Online higher education is increasingly hailed as a chance for educators in the developed world to expand access and quality across the globe.
Yet it may not be quite so easy. Not only does much of the world not have broadband or speak English, but American-made educational material may be unfit for and unwanted in developing countries, according to academics who have worked for years on online distance education and with open educational resources, or OER.
Their experience raises questions about a utopian vision. This vision foresees online courses bringing education to students of all longitudes and latitudes, while reducing the need for brick-and-mortar universities. This goal of “democratizing education” using technology is gaining popular appeal among investors, some professors, pundits, politicians and the public amid the recent craze for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. But some scholars question whether an American-based effort can do this. While MOOCs are new, scholars have wrestled with questions about cultural barriers for years in the OER community.
Some educators worry a one-way transfer of educational materials from the rich north to the poor south will amount to a wave of “intellectual neo-colonialism.”
Lani Gunawardena is the co-author of a forthcoming book on global culture and online education. She said some global distance education evangelists tend to assume everybody speaks English and has the same priorities as they do.