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Over the past 20 years, higher education has undergone major transformations, brought about by: (i) increasing internationalisation and student mobility; (ii) an ever-growing demand for quality higher education and lifelong learning; (iii) changing student demographics; (iv) the rise of online and blended learning, (v) cross-border higher education and (vi) recognition and quality assurance of qualifications in a digital world without borders. At the same time, access to the Internet and broadband service has increased. According to the International Telecommunications Union, 43 per cent of the world’s population is now online, with some form of regular access to the Internet, and the number of Internet users globally has reached 3.2 billion, of whom 2 billion are from developing countries (ITU, 2015). The huge growth in mobile connectivity, particularly in the developing world, has also brought online content and interaction to a global audience.
Since 2012, known as “The Year of the MOOC,” massive open online courses (MOOCs) have expanded worldwide, shaking up the higher education landscape and potentially disrupting the model of brick-and-mortar universities. Whilst higher education institutions have long been engaged in the delivery of online content (via, for example open educational resources and virtual learning environments), the rapid advent of MOOCs is regarded by some experts as an education revolution — according to Class Central (Shah, 2015a), the total number of MOOCs reached 4,200 in 2015. However, most of the current MOOCs are delivered by top universities in the Global North, which many observers consider a one-way transfer of knowledge from the developed countries to the developing world.
The present UNESCO–COL Guide on MOOCs is designed to raise general awareness amongst policy-makers in developing countries as to how MOOCs might address their concerns and priorities, particularly in terms of access to affordable quality higher education and preparation of secondary school leavers for academic as well as vocational education and training. With very few exceptions, many of the reports on MOOCs already published do not refer to the interests and experiences of developing countries, although we are witnessing important initiatives in more and more countries around the world.