The Tower of Babel: MOOCs, Online Learning, and Language…

Machine translation may soon, under certain conditions, make concerns about the role of language in online learning and MOOCs obsolete (e.g., Google’s ‘Babel fish’ heralds future of translation). Though this will solve the issue of translation, it will still not solve the fact that language, like culture and learning, are culturally embedded phenomena and not mere tools of communication. “… technologies are not a culturally neutral phenomenon; rather, they are cultural-specific ventures that are grounded and provided in a specific cultural context” (Masoumi & Lindström, 2012, p. 394). Unless we assume, (in my view, incorrectly), that online learning and MOOCs take place in a cultural hotchpotch of glocalized culture, then it may be time to reflect upon the role and impact of culture and specifically the language of tuition…

The role of language and culture in online learning has been well-researched (e.g., Chen, Hsu, & Caropreso, 2006; Henderson, 1996; Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010; Rogers & Wang, n.d.). As higher and distance education institutions increasingly offer internationalized offerings (e.g., MOOCs), it necessitates a critical reflection on the issue of language and culture. Or do individuals, institutions and alliances just assume that those who participate willingly in a MOOC accept, per se, that they will participate in English and in all probability encounter (and be assessed against) the hegemony of North Atlantic epistemologies and ways of seeing the world? Recent MOOCs  encouraged participants to self-organize into any collaborative environment that would suit their preferences, e.g.  language groups. Though the ‘official’ language of the MOOC and its resources were in English, participants were invited to self-organize if they had the need to communicate in another language.

While participation in MOOCs are voluntary, the issue regarding language in official, institutional online courses is more challenging. Most institutions have language policies and offer tuition in one or at most two official languages.  In the South African context with our eleven official languages, there are increasing demands to address the issue of multilingualism in our online offerings. How should we respond?

How do we design online learning experiences in increasingly international and intercultural contexts where the hegemony of English and Western cultures and epistemologies are contested and disrupted? How do we choose an online language of tuition in the context of a resurgence of ethnic and cultural pride and claims of entitlement (Wilmsen& McAllister 1996)? How do we respond when an institution choses English as sole language of tuition in its online environments and where other languages then opt to play the “politics of marginality” as “basis for mobilization and collective assertion” (Wilmsen, 1996, p. 5)?

Though the above are ideological questions, there are also very practical questions such as “how practical, cost-effective and sustainable is it to offer tuition on demand in a specific language preference?” “What are the implications for quality assurance and assessment?”

While the previous questions are important, there is also the pragmatic consideration regarding the impact on graduates’ employability outside of the confines of their original contexts, should an institution embrace multilingualism in its online offerings. Can these students compete in a global employment market where their indigenous languages will (most probably) not be known or acknowledged?

I don’t claim to have the answer to the above questions, on the contrary. The more I reflect on these questions, the more questions arise.  I do think, however, that there are a number of pointers that can serve as guidelines when designing intercultural and global learning experiences such as MOOCs.

  1. We cannot (and should not) ignore the role of language (and culture) in tuition and in online teaching environments. Teaching and learning are culturally embedded activities resulting from and perpetuating cultural norms, perceptions and ways of seeing the world. I personally don’t believe that it is always possible (or feasible for that matter…) to design learning experiences from multicultural perspectives. More viable is the possibility that individuals, institutions and alliances acknowledge that their chosen languages of tuition are cultural constructs impact on perceptions of participation, respect for authority, etc. When assessment criteria are designed, it is therefore crucial to allow room for cultural-specific differences and epistemologies within the broader context of envisaged capabilities and competencies. Of particular concern is how we assess online participation or non-participation, critical reasoning and contestation – as there is ample research evidence that these are culturally determined.
  2. Many of the current MOOC offerings originate in the predominantly English-speaking North Atlantic world. Nothing prevents an individual, institution or alliance from the global South to offer MOOC in a different language than English. I would like to go further to say that if MOOCs really want to fulfil its potential to democratize education, we need to offer support and funding for MOOCs to be offered in other languages. Instead of complaining about the hegemony of North Atlantic epistemologies and English as language of tuition, those who feel passionate about their own languages can offer MOOCs in their language…
  3. Another option is to allow for adjacent discussion forums outside the main discussion forum where participants of a particular language group can interact in the language of their choice. There is however the danger that this may impact negatively on the richness and diversity of the main discussion forum, or conversely impoverish these side discussions. Should there be a commitment from these language-specific, side-discussion forums to bring back to the main forum the main ideas and questions and to continuously visit as many as possible forums, then the negative impact of such an arrangement can be curtailed. For providing these language-specific, side-discussions, it is however important for the participants to these forums to realize that teaching presence will depend on the language proficiency of the educator, or capacity of the institution to provide language-specific cognitive and teaching presence.
  4. The above ‘solution’ is however prone to be abused in situations where language functions as a proxy for racism and cultural intolerance. A case in point would be where participants of a particular cultural group prefer to be tutored in their own language and where language serves as a marker of difference, of a politics of marginality” (Wilmsen, 1996, p. 5). In the South African context, this is (possibly) more of a concern as we continue to deal with the legacies of colonialism, apartheid and the way language was used to oppress and dis-empower.
  5. Another option is to either translate the key resources into more than one language or to look for resources that are already available in more than one language. While translation may be a lesser problem (in future) for general conversations and discussion forums, the technical or scientific terminologies of disciplines will rely on the existence of comparative terminologies in other languages.  In the case of South Africa with its eleven official languages, there is a huge challenge as many of the indigenous languages do not have the necessary technical or scientific vocabulary (see Nzimande, 2012).

