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MOOCs and the language barrier: is open education not so open after all?

For many educators, the dream feels tantalisingly close: free, quality education for everyone in the world. The arrival of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs led to predictions of a great new age of…

Does it matter if most Massive Open Online Courses are in English? Language image from

For many educators, the dream feels tantalisingly close: free, quality education for everyone in the world. The arrival of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs led to predictions of a great new age of democratic learning. One in which anybody, anywhere, can go online and access courses from some of the world’s best universities at no cost.

But there could be a wrinkle in this utopian plan. There is a fear that the English language could dominate MOOCs and ultimately lock out a good many millions from the benefits on offer.

These fears are simplistic. Why? Because they overlook the real linguistic state of the world and its relationship to knowledge.

The big, bad English language

As I discuss in a new book, we should dispense with the idea of English as a fearful “hegemon”. Too often, anxiety over the spread of the English language is really about dislike of American power.

English has been put in place as a global language by a host of historical forces, ranging from British colonialism to World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today it is actively chosen, not imposed.

Compare this with other tongues around the globe, including Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese. These languages together cover two-thirds of the inhabited world but all were spread by military conquest, colonial expansion, and, in some cases, religion by the sword and the book.

Yet we do not speak of Spanish as a “hegemon” in Latin America. Or of Arabic in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

English also comes at the end of a long line of great lingua franca that have had major impacts on human knowledge — Latin, Persian, Chinese, Sanskrit and Arabic to name a few. On the negative side, these lingua franca often suppressed scholarship in more local tongues. On the positive side, however, they greatly advanced knowledge by acting as nourishing media, combining the scholarship of many cultures.

They also acted as internationalising forces. A brilliant pupil drawn to the sciences in 10th century Kazakhstan or Spain had to know Arabic so he could travel to a centre of learning and study with high level scholars.

There are similarities with MOOCs today. Technology is such that knowledge and learning can “travel” throughout the world to students with an internet connection. This certainly makes the situation much easier than having to travel hundreds of kilometres on foot and horseback. But it doesn’t at all alter the role of a shared language.

Some have proposed that the importance of English will be short-lived, due to advances in computer translation. But after 60 years of debates among linguists, translators, and computer specialists, this seems unlikely. It may be possible by mid-century for simple oral communication, but not for more complex written and spoken material, such as that in science or literature.

For the foreseeable future, English will continue as a global tongue.

Too exclusive?

But if MOOCs are almost exclusively in English, doesn’t that restrict access to online education?

English is already entirely dominant in the sciences, engineering, and medicine. Without it, one is handicapped. This is less true in the humanities, with the social sciences probably in between.

At the moment, MOOCs are “agents” for English and for American-style teaching - including a more relaxed, friendly style of lecturing, plus student-centered activities, collaboration, and networking. This is inevitable, given where the technology was born. But if it had begun in Japan or Germany, however, English would still likely be chosen as the main language, given that a large international audience is targeted.

Right now, according to Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, one of the main MOOC providers, at least 60% of MOOC registrants have come from non-Anglophone countries, with few complaints about language. We can assume these students know English fairly well or wish to improve.

Spreading the word

English may dominate, but that doesn’t mean free online education providers can’t improve their reach. There are several ways they could have a wider audience. For example, for many subjects it makes perfect sense to use subtitles, but allow the option to remove them where needed. This is much cheaper than translation and offers more flexibility.

This won’t work for everyone though. Some more advanced courses in medicine for example should not have subtitles. And for some humanities subjects, such as teaching foreign languages or literatures, MOOCs could be translated into native tongues with large potential audiences (Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi for example).

Beyond these options, MOOCs could be leased to local providers who could have them translated or voiced over in the national language.

The situation is dynamic, however. As every teacher knows, no course is ever final in form. So MOOC makers need to keep on their toes if they’re going speak to the world.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    The article suggests students want to study in English, since it's the lingua franca - but on the one hand, MOOCs need to consider non-English speakers if they’re going to 'speak to the world'.

