USAID-sponsored online courses to power developing countries

Kids in Namibia work on computers in one of three regional libraries that opened to the public last year through the Namibia Library Development Program and IREX. South Africa will be one of the beneficiaries of the new MOOC research, which is also being supported by nonprofit IREX. (Courtesy of IREX)

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The federal government, along with an education company called CourseTalk, is bringing online courses to developing countries.

The U.S. Agency for International Development and CourseTalk, which offers a vast library of classes, are slated to unveil a $1.55 million initiative aimed at getting massive online open courses, or MOOCs, to students in South Africa, Colombia and the Philippines, officials from both organizations told FedScoop. They are expected to announce the initiative Tuesday at SXSWedu.

“USAID has been keeping an eye on this movement of MOOCs” as a way to lift people out of poverty, Rachel Blum, senior adviser for youth workforce development at USAID, told FedScoop. “One of the things online courses offer is the opportunity to make education more affordable to young people, and they also help to increase the relevance and quality of education by offering a greater diversity of courses.”

The two-year initiative, called Advancing MOOCs for Development, will use researchers from the Technology & Social Change Group to investigate enrollment figures and other statistics around who uses online courses and who could stand to gain from them in the developing countries. The research will also receive support from IREX, a nonprofit development organization.

“We really want to be able to unpack who is using MOOCs and what is the greatest potential for MOOC usage,” Blum said.

Jack Bowen, chief marketing officer at AcademixDirect — the parent company of CourseTalk, said the project fit in with the company’s mission to make a variety of courses more available in an increasingly globally minded society. He said more than half of CourseTalk’s traffic is driven by international enrollment in online courses.

“It was like they were reading our minds in terms of the benefit of this concept of MOOCs,” Bowen said in an interview. “Folks who are in developing countries are looking to get access to the U.S. education market. We were thrilled to try to help them test this premise of whether we could help in developing countries.”

Possible barriers to taking full advantage of the courses include access to computers and the Internet, and language differences.

“There might be some concerns that fewer [people] use MOOCs in developing countries, or they may not have access to infrastructure, or the relevance of the actual content might not be as relevant to their local context,” Blum said. “We’re trying to understand that through this research.”

The research is expected to be completed and published in about a year, Blum said.

Depending on the results, CourseTalk may work on new classes or try bundling classes to fit the needs of the students in the particular countries. The possibility is also open to work with local businesses, organizations and universities to develop their own MOOCs.

The groups may also work on helping students get certificates once they complete MOOCs that would equip them with more skills and knowledge in their industries.

“Part of our appeal at SXSWedu is to broaden the chain to the business world or NGO world to try to help us build a stronger base,” Bowen said. “The more partners that come on, the more effective we’ll be.”

Blum said she is already having discussions with stakeholders to possibly expand the initiative to the Middle East.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to deepen and broaden what we’re doing,” she said. “The world is a big place.”

For more information or to get involved, visit http://www.coursetalk.com/advancingmoocs.

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Agencies, CourseTalk, Education, Education / STEM, Government IT News, IREX, Jack Bowen, MOOCs, Rachel Blum, Tech, U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID
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