(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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Reflections on the possibilities and potentials of the Arab MOOC Edraak

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We just had a couple of energizing and inspiring days in my university, as the makers of the first non-profit Arab MOOC, Edraak were visiting us.

I had first met the people behind this initiative (online) when they read an article I had written about MOOCs, where I said that while MOOCs were a great development in openness and access, they were not really benefitting the whole world because
a. They privilege English language speakers,
b. They increase the (colonial) Westernization of knowledge, and
c. They privilege people who can get online most easily, if at all (this covers both infrastructure and tech skill).

Well, with the upcoming launch of Edraak at least we are on the way to solving the first two of these issues for the Arab world. First, by offering MOOCs in Arabic, and second, by providing knowledge from the Arab world, to both the Arab world and some MOOCs in English by Arabs about the Arab world, to give more voice to Arab scholarship worldwide. It has been an energizing two days.

I posted about my excitement on the rhizo14 facebook group, and got some really interesting responses (some very nuanced and critical) to which this blog post is my reflective response.

But before I do that, Vanessa Vaile (also in rhizo14 and futureed) pointed me to this interesting and reflective critique of Cathy Davidson’s use of an aboriginal in one of her videos on FutureEd (the author, Kate, is someone in both rhizo14 and futureed but whom I had not read before).

The important thing for me, here, is to point out that including anecdotes about other cultures (or in Cathy Davidson’s case, images) when you know little of these cultures, is not truly including their knowledge within your own, as an equally valid and valuable knowkledge. It is a good effort, and i applaud it, I do, but it is marginal, incidental, and does not truly make your content more culturally relevant. Culturally relevant pedagogy brings in the alternate (i.e. non-dominant) culture (of the learners) using the voices of the people of that culture (whether learners or external others), in ways that would empower learners to both be proud of their own culture and its contribution to knowledge, and critique it, to continue to learn about the dominant culture in order to survive in this world, but also to critique it in order to challenge the status quo (these ideas from Shor and Freire’s Pedagogy for Liberation). While I find much of the content in FutureEd to be US-centric, some of the activities (e.g. An international timeline of higher ed) do practice better inclusion.

If one wants the content of their course or MOOC to be truly representative of a multiplicity of cultures, I believe this would entail either the inclusion of individuals from those cultures in the course design, or at least including individuals very closely familiar with those cultures. An even better way, if you don’t have access to all that diversity, is to draw participants in, ask them to create their own content for your course, using their own context. This sounds easier than it is, if your own content as instructor is more privileged, better seen by students. But that is why a course like rhizo14 does this well: Dave (the course instructor) posts very little, and his posts are sparks to get the rest of us going. Content is not centered around him, but the content is produced by the participants and hence represents their diversity. There are other ways in which Rhizo14 is not as representative or open to all: it would be difficult to participate fully if you did not have the tech skill and comfort to use social media and interact with others online with that intensity. You may get something useful for your learning, but not a full experience of the course. All communication in rhizo14 is also in English (with the occasional French thrown in) – and that of course excludes many potential participants.

Now… Back to the Arab MOOC. There are three different kinds* of courses that will be offered. I start with the one that excites me the most: courses by Arab for Arabs in Arabic. This gives voice and space to the Arab world in the MOOCverse. Yes, Arab higher ed is sometimes supposedly free (but see this article on why it is actually costly). There is something to be said for the potential of Arabs of all kinds (including some women who cannot leave home to further their learning) to have access to free educational opportunities like this one.

Another thing Edraak are planning to do is to offer some already-existing EdX MOOCs in Arabic. This is my least favorite idea, but I can understand how some Arabs may find it beneficial. It sounds impressive to be able to take a Harvard or MIT MOOC. I never thought it was particularly impressive, since the MOOC doesn’t in any way (that I can see) approximate a real Harvard or MIT education, and offering these MOOCs (in whatever language) branded that way sort of deceives people into thinking they might be experiencing something close to the real thing. I am not saying MOOC providers are dishonest. Just that the hype around MOOCs can be deceptive.

The third option Edraak plans to offer is English language MOOCs taught by Arab instructors. This addresses the issue with Western/Anglo MOOCs in that it represents the Arab voice by Arabs.

