Latin America Becoming Fertile Ground for Online University Courses

Tim Johnson, McClatchy, October 2, 2013

Roosemberth Palacios sports braces on his teeth and a curly mop of hair. At 16, he finds high school boring. So after school, he logs onto his computer and hunts for challenges.

He’s found them in difficult online courses offered by professors at Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He says he’s aced a course called “Machine Learning” by hotshot Stanford professor Andrew Ng, scoring a perfect 100. And he took a sophomore-level course by MIT professor Anant Agarwal called “Circuits and Electronics,” tallying 91 percent.

To patch up some weakness he saw in his own math skills, he took a course, “Numerical Analysis,” offered online by the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland. The class was in French.

The world of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, is roiling academia at universities in the United States, where they are labeled either the future or the downfall of higher education.

A few superstar professors pull in upward of 10,000 students around the globe into free, or nearly free, courses. But others perceive the courses as a dangerous fad that will shrink faculties, turn existing professors into glorified teaching assistants and replace meaningful classroom discussion with message boards and student-led forums.

Lost in the debate about online learning, however, is its impact in far-flung regions of the globe, places like the electrical engineering department at the University of El Salvador and the modest walk-up apartment of the Palacios family, above the medical clinic of Dr. Roberto Palacios Navarro, Roosemberth’s father.


U.S. academics who offer online courses say the ability to reach undiscovered bright students in the developing world is one of the benefits of online learning.

“Nobody would disagree that, by and large, intelligence and ability are distributed equally around the globe,” said Armando Fox, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of a lab there studying online courses. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to find and cultivate that talent.”


Online courses increasingly are offered in different languages, including Spanish, French and Chinese. Technology helps ease the burden for Spanish speakers of understanding lectures in English. Most lectures have subtitles. A Google translating tool for simultaneous translation can also be used.

Already, the impact of online courses is rippling across Latin America.

“Approximately 10 percent of the 1.3 million people on the edX platform come from Latin American countries,” Dan O’Connell, a spokesman for edX, wrote in an email from Cambridge, Mass., the consortium’s headquarters. They come not only from populous countries like Brazil and Mexico, but also places such as Haiti, Belize and Uruguay, he added.


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