacity, saw mixed results. The Udacity version allowed non-matriculated users, meaning that students without as much educational experience pulled down its overall success rate.

It is no surprise then that MOOCs have been criticized for working mostly for highly educated populations (by some estimates, 80 percent of users at another popular MOOC provider, Coursera, already have a degree).

Thus, MOOCs have shown the most promise for highly motivated, naturally talented students; they’re what MIT researcher Andrew McAfee described as “diamond catchers,” at a talk on inequality put on by technology political lobby, FWD.us.

Udacity likes to boast about self-taught users who have jumped careers, thanks to their own initiative and genius. One user, “Neil,” was a former big-box retail shelf-stacker. “A month ago, I got my first computer/web programming job without a bachelor’s degree,” he wrote to Udacity. “I took Udacity’s Intro to Computer Science course early last year. I’ve always been interested in programming, but never found a course that taught you by doing, and never found that next step.”

There are certainly splendid examples of breakout students coming from the region. The self-taught 16-year-old Kelvin Doe from Sierra Leone dazzled MIT researchers with his design for a urine-powered generator.

However, outside of those who already have access to good classrooms, it is unclear whether Facebook’s MOOC will deliver on its hopes for mass learning.

Developing Problems Complicate The Equation

“It looks like the initiative has taken into consideration a lot of important issues in developing countries with respect to participation in MOOCs,” wrote University of Reading’s Tharindu Liyanagunawardena and Shirley Willis to me in an email. “Free data access, affordable smart phones,” are the first step in solving Rwanda’s online education problems.

However, there are important cultural hurdles.

“They may or may not be used to the style of learning,” the pair explained to me, noting that in one early developing-world course “African learners had difficulties with peer assessment activities in MOOCs.” Peer assessment and collaboration are essential to helping MOOCs scale; it’s the only way hundreds of thousands of students can get their assignments graded and get answers to questions without employing thousands of more teachers.

Facebook’s product places a heavy emphasis on the mobile and social connectivity aspect of learning, but it’s unknown whether it will actually work.

On the brighter side, the self-motivation conundrum that haunts American students doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue for those in developing nations. The researchers note that French-language MOOCs saw a very impressive 95 percent completion rate for users in Africa (average completion rates for MOOCs are around 7 percent). It’s early days for MOOCs in Africa, and these particular courses may have attracted an unusually eager population, but the same could be said for U.S. students taking engineering classes in their free time — so it’s a promising sign.

As another proof-point, before the rise of MOOCs, TED-prize winner Sugata Mitra found that when he placed a stand-alone computer in a developing area, groups of children could teach themselves science at a rate of learning that was comparable to their publicly educated peers (watch Mitra’s inspiring TED talk below).

At this point, the Facebook/edX experiment is a big unknown and, in fairness to the team, they seem to be taking their time to listen.

“We are working with our partners to submit courses for our consideration now. We want to make sure the courses are relevant to the needs of the Rwandan community,” edX’s Petersen said. Ten percent of edX’s learners are from Africa already, so they’re not going into it completely blind.

At the very least, SocialEDU will bring vital tools to the country’s latent geniuses and that portends a very promising future.

[Image Credit: Flickr user Johan Larsson]