In a piece in the Independent in 2011, Gordon Brown wrote: “The international aid system for education is failing the world’s children.” He was introducing his UNESCO report, Education for All: Beating Poverty, Unlocking Prosperity. On a number of occasions over the past six years, I have been able to watch the work of UNESCO close up–and in the process gained considerable respect for the organization. In keeping with that, I do believe that this report is a superb, detailed, and compassionate summary of the state of education for millions upon millions of children across the developing world. It offers a description of a state of affairs that should bring shame to the rest of the world: We are failing all of those children very badly.
Early in the report, Brown states that “No education system anywhere in the world is better than its teachers.” Later, he goes on to say:
Teachers are the backbone of any education system. Ultimately, learning is the produce of what happens in classrooms through a relationship between pupils and teachers. That is why no education system is better than the availability, accessibility, and quality of the teachers it provides, and the level of support that it delivers to those on the front line of education in the classroom.
This begs many more questions than it answers (especially if you agree with the philosophy of I Am Learner), but it would be foolish in the extreme not to accept the core point being made: that good-quality teaching should be central to good educational provision, and most especially for the education of young children.
It is a dismal and unassailable fact that there is a massive shortage of good-quality teachers across the developing world, especially but by no means exclusively across the countries in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Gordon Brown’s report, the world’s poorest countries need something like 1.8 million additional teachers over the next three years alone to provide even basic primary education to their children, as well as around four million more classrooms and all of the most basic items of equipment we might expect to find in those classrooms. Brown is absolutely right therefore to state that:
The world is today facing an education emergency. That emergency does not make media headlines. But it has disastrous human, social, and economic consequences. It is consigning millions of children to lives of poverty and diminished prospects for economic growth. And it is destroying on an epic scale the most valuable asset of the world’s poorest nations–the creativity, talent, and potential of the young generation.
An education emergency indeed, and one on a vast and massively consequential scale for humanity worldwide. It requires equally vast and prolonged global investment to put right.
Elsewhere in the report, Gordon Brown enthuses over the potential for harnessing technology to improve educational provision. However, he believes that “New technologies do not offer a quick fix for systemic problems in education systems. What they do offer is a vehicle for improving access to opportunities for education and the quality of service provision.”
The last thing this global emergency needs is any kind of quick fix. But I do believe that there is a potentially powerful application of digital and networking technologies that could play a significant role, alongside all the other big investements needed, in contributing to a much-better-quality education for many millions of the poorest children in the poorest countries around the world.
From Massive Open Online Course to Massive Open Online Classroom (MOOCl)
Anyone with even the remotest interest in higher education of late will be aware of the MOOC. The basic concept of the Massive Open Online Course (a term devised by Dave Cormier) is a simple one, but the implications of the MOOC for the future of higher education in particular are the stuff of a debate that is washing around global education at the present time.
I will trust that anyone reading this already knows what a MOOC is, although I will not necessarily trust that everyone knows that there are MOOCs and there are MOOCs. If your knowledge of the concept of the MOOC is restricted to those “delivered” by the likes of Coursera or Udacity, then I would urge you to go back to grass roots and read some of what you might find, for instance, in MOOC.ca, set up by Stephen Downes to host news, information, and discussion around the concept, in the writings of George Siemens, Dave Cormier, already mentioned, and others. Open, experimental, and connectivist in nature, the MOOC is an explicit and conscious attempt to use the incredible affordances offered by the Internet to change the nature of education.
The massive-ness, openness, and online-ness of the MOOC all are givens, of course, and all are critical to the effect that the development is having at the present time. But I, for one, am less sure that the course-ness of the concept has to be a given too. I would recognise that the fact that the MOOC is built around the course is probably what is keeping the concept fairly firmly within the broad arms of higher education, for the moment at least. As Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University in the U.K., has written, “After a decade of OERs [open educational resources], it’s interesting that we’re coming back to educator constructed courses.…”
Think Classroom instead of Course?
When I look at the situation faced by those millions of children worldwide, in a context of potential massive global connectedness, and yet in circumstances where so many of them have no access to good teaching, I can’t but help wonder how the MOOC might be taken, reshaped, and made into something that could begin to ameliorate some of the worst effects of that generally awful situation.
I recognise, of course that such a simply stated change is, in fact, anything but simple. The course is a generally uncomplicated thing, usually (although by no means necessarily) a linear, structured, comprehensible process in which ideas or concepts or information are introduced, discussed, dissected, reshaped, combined, understood; it can be a single unit of “instruction” or a whole programme of learning, or something in between; and it can be delivered or presented (taught) by a single teacher or in some senses by everyone on the course (as the original conception of the MOOC seeks to achieve).
The classroom–even the virtual, conceptual classroom–is a quite different beast. It is a “place,” a platform; it is the site where courses can happen, where teachers can offer lessons across all disciplines, where learners can go to access learning, debate, insight, expertise, authority; it is a meeting place in which education can happen; it is the locus for teaching and learning activities of all kinds.
I believe we have many, perhaps most, of the elements already that would have to be brought together to create the MOOCl. Instinctively, however, I feel that a MOOCl would not be nearly as simple as a MOOC to start up and sustain. It would require an operational core of a kind and scale that is probably not true of the MOOC, although that operational core, I would suggest, need not be a single organizing unit: it could be an open, distributed affair, sympathetic to the origins of the MOOC. It should offer access to masses of great teaching and learning resources. The Khan Academy is an obvious example of what could be utilised, but so too could the thousands of other high-quality, freely available teaching and learning resources that increasingly throng the web, and across so many of the world’s major, and not-so-major, languages.
So Far, So What?
All of these resources are available today. But the MOOCl would have to incorporate some kind of organizing layer, a simple interface that would allow any individual anywhere in the world not only to access the resources as such but also to access courses, communities, teachers (who can be, and probably will be, other learners), expertise, and guidance. The MOOCl might also be a device for those teachers who already are on the ground, so to speak, in the poorest countries, to grab hold of and use as a means of enhancing their own teaching expertise. The MOOCl would be the teacher’s global mentor, guide, teaching assistant, just as much as it would be the learner’s teacher too.
Again, you might say, this sounds like a description of the World Wide Web. But the MOOCl would have to be more than simply “available”: It would have to be set up in a way that would allow it reach out in a proactive way, to find its way into those places in the world where we know there are young children who currently have few or no teachers to help them learn, where there are few or no teaching and learning resources. This will require much thought, huge organization, and of course investment. Is there a role here for the big philanthropic foundations as well as governments? I believe so.
But what of access to the network, access to connected devices? Of course, the MOOCl would have to be capable of being used across the world’s mobile networks and accessible on mobile devices. Gordon Brown’s report tells us that mobile cellular penetration has reached 50% in the developing world and is still increasing fast. The cell phone is the default access device for many millions of people in the world’s poorest countries, and that is likely to be the case for many years to come.
How much of this can be done in the same spirit as the original MOOC? I don’t know. I suspect not much, but I would love to be proved wrong. I know I am merely scratching the surface with an undeveloped and potentially stillborn idea–but if the acute minds of thoughtful and creative people can come up with the MOOC, I would like to think those same and other minds could be applied to how we can turn the Massive Open Online Course into the Massive Open Online Classroom to serve the desperate, desperate needs of so many millions of children in dire economic and educational poverty across the world.