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

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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