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MOOCs, Touted as an Avenue to Educate Anyone, Leave English Learners Behind

By Henry Kronk
October 04, 2017

With the increasing popularity of the online degree and the widespread availability of massive open online courses (MOOCs), the barriers to entry for higher education haven’t just eroded; they’ve tumbled down. Enrollees have the freedom to complete classes on his or her own schedule from a remote location for a fraction of the cost of the same class in a traditional college setting.

We reported in September how this has created a truly diverse online student body. In a time when minorities go underrepresented on college campuses, they are actually overrepresented in online programs.

MOOCs have proven indispensable in education initiatives all over the world, like teaching agricultural practices in remote communities, aiding nuclear energy programs in Latin America, or providing programs for people stationed at sea.

But there’s an issue that often goes unspoken when teaching a diverse student body: most MOOCs are taught exclusively in English.

The MOOC experience for English learners

It goes without saying that, if English is not your first language, learning a new subject on a popular digital platform which uses primarily text-based communication might not be a walk in the park. They face unique challenges that most evaluators fail to take into account.

According to Allan McKinnon, associate professor of education at Simon Fraser University writing with M.A. candidate Emma MacFarlane for The Conversation, “Language minority students are disadvantaged by having to adhere to dominant Western structures of writing in online discussion forums, their only opportunity to interact with peers in the course. Online discussion forums are often graded to the same academic standards as formal essays. Minority students may struggle to communicate using only the academic English that is required.”

Discussion participation comes on top of quizzes, tests, and essays. It seems likely that even a fluent speaker could struggle in this scenario. Someone with intermediate reading and writing skills might fail online when they could pass in person.

As English becomes further entrenched as the global language, MOOC providers and educators might take into account how ELLs learn and how the language is taught when designing a course.

How do we teach language?

Unfortunately, this might be a tricky problem. As educator Robert Cooper points out, the way instructors teach a language varies widely and often is decided primarily on his or her own unconscious biases.

MOOCS, ESL learners“To some extent,” writes Cooper, “the inconsistencies which may be found lurking among our assumptions are due to the fact that many of our beliefs about language and learning are unexamined or implicit. That is, we operate on the basis of implicit assumptions in much the same way that speakers of English produce and understand English sentences-without explicit knowledge or conscious awareness of the rules constraining performance.”

Some efforts have been made to be more conscious of this issue in certain MOOCs. Edx, for example, offers courses designed to help ELL students improve their writing. Many courses have also been established to help educators themselves better connect with English-learners.

But between the current state of MOOCs and the general approach to teaching English—at least in North America—a gap still exists that will take a lot of work to bridge.

A big issue lies in the fact that most language courses prioritizes speech and sound. Robert Cooper describes this as the audiolingual approach, writing, “it places great emphasis on speech, not only as a goal of instruction but also as the medium of instruction … [L]istening is taught before speaking, and listening and speaking are taught before reading and writing, when a given item, structure, or pattern is introduced.”

In other words, the predominant method of teaching English in North America departs the kind of knowledge needed to succeed in a MOOC last.

The growing reliance on video in online learning has the potential to solve this dilemma. The video app offered by Canvas LMS, Arc, allows students to respond to lectures and slide-shows with videos of their own.

In a recent text on multilingual education, Suresh Canagarajah advocated for the establishment of “Safe Houses,” or forums were English learners enrolled in online courses could express themselves more freely in a class context without worrying about writing with 100% grammatical perfection.

Many educators still do not give this issue their full attention, or worse, “operate on the basis of implicit assumptions.” But awareness is growing, and the MOOC as a form of education continues to evolve.