BEIRUT: The acronym MOOC found its way into the Oxford Online Dictionary this month, and is fast earning familiarity across the Arabic-speaking world too.
History at Harvard, economics at Columbia and mathematics at Stanford can now be studied simultaneously and free of charge. Massive Open Online Courses have over the past half-decade cracked the shell of private university elitism and given students around the world access to top-notch classes, while other Internet forums have compiled tutorials delivered by experts to make almost anything learnable on the Web.
Curious individuals and resourceful students across the world have turned to such resources to fill gaps in their knowledge and abilities, with some of the courses moving beyond providing simple access and instituting mechanisms whereby students can both be assessed and awarded certificates to evidence their participation.
Hassan Kanj is one of the biggest proponents of online learning in Lebanon. His passion for it is such that in conjunction with his partner Firas Wazneh, Kanj is in the process of developing Menaversity, an Arabic-language open online learning platform for the Middle East.
“Once free high-quality online courses started to emerge, it was like heaven for me,” Kanj says
Kanj, a computer science graduate, took his first online class when he needed to learn product photography for a startup company he was working on. He did so for two reasons: He didn’t have the budget for “a real course” and he didn’t know if such a thing was taught in Lebanon.
He has since taken a variety of classes in photography, business development and programming.
Kanj says that he pursues online classes not so much for the certificates some offer, but in order to acquire skills and knowledge he needs for the work he is doing.
For instance, he says computer science degrees across the world have roughly 60 percent overlapping content, but that the remaining 40 percent differs from university to university. Kanj has used MOOCs to explore aspects of his university major not taught at the institute he physically attended.
“MOOCs have helped me a lot in my business and skills,” he says, adding that he is currently taking a “Grow your own business” course through coursera.org, one of the most formalized MOOC platforms.
“I totally recommend Coursera,” Kanj continues, commending its “high quality content.”
While he says MOOCs can’t possibly replace the human interaction and classroom energy of physically attending a university, Kanj also points out that one of the enjoyable aspects of doing a MOOC is participating in the online forums that accompany many of these courses.
With thousands of participants all of the world, some of whom are actually physically enrolled in the university class, Kanj says such interactive forums are among the top reasons he is attracted to MOOCs. He also suggests they might suit students who are a bit shy when it comes to face-to-face classroom participation.
Kanj and Wazneh’s Menaversity project aims to bring a similar experience to students, but in Arabic.
That Menaversity’s tutorials will all be in another language is a “key feature,” Kanj says, contending that an English-language Lebanese site would be unable to compete globally given the high quality of similar MOOCs already available.
He also says that the site’s offerings will focus on both theoretical and practical instruction, recruiting professionals as well as academics to deliver its online tutorials.
So far the project has been well received, claiming awards at a number of competitions for startups.
Currently in a beta version, Kanj hopes Menaversity will launch with its first course in the next month.
Initially, the site won’t be issuing certificates of completion for courses undertaken, but as its reputation develops and its selection of courses expands, Kanj envisages that such formalities will be introduced.
Like Kanj, Raja Oueis has embraced the MOOC and has, he says, “received a bunch of those online certificates.” Also like Kanj, Oueis, an engineering graduate, has used MOOCs to fill gaps in his knowledge and enhance his education.
Oueis took his first MOOC while completing his master’s degree, choosing a course in technical writing because he felt it would help him complete his thesis. He also regularly signs up for free engineering-related courses online, using them as “refreshers” to keep the knowledge and skills acquired during his degree fresh.
Other classes he has taken out of “pure interest,” explaining that when he wanted to learn about modern history the MOOC guided him through the subject with lectures and recommended reading, thus focusing him in a way that independently reading related texts wouldn’t have.
Oueis uses Coursera the most “because of the variety of courses and its surprisingly good set of instructors,” but also takes classes through edX.org.
Oueis says he feels unique among his friends in his ability to complete MOOCs. Completion is based entirely on personal motivation, he points out, adding that on average he spends two hours per day working on whatever online class he is taking.
When he comes across classes friends might be interested in, he often alerts them, but says that while their interest may be piqued and some sign up, few actually finish.
Ali Chehade, for instance, admits that although he has “attempted taking some of those courses, I never get through with them, not even to the second week.”
Chehade suggests that a way to overcome such motivation deficiencies might be for Lebanese taking similar MOOCs to hold real-life gatherings in an effort to keep each other on track and focused.