The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) has changed how we educate. Across many developed countries, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is enabling pupils to walk among dinosaurs, ipads are being used for research and coding classes are being delivered to pupils from aged six.

However, as the prevalence of these innovations grows, so too does the global digital divide. Consequently, communities that are not online are drawn further away from the technological cutting edge, preventing them from enjoying the benefits that innovation can bring.

According to the World Bank Group, improving education systems could reduce ‘absolute poverty’ by 30%. For example, their research shows that in less developed countries, for every US$1 invested in an additional year of schooling, earnings increase by US$5. In addition, the report found that if workers from low-socio-economic backgrounds have the same education as their advantaged counterparts, the disparity in working poverty would shrink by 39%.

Understanding this issue, a new segment of education has emerged, bringing the benefit of technology to less developed countries and communities. ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs) are free online courses available for anyone to enrol. They provide an affordable and flexible way to learn new skills and deliver quality educational experiences at scale. According to Class Central, the modern MOOC movement reached 101 million learners in 2018, including 20 million new learners.

One such MOOC company is Coursera headquartered in California, USA. Coursera offers both free and paid-for distance learning courses, run by 150 universities across 29 countries. Currently, 45% of their 24 million users are from developing countries. By bringing online learning to less developed communities, they are able to make high-quality education and training accessible to all, improving learning outcomes, driving local economies and relieving poverty. “The founding vision of Coursera was to make the world’s best education available to anyone, anywhere, regardless of their circumstances. We’re a scale play” said Rick Levin, CEO of Coursera.

The private sector is also looking at how it can contribute to philanthropic activities in remote learning. For example in March 2017, announced $50 million of funding for edtech nonprofits. “We’ve seen there’s a role for technology to play in creating a richer learning environment, but only if we can get all teachers and students really benefiting from it,” said Brigitte Hoyer-Gosselink, education lead at The funding will be focused on three areas in which the organisation believes technology can improve education in developing countries:

  1. Providing access to quality learning materials
  2. Training and engaging teachers
  3. Helping students in crisis and conflict zones.

Key to ensuring these and other similar efforts succeed, is tackling the pre-existing barriers to education. According to Acumen, which offers free online courses via +Acumen, there are three main structural issues that can prevent students in developing countries from accessing online courses:

  1. Technology and internet connectivity
  2. Language barriers
  3. Cultural relevance of the coursework

Tackling the first issue of connectivity, efforts must be made to bring technology to those who are currently without. For instance, according to the ITU, in developed countries, the proportion of households with internet access at home is twice as high as in developing countries, as only 15% of households in less developed countries have internet access at home. Instead, the growth of smart phones with cheap internet plans has been significant.

Understanding that mobile is often how less privileged people access the internet, organisations such as Coursera have constructed a mobile app that offers a similar experience to its website in order to expand its reach in developing countries. Other online learning platforms such as Udemy, NovoEd and EdX are also becoming mobile compatible, helping people learn even if educational infrastructure is lacking.

To combat the issue of language barriers in teaching material, companies such as Acumen have designed courses that can be downloaded as PDF files for students unable to stream them. These materials include transcripts of all course videos and case studies are drawn from a variety of cultural contexts so that learners have relatable examples. As a result, the Acumen+ courses are downloaded across the world from Botswana, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Amy Ahearn, manager of online learning design at Acumen said; “Rather than making our pedagogy lecture-based, it’s designed to be applied to the participant’s own work and challenges, so there is a lot of flexibility for adaptation.”

This model is also being used in Rwanda where Kepler students are learning from a mix of online content from global universities and local seminars taught in person. In addition, Mozilla, a non-profit organisation devoted to the free and open web recently partnered with UN Women to launch ‘women-teaching-women’ events in South Africa and Kenya, where it delivers an online learning platform that is complemented by in-person learning.

There is an argument, however, that even these online courses are now outdated. Some believe that personalisation is key to improving education in less developed countries, and that this is the next step in education in a 4IR world. For example, The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative champions personalised learning, where technology is used to tailor instruction to the needs of individual learners. In addition, apps such as Byju’s, an edtech startup in India, maps the competencies of students using algorithms to adapt the learning experience by providing tailored content.

In order for online education to realise its full potential in the developing world, the mechanics of delivering learning need to shift. Despite the challenges involved, MOOCs have demonstrated that they offer valuable educational opportunities to millions of potential students and will only continue to evolve as time goes on. Already, colleges and universities are considering accreditation. To evolve however, investment in personalised and tailored content that is relevant to remote, rural or less developed communities must increase to ensure it remains a relevant and effective form of learning.

According to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26, ‘Everyone has the right to education.’ “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.” Consequently, education is more important than simply ‘learning’, it is about preparing the world’s citizens’, no matter where they live, for a future based on peace and prosperity.

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