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MOOCs: An Education in Diversity

022615_Miriam_SchulmanA biomedical engineer from Brazil, a copywriter from France and the business manager of a mining company in Senegal are talking. One of them poses this hypothetical: You have a friend who has asked for a recommendation for a job in your department. The problem is that your friend has a spotty work record and your boss has stressed that he is looking for a “topnotch” employee. Should you recommend your friend?

Now imagine that these three people are talking in a virtual room—and throw in an economics professor from Germany, an HR professional from India and a CFO from Canada—and you have an idea of the conversation in the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Business Ethics for the Real World, which the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has been offering for the past year.

While the debate about the completion rate and efficacy of MOOCs rages on, one thing is not under dispute. These courses bring together an amazingly diverse group of students, who might otherwise never have interacted with so many people from other cultures. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that, in the first year of the MOOC platform EdX, two-thirds of the students came from countries outside North America.

This wide geographical range makes the online discussions in the MOOC fascinating, not least because there mostly seems to be no culture-based difference in what students take to be ethical. In the case of the job reference described above, one might imagine that people from cultures that place a high value on friend and kinship loyalty would be likely to recommend a friend even if he were not qualified. But after studying 204 student responses, we could detect no regional pattern.

This shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, the Golden Rule—do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself—is found in Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and many other religions.

But even when responses didn’t vary by geography, students brought insights from their culture into the conversation. The majority of students from across the world suggested that Greg tell his boss about his friend but be honest about both his good qualities and the holes in his resume. Many noted that the term “topnotch” was subjective. One pointed out that the definition of “topnotch” might vary by culture: “If this was China,” he wrote, “the element of trust (between friends) could easily make a candidate topnotch.” In other words, people can look through the same ethical lens and see different things.

Occasionally, there were marked differences in how students responded to ethical dilemmas. During the course of the MOOCs, participants were invited to propose their own dilemmas for feedback from others in the course. In one, a financial analyst shared this challenge: She was helping her company evaluate bids for a project. Her boss asked her to show one of four bidders the proposals from the other three. What should she do?

Overwhelmingly, students from the United States responded that, at the very least, she should ask her boss whether what he was asking her to do was standard operating procedure. Several said she should outright refuse to do as her boss asked.

By contrast, students from Hungary, China, Cameroon, Pakistan, Brazil, Egypt, and other countries outside North America advised her to obey her boss’s instructions, assuming that she did not know as much as he did about the bidding process.

Of course, MOOCs, massive as they may be, are too small a sample to make sweeping generalizations about cross-cultural ethics. But they do give participating students a concrete encounter with other cultures from Thailand to the United Kingdom, from Colombia to India.

This breadth of backgrounds has given rise to a vigorous debate about the impact of MOOCs on the developing world. Do they impose a Western approach to education that is inappropriate for other cultures? Calling MOOCs the “neo-colonialism of the willing,” Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, told a forum on MOOCs in the Developing World, “The pedagogical assumptions are mainly Western. … One has to ask whether this is a good thing for students in non-Western-learning environments.”

Less talked about has been the impact of students from the developing world on students from the West. In our MOOC, we see the tremendous value of this interaction, giving students from the United States and other developed countries more insight and respect for their peers from around the globe.

In a world riven by serious disagreements about free expression and appropriate speech, MOOCs may even provide a model for how to work through differences. In discussions involving hundreds of people from all corners of the world, participants were uniformly courteous and open to hearing the views of others. If our MOOC is a window on the globalizing world, it’s not such a bad place.

Miriam Schulman is the associate director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, which offers two MOOCs: Business Ethics for the Real World and Creating an Ethical Corporate Culture.

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