Online learning companies, like this one in Salento, are far less common in Colombia than in the U.S.

Online learning companies, like this one in Salento, are far less common in Colombia than in the U.S.

This spring, CourseTalk released a study that shed light on online learning in Colombia and other developing countries. It found that, while awareness of MOOCs remains low in these countries, students who are learning online there tend to receive certification at very high rates. It also found that few students are learning just for fun. After nearly two months teaching English in Colombia, I’m starting to understand the underlying factors that may be causing these trends.

I live in a city of 500,000 in Colombia’s coffee region, and so far I’ve met only one person who reported taking a MOOC. I’ve sensed a few cultural idiosyncrasies that I suspect play a role in the country’s low MOOC usage and high certification rates. Of course, I am only one person in one city in the third most populous country in Latin America, so if your experience of learning in Colombia has differed, please share!

First, let’s talk about the low MOOC adoption rate. We know from the study that time constraints and lack of awareness were major reasons cited by Colombians for not taking online classes. But another thing to take into account is the learning culture. Like most Latin American countries, Colombia is more collectively-minded than individually-minded, which has effects on learning. In my classroom, students seem very hesitant to take control of their own learning. They ask me to check their work constantly and want guidance on tiny details like whether they should put the date at the top of their notes. It’s easy to see how this lack of independence in the classroom could translate into low interest in self-directed learning later in life.

But if most Colombians don’t take MOOCs, why are the few who do getting certified at such high rates? From what I’ve seen, Colombians very much like their official documents. At work, for instance, you don’t just call in sick — you bring a doctor’s note, no exceptions. Many transactions, like exchanging foreign currency at the airport, require a fingerprint. And forms are generally required to be filled out perfectly in black ink; that means no blue ink and no scribbled out mistakes. Given all this, it’s easy to see why online learners wouldn’t feel they could put a course on their resume without the right documentation to back it up.

The other question is why online learners here rarely take classes for personal fulfillment, especially since U.S. learners report this as a main motivation so often. I suspect it has something to do with the perception that education is a more of a means to an end than a pastime. In my teacher training, we were encouraged to tell our students how reading for fun is very popular in the U.S., because it’s fairly uncommon here. In general, Colombians appreciate downtime more than Americans. They seem very happy to spend an afternoon lounging and chatting, whereas Americans have a tendency to pack days full to make them as “productive” as possible. So while many in the U.S. might see logging into a class after work as a great use of free time, many in Colombia would prefer to spend that time sipping a beverage with family or friends.

Of course, none of this is to say Colombians don’t take education seriously! On the public level, Colombia’s education budget recently exceeded its defense budget for the first time ever. And at the individual level, I know many families who save paychecks to send their children to private English lessons after school. But, still, the population here could certainly benefit from a wider use of MOOCs. And I know the team back at CourseTalk is exploring how to make that happen!

So what do you think? Do you have insights on online learning in Colombia or similar country? I’d love to hear!