A recent New York Times article describes the growing momentum of massive open online courses (MOOCs) provided by organizations such as edX, a nonprofit start-up by Harvard and MIT, and Coursera, a for-profit company spun out of Stanford. “I like to call this the year of disruption,” Anant Agarwal, president of edX, was quoted as saying “and the year is not over yet." Building off of the success of pioneers such as the Khan Academy, these initiatives are rapidly multiplying, as millions of users log onto the free online courses. This fall, Google announced Course Builder, and Stanford launched its own initiative called Class2Go. These initiatives are using the Internet to increase access to educational material and create new interactive material that changes the way people learn.
For many faculty members and research fellows involved in developing these online courses, a primary motivation is the desire to "spread the wealth" by increasing access to education. Many academics and innovators in the social sector are thinking about how to reach the bottom billion, how to eliminate extreme poverty, and how to share our privileges with others and scale our impact. Money is an important factor, and individuals and countries have a moral obligation to mobilize financial resources to reach those struggling to lift themselves out of poverty. But education and information are also powerful resources—if not more powerful—if we can find a way to deliver them effectively to the end user.
The next step may be for leading academic institutions to partner with grassroots organizations (such as community-based education nonprofits working in low-resource settings) to get this new material across the last mile. This would require translation efforts, literacy efforts, and physical resources such as computers or tablets. Such resources could come in the form of mobile/rotating satellite centers to reach remote areas where the population would otherwise not be able to access online material. Perhaps a "Community Education Workers" model could be applied, building on the documented success of the Community Health Worker model already employed in global initiatives such as the Millennium Villages and others.
Course content is another aspect affecting access in low-resource settings. Many of the pioneer MOOCs have taken the first baby steps and are making the kinds of courses we teach within institutions available to people outside those walls. However, in most cases the available online material requires that end users have already achieved a high level of education. The result is select sociodemographic groups of online students. Needless to say, there is a gap between this level of higher education content and the information needs of the majority of the world's population.
Expanding our impact to aspiring professionals around the world is a noble cause, but we need to be more ambitious. One spin-off of these initial efforts might be developing and tailoring online courses that target specific audiences in specific parts of the world, or even adapting and disseminating existing educational materials produced within a country but beyond the reach of many of its inhabitants. Universities and nonprofits such as Literacy.org and Enviu.org, for example, are conducting research for the development of online and m-learning tools to increase literacy in the US, Africa, and around the world.
Open online courses—massive, tailored, or otherwise—are unquestionably taking us in a new direction. How far we go and where we reach will be determined only by how much we push the limits of our imagination, our resources, and the kinds of community partnerships that can make it possible to get information across the final mile.