25 June, 2022


MOOCs And The Developing World

By Charitha Ratwatte –

Charitha Ratwatte

Charitha Ratwatte

The potential for a revolution in university education

Analysts have pointed out that in the way that some countries bypassed land telephone lines in their bid to enhance telecommunication facilities and went

on straight to mobile connectivity, the opportunity offered by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) at the tertiary level would give an opportunity for countries to bypass brick and mortar universities and go straight onto online courses at the tertiary level.

It was in 2011 that Stanford University in California, USA, launched its first MOOC. Since then these internet-enabled tertiary education programs have really taken off, engaging millions of users.

The large MOOOC providers such as Coursera, Udemy, Udacity and edX offer free tuition supplied by universities to hundreds of thousands students at a time. But recently there is an alarming trend; user growth has started to slow. Since May 2013 MOOC growth has seen stagnation and a slowing growth. In the US, in the education sector, there is what has been described as the ‘summer slump,’ at this time of the year, this may be an explanation and there may be a pickup of numbers later.

Positive development

But in the developing world there has been a positive development. Over the nine-month period November 2012 to August 2013, data on visits to MOOC sites has shown that visits from users based in India have doubled. But India still has only around one-third of MOOC users when compared with the USA. This still makes India the largest market for MOOCs outside the USA. This is not withstanding the fact that India has only a fraction of comparative broadband penetration, when compared with the USA.

The average young Indians knowledge of English is probably a key factor. This has prompted MOOC providers to look seriously at the potential of MOOCs in Mandarin, Portuguese and Spanish, etc. The profile of the Indian MOOC users shows that 80% are less than 34 years of age. India has the largest number on university grade students in the world, 94 million and growing. At the same time State-dominated higher education is inadequate, irrelevant to the job market and inaccessible due to Government over-regulation, corruption and lack of governance.

The famed ‘mismatch’ between the product of the process of education and the demand in the job market, was highlighted in 1971, in Sri Lanka, by Prof. Dudley Seers of the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Sussex, UK. Further, India has only 17 million students enrolled in higher education, one of the world’s lowest enrolment ratios, which has created a huge opportunity for MOOCs.

Sri Lanka can be said to be in a similar situation. There is a huge appetite for higher education due to the restriction of university places; there logically should be a high demand for MOOC type online tertiary education.

The issue is further complicated due to fee-charging foreign universities facing entry barriers to Sri Lanka due to vociferous support for so-called ‘free education’ provided by the State. But although foreign universities have not been able to set themselves up in Sri Lanka in any substantial way, classes for degrees awarded by universities located outside Sri Lanka are available. If MOOCs are popularised in this situation, the construction and setting up of brick and tile universities can be avoided altogether by encouraging tertiary level students to follow MOOC courses on line.

Accreditation issue

One issue however will be seen as a challenge. The one of accreditation. But this too is changing. Earlier this year, the Georgia Technology University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, announced that it will offer the first master’s degree course in computer science and that the degree can be had at a quarter of the cost of a typical on campus degree. This is the first time full academic credit is being offered in a graduate course of study by an American University through a Massive Open Online Course.

The USA and the world are facing up to a huge shortage of computer science graduates. It is estimated that by 2020 around one million high-tech job openings will remain, unfilled, according to analysts’ prediction.

Distance education of this type is nothing new. Over and above the many institutions which offer at the undergraduate and master’s level courses from foreign universities, there are professional courses in accountancy being conducted locally. The Open University has added a whole new dimension to distance learning.

The demand for tertiary level professional and university education increasing by leaps and bounds and the inability of the taxpayer-funded universities, here, to expand to take in the majority of students qualifying for university admission, drove this process.

The employability of these graduates was also an issue, the Government having to be the employer of the last resort, which had a huge negative effect on the budget deficit. The Sri Lankan universities themselves began to conduct external degrees. This has now been curtailed. The employability issue remains critical.

The push for the legitimisation of private fee-charging universities is also driven by this inability of the State universities to cope with the number of students qualifying for admission. Critics call upon the Government to increase investment in higher education in order that more students will be able to access higher education and the ambition of the Government to become the knowledge hub of South Asia could be realised.

