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Bridging the Digital Divide in MOOCs: An Ultra-low Cost MOOC for Non-English Speaking Students in South Asia

Ragib Hasan (University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA)
Session Information
October 16, 2015 - 11:45am
Open, Global, Mobile
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research Study
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Theory/Conceptual Framework
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Northern Hemisphere D
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 11

We show how to create a MOOC serving 6million lectures to 700,000students with $15, and make a major difference in the lives of underprivileged students.

Extended Abstract

Introduction and Background:
MOOCs have emerged as a promising means towards delivering education at a large scale. However, current MOOCs suffer from an inherent systemic bias -- most of the MOOCs are designed for and delivered to students with knowledge of English language and access to fast Internet connections. Also, most MOOCs are well-funded organizations with high operating and setup expenses. This leads to two problems: first, the vast majority of students in developing countries do not understand English well enough to grasp new concepts in such English language courses, and second, the students in rural and less Internet-connected regions do not benefit from such MOOCs.

Our Approach:
To overcome these two barriers that perpetuate the digital divide in developing countries, we have established The Shikkhok.com online educational platform (http://www.shikkhok.com) to provide education to Bengali-speaking students in Bangladesh and India and other regions of South Asia. The word Shikkhok in Bengali means "Teacher" or "Educator". The Shikkhok.com project aims to provide free online education and high-quality courses in Bengali language to rural and disadvantaged students with limited comprehension of English and slow or no connection to the Internet. The Shikkhok.com platform brings together educators and researchers from all over the world for to create free-of-cost content in Bengali language on both basic and advanced topics, to develop a model for ultra-low-cost online education for students in the developing world and to serve as an open, free, and cheaper alternative to traditional educational institutions.

The content development model in Shikkhok is entirely crowdsourced, with volunteer teachers who are experts in their own areas either via academic training or are self-taught. The lectures are developed with the local cultural context in mind, with teaching techniques adapted with regional practices and cultural cues that are more effective with Bengali speaking students. The topics range from traditional university level courses on computer science, electrical engineering, biology, calculus, to advanced topics such as cancer nanotechnology, neurology, cloud computing, or to basic school level mathematics, physics, and chemistry. In addition, other courses focus on diverse topics such as French culinary arts and the science of cooking (taught by the senior executive chef of VirginiaTech), Chess, and technical writing skills. Quality control is performed by a small group of educators and faculty members in several universities who volunteer their time for this project.

The audio, video, and text-based content are hosted on free online repositories such as youtube, vimeo, and mediafire, and disseminated to students through the www.shikkhok.com website. Besides the online based dissemination scheme, Shikkhok.com has developed innovative methods to reach rural students with no access to the Internet. Shikkhok's rural village Bazaar based supply method involves releasing the course material to mobile phone shops, where rural students can load the streamlined and short videos on their low-end mobile phones. A DVD distribution also allows students to get all the lectures at once. In addition, Shikkhok.com has developed a Raspberry Pi-based (credit card size computer) kit which is then loaded with course lecture videos and given to rural schools without internet access. In rural Bangladesh, this method is often the only possible way to disseminate the benefits of a MOOC in regions with virtually no Internet access.


With Shikkhok, we have also developed a model for creating MOOCs at ultra-low cost. The entire operating budget of Shikkhok for the first year was US $10, with the expense going towards the domain registration and a 100 MB hosting plan. As most of the content was hosted off free web-based resources, shikkhok was able to operate easily with such limited resources.

Since being founded on August 2012, Shikkhok has offered 55 free online courses. Registration is not mandatory to access Shikkhok's courses, yet shikkhok has 60,000 registered students. In the first 20 months of operation, Shikkhok has been used by half million unique visitors, with a total of 3 million lectures delivered so far. On an average, Shikkhok is visited by 3-4 thousand students every day, with 5-6 thousand lectures delivered per day.

For innovation in online and offline education for underprivileged students in South Asia, Shikkhok.com has received multiple awards, including the 2013 Google RISE Award, 2013 Information Society Innovation Fund Award, the 2013 Internet Society Community Grant, and a 2013 Deutsche-Welle Best of Blogs and Online Activism award.

Research Questions:
To demonstrate the suitability of Shikkhok in imparting education to non-English speaking rural students, we performed a large scale ethnographic study. We will present our study results and analysis which show that students in our target audience overwhelmingly prefer organically developed Bengali language MOOC courses as opposed to courses designed in English language, or courses that were designed in English and later translated/dubbed into Bengali.


To conclude, the Shikkhok.com project demonstrates how we can develop ultra-low cost MOOCs with a focus towards serving underprivileged and non-English speaking students in the developing world. The lessons learned from shikkhok.com can be used by educators in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas to reach millions of underprivileged rural students, while requiring very little investment. The combination of these two factors has the potential to change the world with far-reaching and broader impacts.

In this presentation, we will present the issues related to designing MOOCs for non-English speaking International audiences, discuss our technical approach, and present ethnographic studies to demonstrate the success of our approach towards building an localized MOOCs for a diverse, rural, poor, and underprivileged international student audience.