What Happens When People in Pakistan Start Taking MIT Classes?

Massive online courses known as MOOCs are opening up elite education opportunities for those who wouldn't otherwise have them.
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Men learn how to use computers in a classroom in Gulibagh in Pakistan's Swat valley on April 13, 2012. (Reuters)

It's more than 11,000 kilometers from Shakargarh, a city in northeastern Pakistan, to the venerated halls of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the top universities in the United States.

Twenty-five-year-old Khalid Raza lives in Shakargarh but is taking "The Challenges of Global Poverty," a course taught by a former adviser to the World Bank and a professor of international economics at MIT.

Recently, while on the bus, he pulled out his laptop and submitted one of his first assignments.

"It was an amazing experience when I was submitting my assignment," he said. "I was traveling and my friend was sitting with me. When I submitted my assignment, after some time he asked me a question, 'What are you doing?' So I told him the whole story, that I am taking a course from the U.S.A. He was so surprised and shocked."

The experience -- something Raza says he never thought would be possible -- doesn't cost him a single rupee. All he needed was the interest and an Internet connection to reserve his seat in a virtual MIT classroom.

Raza is one of the several million learners worldwide to have discovered "massive open online courses," or MOOCs. While a number of universities attempted to introduce free online courses in the early 2000s, MOOCs have only begun to catch fire in the last year. Today, the silly-sounding acronym has become a buzz word, and is one of the hottest topics in education.

A group of U.S. education technology startups, in partnership with dozens of top U.S. universities, now offers MOOCs on everything from poetry to physics. Course platforms feature lecture videos, other multimedia content, embedded quizzes, discussion boards, and online study groups. Essays and other projects less suited to automated grading are reviewed by classmates based on rubrics. Interaction with professors and teaching assistants is rare. Completing a course earns you a certificate, and several U.S. schools have begun to accept MOOCs for credit.

The startups' founders say their goals are at once practical and humanistic -- an effort to overcome rising education costs and a shortage of resources and make top-quality learning accessible to the masses.

Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor, is the president of edX, a nonprofit collaboration between his university and Harvard University that currently offers more than 60 MOOCs.

He believes his and similar projects are nothing short of transformative.

"I think education is not going to be the same ever again," Agarwal says. "I really describe this technology and MOOCs as the biggest revolution in education since the printing press -- and that happened 500 years ago."

Other, more impartial observers have high hopes for MOOCS, too. But given their novelty, some assessments are more cautious. Critics point to the courses' high dropout rates, the lack of face-to-face interaction, and the risk that the for-profit companies offering MOOCs may one day begin charging students if they fail to secure other revenue sources.

Presented by

Richard Solash is a reporter with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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