MOOCs as a Worldwide Neocolonial Force: A Reflection on MIT’s Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC) Conference

I had the privilege to attend MIT’s Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC) 2013 conference from June 16 – 19th. Bringing together about three-hundred higher education professionals from forty-nine countries is going to yield not only divergent views of the primacy of the advancement of education, but also enormously engaging conversation. 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.

Is the rise of the MOOC a form of digitalized neocolonialism? I’m not convinced that form of criticism does real justice to historical notions of neocolonialism. Firstly, what are the financial considerations? If MOOCs continue to operate on the “free” model (or very low cost for formal assessments and certificates of completion), what sort of financial power do they hold over participants in other countries? The one caveat here may be the information generated for financial gain by MOOC platform providers. In an age of so-called “big data,” student interactions in MOOCs provide incredible insight for profit-seeking enterprises. There are de facto hegemonic considerations, too, especially when considering how the political, religious, and economic values of one country may well be wrapped up in a wide swath of curricula of even unrelated subjects. Psychologically speaking, those who participate in MOOCs choose to be students, so asserting that a MOOC holds some special sway over that person’s mind is not only condescending, but it also denies a fundamental goal of education: to help people think for themselves.

The real risk here is that of influence, but not necessarily neocolonialism. In my mind, influence is the persuasion of altering value systems whereas neocolonialism is the force de jure of additional pressure with potentially dire consequences. For a colloquial example, influence is the debate between two people using rational arguments while neocolonialism would be the backroom bargaining with bodily pressure points.

The question is one of global versus local context. Our lives are informed by the localized contexts in which we live, work, eat, sleep, and eventually, die. Thanks to the internet and other forms of mass communication, we live ever-globally aware lives. Being able to watch world events in near live-time is unparalleled in human history. This means that value systems of an influential first-world country can have tangible effects on the localized contexts of people worldwide. While MOOCs may not be neocolonialist strictly speaking, they certainly have the ability to irrevocably alter localized contexts. So, the question becomes: do MOOCs redefine what a global and local context mean?

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