Unleashing the Learner: Massive Open Online Courses and the Decolonization of Education

There is a sea change under way in higher education, and it’s not in the ways that traditional universities think about themselves or do business. It’s not in the admissions requirements or policies of the elite universities. And you won’t find it spelled out in any new theory of learning.

It is a shift of power and autonomy from the institution to the learner due to emergent developments in free online learning. And it signifies an important step toward the decolonization of education.

In this emerging model, the self-directed, lifelong learner is empowered to create a rich learning mix that might include local wisdom, job experience, volunteer work, and skills training, in combination with free college courses taught online by professors and thought leaders at some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, while building community with other learners, local to global.”

The idea of education at a distance is certainly not new. In Europe, the earliest correspondence courses by mail taught foreign languages and shorthand in the 1850s. The University of London offered the first distance learning degree in 1858. Phonographic records, radio, television, cable, and videocassette, each in their turn, provided content to learners until finally, with the Internet, the eLearning industry boomed. By 2011, nearly 12,000 college-level courses in the US were designed to be completed online.

Yet, despite the apparent variety, course content, structure, and expectations remained rigid. The teacher-centered didactic model of education, virtually unchanged for centuries, remained the norm: the teacher as the primary agent in learning and the student as the passive trusting receptor.

This is changing. The sudden availability and popularity of free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), offered by many prestigious universities, has fueled learner-led innovation at every step of the learning process, including course development; collaboration, sharing, remixing of course content; and self-organization of learning communities through forums, social media, and live meetups.

At a recent conference at the Hague World Forum for the strategic partners of Coursera, the world’s largest MOOC provider serving more than 30 million learners, Silicon Valley millennial staffers mixed with the top brass of elite US universities. Slick videos profiled individual learners who have used MOOCs to profoundly change the direction of their lives: an unknown young female composer in China elevated to national attention; a single mother in the UK who doubled her salary by taking a series of courses on data and metrics; a dying man who found solace and meaning through his online studies. The theme of the conference—transformation.

Yet, even more transformational is the rise of self-organized learning communities. Learners self-organize in ways that allow them to pursue passions, network, and improvise. Some take the same course multiple times and become course mentors to others. Many meet routinely with other students and course alumni in their own cities and towns. Lifelong connections get formed, reinforced through social media.

It is important to remember however, that MOOC delivery platforms like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity and many others are businesses, still trying to work out profit-making models, (edX is the one nonprofit exception), and their partners are university administrators—responsible in large part for skyrocketing tuition costs and the college debt crisis many young people face today. Western education is in many ways still a tool for capitalism and neocolonialism. It upholds a model of learning based on hierarchy and individual learning, where students do not normally work together and individual authorship is sacrosanct.

Western higher education has spread these values of individualism around the globe through satellite colleges and research institutions. Even universities in other countries are founded on this Western ideal. Students from cultures that are traditionally more collective in nature—for example, Japan—are compelled to work in a system where individual achievement is the only form of measurement.

So, it is not surprising that MOOCs still center on the professor as the primary ‘expert’ and emphasize completion of courses as the main indicator of learner ‘success.’

Yet, power is slowly shifting to the learner. Anyone can pick and choose the parts of courses that interest them—maybe just the videos or the forums—and simply re-enroll to have access to all course resources. And for many, the online learning experience is more empowering than attending class on a typical college campus. For one thing, a learner is less likely to be judged by age, appearance, accent, ethnicity, gender, size, or any of the other more subtle forms of exclusion. There is a focus and directness to text communication in forums that is refreshingly honest, open, and egalitarian with frequent flashes of brilliance by contributors who might otherwise get lost in a vast impersonal lecture hall.

In a free and self-paced course, one can take the needed time to master challenging content, especially if there are cultural or language barriers. Indeed, there are active communities of learners who volunteer to translate popular courses for their compatriots and to act as tutors. Most importantly, small cohorts learn from one another. Rich multicultural crosscurrents develop. Teams take on projects, co-learn, and grade one another’s work. In real-life classrooms, these kinds of fruitful interactions are actually more rare. Finally, learners can log in where and when they like—after the kids go to bed, in the middle of the night, in a coffee shop, even on a smartphone, and connect with their cohort.

Although MOOCs themselves are free, most offer ‘certificates of course completion’ or virtual badges for completing clusters of specialty courses. These virtual credentials cost under a hundred dollars in most cases.

One thing is certain, higher education is no longer confined to the learner’s early twenties. Learning is lifelong. There are literally thousands of courses to choose from, reviewed and ranked by people who have taken them at

The most popular MOOC on Earth, “Learning How to Learn,” isn’t offered on campus. It has had millions of enrollments. Created by Barbara Oakley, an electrical engineer at Oakland University, in her own DIY basement studio, and Terry Sejnowski, a neuroscientist, the course has gained a global cult following. Among the thousands of fan letters Oakley receives is one that simply reads: “You have saved my life… seriously.”

Another popular course from the University of Pennsylvania, Modern Contemporary Poetry (ModPo for short), features webcasts by Al Filreis and his teaching assistants, often from a kitchen. A live call-in show, part of the course, brings poetry learners from around the world into dialogue. It is described by many as ‘intimate,’ despite an average of 30,000 learners being enrolled at any one time. Close personal friendships have resulted and many students take the course again and again.

This is not to say that every course experience will offer such rich interactions or that all learners have the time, luxury, or desire to pursue deep personal connection. Yet, it points to a possible new way of ‘showing up’ in the world as a lifelong learner. And it implies a tremendous new level of access and autonomy for people who long for higher education and may not have the means or opportunity to access it otherwise.

Traditionally, to attend a four-year institution meant graduating with a degree along with a heavy dose of indoctrination to that instiution’s prevailing socio-political mindset. For many in the ‘developing’ world, a degree from a Western institution was seen as the holy grail of education and the only sure means of achieving career recognition.

Today, a self-directed learner can get on the radar of top recruiters who monitor MOOCs in search of the best and the brightest. Top participants in discussion forums who voice fresh perspectives— receive likes and followers and bubble up to the top of the list. Those who are more tentative at first have an opportunity to learn a great deal from their peers and can practice in the forums to develop their own voices. There is great respect generally for regional perspectives and for those who are taking the course under adverse conditions—say, from a refugee camp. The stories of individual learner’s struggles can be quite riveting and students often learn a healthy dose of compassion along with course content.

What it means is that learners have new opportunities to take courses, or parts of courses, from any institution in the world and to combine them in any way they wish with other forms of learning to develop their own personal learning ‘mixtape’ in the form of an online learning portfolio. In time, encrypted virtual credentials, peer ratings, references, and a personal webpage may be seen as more legitimate indicators of expertise than the one-page paper resume listing degrees and GPAs.”

It is predicted that those entering careers today will change those careers numerous times in their working lives. The new learner has an opportunity to create a stellar mosaic, combining the wisdom of his or her local teachers, elders, mentors, and co-workers with a community of teachers and learners from around the world.

How to harness that sky full of stars and constellate them into a coherent knowledge base of skills and specializations will be entirely up to the learner.

Rowan Baber contributed to this article.