And yet, MOOCs have obvious allure in a place where the few universities burst at the seams – if they function at all. Post-election violence recently forced Felix Houphouet Boigny to close for 17 months, and its libraries still have no books. Just getting to school is an ordeal; Coulibaly must leave his home at 5 a.m. to snag a seat in 8 a.m. class, and he’s been robbed a half-dozen times en route.

To Coursera’s Koller, the MOOCs’ potential is if anything greater in places like Ivory Coast. India, she notes, wants to increase by tens of millions the number of its young people with college degrees. Reaching its goals would require building 1,500 new universities, she notes, but India can’t fully staff its current ones. Scaled-up teaching through technology is the only solution.

Francisco Marmolejo, a longtime Mexican university administrator who now leads the World Bank’s higher education efforts, said governments around the world are intrigued by MOOCs, but also anxious. Technology’s potential to solve the scale problem is obvious. But they fear the MOOCs will become an excuse to ignore the imperative of building local institutions.

Physical universities are “a place where you train to become a citizen,” Marmolejo said. “It is not the new technologies against the old system. It is the blended component that I believe may be the key.”

In 1997, Marmolejo notes, the late management guru Peter Drucker predicted that big university campuses would be “relics” within 30 years. At roughly its halfway point, that prediction seems highly unlikely, despite all that has happened.

Still, universities “need to change and they will change,” Marmolejo said. “Technology will absolutely help them to change.”


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