The Sri Lanka university system faces one major problem – the lack of funds for investment. As long as the Government is dependent on deficit budgeting, concessional aid and foreign borrowings, this situation will not and cannot improve. Officials have stated that 63% of students who sat the GCE ‘A’ level have passed the exam, but the fact is that a very small percentage of these students will actually gain admission to existing State universities.

The internet and the World Wide Web have given distance education a huge opportunity to expand, way beyond the limits of traditional constraints. Let’s take a look at some MOOC providers.


Coursera is a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses on line to anyone to take, free of charge. Coursera envisages a future in which the world’s top universities are educating not only thousands of students, within their brick and mortar campuses, but also millions in the virtual world through the internet. Through this Coursera intends to give everyone and anyone access to a world class education that, so far, due to the money and geography, mostly has been limited to a few.

A student participant on a Coursera course will watch world-class professors delivering lectures. They will learn at their own pace, test their knowledge and reinforce concepts through interactive exercises. Coursera’s students are members of a global community of thousands of other students learning at the same time alongside the participant in a virtual world. Coursera offers courses in the humanities, medicine, biology, social sciences, mathematics, business, computer science and many others.


Udacity is another MOOC provider, which is a private educational foundation founded by three Stanford University professors – Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky. The origin of the brand, Udacity, according to the founders, is from the company’s desire to be ‘audacious for you, the student’.

Udacity is in reality the outgrowth of the free computer classes offered in 2011 through Stanford University. As at the end of academic year 2012, Udacity had 15 active courses. Professor Thrun said that 90,000 students had enrolled for the initial two classes on Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, as of March 2012. Udacity is funded by Professor Thrun himself and two of Silicon Valley’s prominent venture capital firms Charles River Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz.

Udacity is the medium being used by Georgia Tech for its fee-charging, certifiable, online computer science degree. This is seen by analysts as a game-changer in the delivery of higher education. The New York City authorities spend US$ 7,000 a year of bussing school students around New York, for this same cost you can now get a masters degree from one of the most respected programs in the country. As more courses become available, the cost is bound to go down.


Another well established MOOC is edX, a massive open online course platform founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University to offer online university level courses in a wide range of disciplines to a worldwide audience at no charge. The two institutions have each contributed US$ 30 million to the non profit project.

edX’s learning platform is developed on open source software and is made available to other institutions of higher education which want to provide similar courses, there are plans to allow other universities to offer their courses on the edX website also.

Online learning software has been created to move beyond videos of lectures to provide an interactive experience in real time. Other than the Georgia Tech course referred to, college credit is not offered yet, but for a modest fee certificates of successful completion will be issued.

At MIT Professor Anil Agarwal leads the project together with Provost of Harvard Alan. M. Garber, assisted by Dean Michael D. Smith of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Reaction from academics

Some universities have begun allowing academic credit for MOOC courses. Once a student can establish that he or she has followed the relevant MOOC online and successfully completed, academic credit towards completing an under graduate or post graduate degree may be allowed.

However, there has been a reaction from academics in a negative way to MOOCs. The San Jose State University in California, last year, ran a test course in electrical engineering as a MOOC. This was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Students who followed the MOOC passed at a higher rate than the classroom students – 91% to 60%. The schools’ president decided to expand MOOCs to cover the humanities, due to the success of the electrical engineering experiment. Some academics objected.

The San Jose philosophy professors wrote an open letter on April 29 to the University: ‘let’s not kid ourselves: administrators at the California State University are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.’ In April the faculty at Amherst University also decided against MOOCs. At Duke University, the faculty council at the arts and Science College voted against granting graduation credit for taking a Duke MOOC.

Sri Lanka

For the problems that Sri Lanka faces – a massive demand for tertiary level university education, the proven social mobility provided by tertiary level education, the unavailability of taxpayer funds to expand the State university system, the resistance to private universities, due to misbegotten concepts of defunct socialism long past its time, and the fear that a fee-charging system will create a huge inequality in access to university education – access to MOOCs courses may provide the answer.

Of course the issue of the courses being in the English language is a problem. But there is an awareness today of the need to have a knowledge of English for employability. There is much talk of burgeoning exposure and access to computer terminals, personal computers at the home and office, laptop computers, computers at private communication centres, Government facilities such as Nenasala, Vidatha Centres, etc., so both the push and pull factors are present; MOOC courses online and access to computer terminals.

