Since their inception, companies like Coursera and edX, both purveyors of massively open online courses or MOOCS, have had grand plans to radically expand access to an elite education around the world. So you live in Lesotho? No problem. Join edX, and you can take Harvard courses for free online.
That is, if you speak English.
These days there's plenty of debate about MOOC mania: Are these companies really worth the millions of dollars venture capitalists are pouring into them? Are they really providing students a first class education? Another issue with the outsized ambitions of these companies: so far, they haven't found a way to be truly global and breach the language barrier at scale. Now, that's starting to change.
On Thursday, edX announced it's partnering with 10 Chinese universities to launch the country's largest online learning portal, called XuetangX. The universities will use edX's open source platform to build their own courses in Chinese, as well as license courses from edX's global university partners.
"There's only so many people edX can support," says edX co-founder Anant Agarwal. "We open sourced our platform exactly for this reason."
It's the most recent news in a week that's been chock full of announcements about MOOC providers going global. Late last week, edX also announced its new partnership with the French Ministry of Education to launch France Universite Numerique, a government-run online learning portal that also runs on edX's open-source platform. It was a major vote of confidence for a still-nascent industry. Then came the news this week that Coursera would be launching Coursera Zone, a Chinese-language online education site, hosted on the leading Chinese Internet portal NetEase. Different from edX's model, Coursera Zone will offer courses from Coursera's existing university partners, but with Chinese language discussion forums and other course materials. Translating Coursera courses into Chinese, however, is a project that's still underway.
"Almost any way you slice it, China is the No. 1 country in terms of the potential for growth and impact on students," says Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera. "In terms of expanding our reach, China's a huge market and helps us reach their market."
And China is only the tip of the iceberg. After all, "Harvard" probably translates well in a whole host of countries.
These international partnerships also hint at a future in which MOOC providers are as much about serving businesses as they are about serving consumers. As I've written in the past, Coursera and edX are busy trying to figuring out ways to improve education on campus, a service for which universities are willing to pay. Nations have much deeper pockets. If more countries take France's lead to launch their own online portals, that would not only help MOOC providers overcome the language barrier without doing the heavy lifting, but it also would enable these companies to charge for support services and for licensed courses from other universities.
"This would open up a very interesting business model for edX," says Agarwal, who says he's in talks with several other governments to set up similar agreements.
So far, however, Agarwal says no money has changed hands between edX, one of the only non-profit MOOC providers, and its international partners. In this space, he says, revenue generation will always be secondary to doing what's right for students, and that includes giving students courses in a language they understand.
"It seems to be par for the course in this high-speed, fast moving MOOC business, where things happen so fast," Agarwal says. "We start by doing the right thing and then the formal arrangements follow."
But follow they must, if these education providers want to deliver on their audacious goals.