    So is the aim of the article to give advice to universities in anglophone countries? There's an implication it's up to the US or Australia to consider the language of delivery to 'improve the reach' of MOOCs. But there's nothing stopping a Brazilian or Chinese university delivering a MOOC in Portuguese or Chinese, if students want it.

    1. Mark Reid

      Principal Consultant at Mahout Strategies P/L at SME Manufacturing

      In reply to James Jenkin

      I agree with James and Mark above, but English comprehension is not only an issue for MOOCs. It is also a hurdle for many foreign students enrolled in business courses in Australia. I am an occasional sessional lecturer in Business Studies, and have done several MOOC courses on other subject, out of curiosity.
      I don’t know how it goes in other disciplines, but non-English speakers comprise about 60% of students in the classes I have taught. Looking around a class I can tell which students haven’t…

      Read more
  2. Mark King

    Senior Lecturer, Psychology and Counselling and Researcher, CARRSQ at Queensland University of Technology

    I think that what is often obscured is the reason students enrol in MOOCs. It's not really about learning - because there is a wealth of information around the world that can be accessed - but about qualifications or (at the least) a legitimised "menu" of knowledge. Once this merry-go-round of recognition of quals and status of provider are entered, English becomes important because of the institutions with good reputations, the prospects for employment in well-paying jobs and so forth.

    If you're living in China and have no ambition to go beyond China (just as most Australian students don't see an overseas future for themselves) a Chinese-language MOOC would be fine - as long as it had a good enough reputation. If "English" = "higher reputation", as it does now, MOOCs in English will be pursued for benefits that are not really about learning.

    1. Rebecca Yee

      Research engineer

      In reply to Mark King

      Having lived in China for a few years, the cultural mindset in China of "English = better education" is incredibly strong. Every student in China with even an inkling of hope for a better life wants to improve their English. The culture is such that it is extremely rare to find a Chinese student that has no ambition to go beyond China.

    2. Michelle Bourke
      Michelle Bourke is a Friend of The Conversation.

      CEO at Artlivemedia

      In reply to Mark King

      Great point Mark. I'm actually doing a couple of courses on Coursera at the moment - one with Tel Aviv University and another with the University of Maryland - in physiology and plant biology respectively.

      There are actually a few Chinese courses on Coursera with English subtitles, but the Merry go round doesn't swing the other way. I think ultimately, big powerhouse economies like China and growing economies like the Middle East, South America and India all have the technical knowledge ...we just don't hear about their MOOCS because they aren't english!

      I know our Indian developer from Tamil Nadu has created MOOCS software for Indian schools - so the problem is not the accessibility of courseware to those living in LOTE countries, but simply that - just like US and UK based universities don't translate to multiple languages, similarly those countries wouldn't translate to English.

  3. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

    Isn't "globalization" still the mantra? And it requires a global language to work effectively, for which English is way ahead as the obvious candidate. Two thousand years ago, it was Latin, and look at all the languages it spawned!

  4. Chris Jensen

    Ground-Up Initiative

    What concerns me more about MOOC's is how the discussion of them equates the transfer of knowledge with education.

    MOOC's are a wonderful tool for spreading knowledge and will help to even out the knowledge imbalance in the world of education, but giving knowledge is not education.

    We run experiential learning programmes with high achieving students who _know_ a lot, but when put into practice, when put under stress, much of what they know, particularly when it comes to practical and social skills, is not evident.

    We must not forget the role of education in shaping children into young adults - that goes beyond knowledge.

  5. John Canning

    Professor at University of Sydney

    If books (ebooks) can be translated into multiple languages why wouldn't there be a translators industry in doing likewise for MOOCS? I don't think this is something to be particularly concerned about unless you want to take advantage and get in there first and make a killing given there is probably a market for this, if not now soon. There's my free business advice folks!

  6. Rasha Morgan

    logged in via Facebook

    i need english conversation course online