While governmental funding regimes may not necessarily impact on the offering of MOOCs, many national institutions of higher learning do receive funding from national governments and there is therefore a reasonable expectation of these funders that institutions of higher learning should serve diverse populations as best as possible. In the South African context, language and culture were integral aspects of colonialism and apartheid, as well as the struggle against both. Language and culture are also central to addressing the legacies of the past. Language is therefore a very emotional and politically laden issue.

I personally feel that for our graduates have to compete in an international and increasingly global context, and proficiency in an international language used in cultural and commercial exchange, is an essential characteristic of being a graduate in the 21st century. I simply cannot foresee students studying in a particular context in their home language and then flourishing in a globalized world where their proficiency in the dominant languages of the day is a sine qua non. At this stage, whether we like it or not, English is, to a large extent, the lingua franca in educational, economic and political contexts. I simply cannot foresee this to change within the next 10-15 years. For any institution who wants to ensure that their graduates are relevant in the 21st century, the choice of a language of online tuition has long-term impact.

In closing:  I realise that other elements of culture such as religion, customs, etc., may play even bigger roles in collaborative online learning, whether in an institution’s virtual learning environment or in MOOCs. In this blog I have just looked at our choices of languages in online offerings. Despite the above attempts to address the negative impacts of language and culture on collaborative learning; it is clear that the above attempts may never satisfy those for whom (higher) education in a home language is a basic human right that should be asserted no matter what the cost and implications. There is, however, much more at stake than just winning a battle in the resurgence of ethnic and cultural pride and claims of entitlement.


Chen, S-J., Hsu, C-L., & Caropreso, E.J. (2006).Cross-cultural collaborative online learning: When the west meets the east. International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 2(1), 17-35. Retrieved from

Henderson, L. (1996). Instructional design of interactive multimedia.A cultural critique.Educational Technology Research & Development (ETRD&D), 44(4), 85-104.

Masoumi, D., & Lindström, B. (2012).E-learning as a cultural artefact. In M. Strano, H. Hrachovec, F. Sudweeks and C. Ess (eds). Proceedings Cultural Attitudes Towards Technology and Communication, Murdoch University, Australia, 393-409. Retrieved from

Nzimande, B. (2012, November, 22). African language development slow. Retrieved from

Parrish, P., & Linder-VanBerschot, J.A. (2010). Cultural dimensions of learning: addressing the challenges of multicultural instruction. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL), 11(2), 1-19. Retrieved from

Pieterse, J.N. (1996). Varieties of ethnic politics and ethnicity discourse, in The politics of difference: ethnic premises in a world power, edited by E.N. Wilmsen,& P. McAllister (pp. 25-44). London, UK: University of Chicago Press.

Wilmsen, E.N., & McAllister, P. (Eds). 1996. The politics of difference:ethnic premises in a world of power. London, UK: University of Chicago Press.

Wilmsen, E.N. 1996. Introduction: premises of power in ethnic politics. In The politics of difference: ethnic premises in a world of power, edited by E.N. Wilmsen,& P. McAllister (pp. 1-14). London, UK: University of Chicago Press.

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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