All those genuinely interested in the rapid increase in access to tertiary education should get together and promote knowledge and information on MOOCs among Sri Lankan students in particular and society in general. This need not be an initiative of the State, even a non-State actor can take on the responsibility of promoting access to MOOCs among Sri Lankans, as a service to the youth of this country.

MOOC model is the future

Whatever the resistance from traditional professors, tertiary education is inevitably going to change. Students could be issued with an iPad or an Android tablet to access the courses. The comparative costs to using existing teacher cadres will be competitive. There is no doubt that the global online education on the MOOC model is the future.

Education is the most proven way of lifting people out of poverty. It has the potential to unlock the capacity of billions of brains to work to solve the world’s problems. In May 2012 Coursera had around 300,000 people taking 38 courses taught by professors from Stanford and a few other elite universities. In January 2013 it has 2.4 million students, taking 214 courses from 33 universities, including eight international universities.

At edX, since May 2012, 155,000 students worldwide have taken its first course. President of edX Professor Agarwal says: “This is greater than the total number of MIT alumni in its 150 year history.”

Imagine the applicability of this model to Sri Lanka. One has only to rent space in a suitable building in any of our villages which has electricity and high speed satellite internet access (which at our present state of development is not rocket science), install a couple of computers, hire a local person and train him or her as a facilitator and invite any person who wants to take an on line course with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Sinhala or Tamil. Certification and fee-charging has been pioneered by Georgia Tech.

All stakeholders must get together to maximise Sri Lankan youth’s exposure to the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) in university education.

In Sri Lanka we have to grasp such revolutionary initiatives such as MOOCs with both hands and move forward if we are to break through the barriers to knowledge which are holding back the full flowering of are young people’s ability.

Surely there will be problems and issues which have to be addressed. But MOOCs are a huge opportunity which shows us a way out, in making tertiary level higher education available to the vast majority of our people, in a cost effective manner. It is a once-in-an-epoch opportunity. It should not be missed. No major policy changes are necessary. Only a positive, effective, facilitation.

Since Georgia Tech is offering a certificated degree course through Udacity, other MOOC providers and universities, worldwide are bound to follow suit in short order. Sri Lanka should cash in on this opportunity. At one stroke it will offer an immediate solution to the inequities which exist in the access to tertiary level education in the country today and produce graduates for whom the employment market is dynamic. Students can choose their course of study and not be compelled to confine themselves to what brick and cement universities here offer. Financial service providers already have in place loan schemes for tertiary education; these can be expanded to assist in meeting the costs. Of course like in any new idea, there will be resistance, but rational thinking should win the day.

Revolutionary steps needed

The fact that India is the largest MOOC market outside the USA is something that we Sri Lankans must take note of. In the USA, the demand seems to be slacking, but in India it is increasing. Imagine if MOOCS ate provided in Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish, French or Tamil? The demand will increase exponentially.

But with South Asians’ exposure to English, a colonial heritage, we should take decisive steps to encourage young Sri Lankans and other South Asians to follow MOOCs. One incentive may be to encourage out brick and tile universities to give credit towards the degree for MOOC courses. Unless some revolutionary steps such as these are taken, we will never be able to meet the demand for university degrees for which there is a demand in the job market, both here in Sri lank and abroad. The future is with MOOCs.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Thank you Charitha for very informative article about current world trends in education. You seems to be very smart guy and have broad knowledge in different fields and you are/were in SL civil service for quite a long time. How the hell you let this country go in a spiral of decaying all sort of human values starting with education….

  • 0

    Good piece Chari. I have benefitted from MOOCS from it’s inception, refreshing my learning of subjects I have studied in the past and learning new subjects. Most of my participation is through coursera.

    The future belongs to those who will continuously learn. MOOCS through democratising education allows anyone to get a Higher Level Education for free. All you need is an internet connection.

    Considering we have done a great job in educating our people in English, our Universities should reach out to edx, coursera etc, so we could translate their content to Sinhala. Imagine these courses offered in Sinhala to our people.

    Again, great piece on MOOCS.

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