Now I need to say that my enthusiasm is tempered by several important cautions:
1. I hope the Arab MOOC does not recreate the cycle of privilege of Western top-tier universities, by offering courses only by Arab professors from the top-tier Arab (and often also Westernized) universities. This is likely to be the start, but hopefully not all there is to it. Again, doing a MOOC with a prestigious university of any kind is not akin to studying at that university for credit

2. Arabic as a language is very complex in that the written form (Modern Standard Arabic) is completely different from the spoken (colloquial) form, which in turn is very different for each country and even sometimes different areas within a country. These colloquial dialects are often incomprehensible to Arabs unexposed to them. This means a possible hegemony of the Egyptian and/or Lebanese dialects that are common in popular media and familiar to Arabs worldwide. On the other hand, using Modern Standard Arabic throughout is complicated because first, few people (at least in Egypt) are comfortable speaking it accurately – so this might pose a problem for lecturers. Second, because it feels “distant” to learners and more difficult for the less educated. What about readings? These are all questions on the table and being reflected upon.

3. What about social media and more connectivist approaches to MOOCs? I am hoping some will take this approach, or a mixed approach such as the one used in edcmooc (and one where content is not lecture-based but a combination of relevant readings and videos already online as in edcmooc). Arab youth are already quite engaged with social media, as the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution have shown. The MOOC instructors might not be, though, but I think this should not stop the participants from harnessing social media for learning. I think encouraging their use, even if the teacher doesn’t get too closely involved (but maybe the TAs can be?) can do wonders for creating community.

4. The whole open online education thing is less “open” than we like to believe and an Arab (or any global south) option does not solve these two problems: first, the need for infrastructure, that maybe absent in some areas, but for those who have weak infrastructure, principles of universal design may help ensure alternatives are considered (e.g. Transcripts for videos that may take too long to play/download; synchronous sessions being not required and watchable later). Second, the need for the learner to both have the technical skills to be able to access the learning material, andthe technical ability and disposition to learn online, when online might previously have meant socializing on facebook or browsing without intention or gaming.

5. Back to the issue of women: some women in the region are privileged and can do all manner of things including traveling to learn abroad. Others have some privilege but are restricted by circumstances such as responsibilities caring for their children. This second group can benefit greatly from the flexibility of a free MOOC. However, there remains a portion for whom getting online remains an issue (even if the household continues to have access) for social reasons, and these remain excluded.

I don’t even think I have begun to cover all the issues here. But it is a start to both recognizing the empowerment potential and critiquing the hype and possible pitfalls one can fall into if we are not careful.

Note: some of these ideas came out of conversations with the Edraak providers as well as conversations on fb with rhizo14 participants.

* Note added Feb 22: the way I have categorized the courses here is different from the way Edraak categorize them. Their three categories are as follows
1. Arabic language university MOOCs (either original content from Arab professors, or translated and re-contextualized from existing EdX MOOCs)
2. Arabic language vocational MOOCs taught by Arab role models who are not academics
3. English language MOOCs by Arab presenting the Arab perspective to the world

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Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

5 thoughts on “Reflections on the possibilities and potentials of the Arab MOOC Edraak

  1. Dear Dr. Maha,

    Do you know bout Rwaq? It’s been online since September 2013. An amazing Arabic MOOC worth visiting.

    • Dear Ramzy, yes, I heard about Rwaq but had not visited them yet. They are the first Arab MOOC platform I guess, but Edraak are the first non-profit one, and this blogpost reflects on them because they were visiting us recently and we were able to discuss some of these issues.

  2. Wow, really interesting post Maha – so many aspects: social, cultural, language, class, infrastructure that is very rarely if ever put on the agenda in discussions of MOOCs. Having read a couple of perspectives from rhizo14 participants (Heli’s, yours) I’m coming to realise just how first world westernised middle class the commentary on MOOCs is – thanks for opening up the discussion. Fascinating also to know about the complexities of the Arab language – re text being different to speech, and the regional dialect variances (which I believe is quite common amongst quite a few languages – i.e. regional dialects, at least where they haven’t died out altogether).
    How would this work in the context of a MOOC? I assume it would mean any text would be the written form, and video or audio would be the spoken/ colloquial Arabic…?

    • Hey Tanya, yes, it will most likely be like that (text in written Arabic, spoken in colloquial, though some ppl won’t understand each others’ colloquial). Thanks for coming back to this post – it generated fb discussion rather than here at the time, and was re-published in edited form in a magazine of Arab higher ed… So most of the discussion on it has been scattered 🙂 nice to have more discussion on it right here 🙂

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