MOOCs, Language issues and barriers to education

One of the most frequent questions people ask me about challenges to adoption of MOOCs and OER in Rwanda is about English as the most dominant language in these courses and resources. This same question was raised in O’Neil’s article: “Will Rwandan students adapt to Western-style instruction in English?”. My answer is that language is not a barrier in the Rwandan context. However, the way we use language often becomes a barrier to education. In this post, I will argue that creating language learning opportunities constitute better practices than using a language as a selective filter to decide who is given access to education and who is not.

I will probably start my argument with a statement of the fact most of us would agree on. We all know what we have learned and can do what we have the skills to do because we have been given opportunity to learn how to do it. I am able to write a blog entry you can read and understand because I had access to opportunity to learn how to write in English. I have also been luck to learn how to post a blog entry on the web (and trust me, I sometimes get challenged because I am still a new bee in this). More specific to language learning, native speakers of English have learned this language so quickly because they were naturally immersed. We, native speakers of Kinyarwanda or other languages, have learned our respective native languages at a similar fast speed, thanks to the exposure offered by our societies and cultures. Also, it is worth noting that English is the second foreign language most of the students depicted in the articles authored by O’Neil and Bartholet have learned. Prior to learning English, most of them had learned French as well.

Now, imagine if Kinyarwanda or Swahili were the language of learning in the USA, UK and other countries where English is a native language. I deliberately avoided using French or Spanish as examples, because these two languages would be culturally closer to English than how English is culturally closer to speakers of Kinyarwanda or other non-western languages. Now, step back from your native language and reflect on your foreign language learning experience, if you have learned a foreign language. I want to clarify the distinction between second language learning experience and foreign language learning experience as commonly agreed on in linguistic and second/foreign language learning literature. In second language learning, the learner learns a non-native language, based in a society or community where that language is used as a native learning. In this way, s/he is immersed and more exposed to first hand opportunity to use the language. In the foreign language learning experience, the learner does not live in the setting where that language is used for the mainstream communication. Obviously, opportunities to use that language is significantly reduced since it might be even difficult to find someone who speaks the target language.

Even though the label of foreign language learning experience would be used on both Western and non-western students, it should be noted that western students’ learning of Kinyarwanda, Swahili or another foreign language  would be easier than the learning of English for non western students. The ubiquity of Internet access would make it easier to record the target language learning materials and made them available as YouTube or any other medium. However, most students in Rwanda do not have to such media. O’Neil portrays very well the selection process the Rwandan students had to pass through for being admitted to take Kepler and Generation Rwanda’s MOOCs. The digital divide that makes MOOC learning highly competitive in Rwanda is rather a more compelling barrier than language.

Most MOOCs are in English: A barrier or opportunity?

Rwanda shifted from French to English as a language used in education around 2010. At the time the shift was initiated, around 90 percent of school used French for instruction. It should also be noted that although French and, later on, English have been used as the language of learning, most Rwandans, probably more than 90 percent only speak Kinyarwanda. Rwandan educators, students, leaders, employees and other are still transitioning into English as a dominant foreign language. Looking at their accomplishment from my perspective as a Rwandan, a French and English as Foreign Languages Learner and an English as a Foreign Language Teacher, and considering the circumstances in which their learning occurs, I find their effort and achievement extra-ordinary. Of course people who evaluate Rwandan learners from the western perspective do not know how to appreciate their accomplishment. Rather than evaluating Rwandan students from the Western/native English speakers standpoint, we should depart from where those learners came from. Taking this initial departure will enable us to notice and realise how incredible their accomplishment is and encourage them to carry on.  The most compelling barrier Rwandans have in their English language learning is access to learning resources. The availability of MOOCs and OER in English certainly constitutes an enormous opportunity to Rwandan learners although some pundits see this as a challenge, especially the ones who view this from a Western bias.

English as a global language: A divider or unifier

As earlier mentioned, approximately 90 percent or more of Rwandans do not speak English and French which have been used as languages of education. Does it mean that Rwandans have chosen to submit to the Western imperialism raised in one of the comments on O’Neil’s article? Imagine if everyone only spoke their native language and no foreigner could speak their languages. Imagine what we, the human race, have accomplished, because we can communicate with one another. Obviously, we need one or many shared languages as communication tools. With our human learning capacity, we cannot learn all the languages spoken all over the world. That is why few languages, especially the ones that are more widely used, have attracted, and will continue to attract foreign learners. There is no need to feel inferior that our languages spoken at small scales are not learned or used as languages of education. Likewise, there is no need to feel superior because our big languages are learned by foreigners. We all bring a rich diversity of perspectives which enrich the languages we share and educational experience globally. What we all share, Westerners and non-westerners, is openness to that diversity and tolerance to different perspectives. It is that diversity that makes us stronger as human species.

Unfortunately, we sometime use languages as dividing tools rather than as unifiers. It is unfortunate that English language is used to select those who are given access to education and those who are not. English language tests such as TOEFL and IELTS should be used beyond the selection purposes. The results from those tests should reveal places where more language learning opportunities need to be created rather than simply decide who should have the right to education and who should not. Coming back to my earlier argument that we all learn because we are give opportunities, we should create more learning opportunities rather than selecting only those who have been given learning opportunity and give them more while we do not care about those who have been excluded from opportunities to learn. By creating English or other foreign language learning opportunities and resources, we empower more learners who have been denied such opportunities.  This provides them with a tool to learn western perspectives. At the same time, those empowered students create opportunities for their western counterparts to learn non-western perspectives. It is this multicultural and multi-directional learning experience that is taking place in many MOOCs.  Coursera platform, probably other MOOC platforms as well, also empower students who are non native English users by offering them the opportunity to control this language. Students can adjust the speech rate to make it slower or faster as they wish. They can also add subtitles in English. This student’s control of the course language is lacking in campus based courses in both Rwandan and Western institutions.  

My next entry will focus on contextualization also raised in O’Neil’s article and subsequent comments.

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  1. I agree with your view that knowledge of English tests should not be used to close people out from the access to higher education, but rather to point out needs for language resources. Internet is a wonderful platform for both. I personally love the Moodle open source learning platform for many reasons.

    Here is a nice collection of English Language exercises created in Sweden (But you don’t need to know Swedish) if any one is interested. I would like to rework this “course” into a real Moodle course, that could save results and administer contact with a teacher and other students.

  2. Languages are often used as a divider rather than a unifier. In my experience, English is the lingua franca in a lot of the world, but if you don’t speak Mandarin in China your life is much more difficult. This is why I’m learning Mandarin with BRIC Language Systems. In this instance, it is unfortunate that it is dividing people rather unifying.

  3. Before we solve this issue, we have to know something about language science. After we know it, then everything will be solved easily, after we know it we will know that all language have some merits and demerits, when we collect all the merits together it will solve all this problems. For instance it is hard to write and to read in Chinese, while for English, the biggest problem is how to mastering the increasing vocabulary (now, it is reach the number of 2 million). For Esperanto, the problem is the knowledge intake. That is to say comparing with English speaker, throughout the life, an Esperanto speaker can only enjoy half the information as the former does.
    But language science will solve everything easily or we may say it find the best solution for all these problems.


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