I had the privilege to attend MIT’s Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC) 2013 conference from June 16 – 19th. […] One topic, above all others, continues to resonate with me. […] One of the attendees suggested that the MOOC (massive open online course) is a form of neocolonialism to the developing world. This means western educators presuppose a priority on what should be taught, what should be learned, and what forms “the” context of a given subject; MOOCs are the 21st century vehicle for spreading that presupposition to the world. It means that the first-world professors, instructional designers, and platform providers control not only the content learned by people worldwide, but more importantly, the ideologies spread through that learning.
The question James Willis then asks himself is whether MOOCs indeed are a form of digitized neocolonialism. In earlier posts and blogs I have also considered this possibility, using the term cultural imperialism. Whatever the term, Willis quite accurately describes what the danger is in the above summary. In his description I suggest to take 'what should be taught etc.' broadly, that is, as not just encompassing the selection of courses but also choice of topics within courses and pedagogy. The danger described then becomes obvious. All content is value laden, although some, such as religion, presumably more than other, such as programming languages. So with the content come all kinds of Western values. Second, pedagogy matters too. A pedagogy that heavily relies on Socratic discourse, which assumes you will challenge your professor, does not sit well with societies that put much value on authority. Luckily, this second objection is a less serious one in the current MOOCs as these heavily rely on a transfer or broadcasting model of teaching. However, the objection of the value-ladenness of content remains.
Willis however is not convinced there is a danger. His counter-argument is that he is not convinced that this kind of criticism 'does real justice to historical notions of neocolonialism'. But that strikes me as quite beside the point. Perhaps he is right that the name used to label the criticism is unfortunate or plain wrong, but that does in no way violate the matter of the argument labeled. I for one still believe there is a serious danger of imposing Western cultural values and for that reason alone would dread the day that Sebastian Thrun's predication that in 50 years time only 10 universities survive comes true (that he apparently has retracted his prediction does not detract from the fact that he had no moral objections to its becoming true, on the contrary). See for details a series of blog posts of mine.
However, let's assume for the sake of argument that Willis addresses material issues rather than semantic ones only. One argument is that MOOCs do not hold financial power over students outside the US. I beg to differ. Actually, MOOCs even do in the US. If authorities decide to divert funding from education, students either have the choice to pay even more fees and tuitions or 'take a MOOC'. If that doesn't affect you financially what does? Willis conclusion is that 'the question [of the ill effects of MOOCs] is one of global versus local context' and admits that 'value systems of an influential first-world country can have tangible effect on the localized contexts of people worldwide'. Exactly! (@pbsloep)