May 10, 2017

Talking about Women and Developing Countries in a Course on Women in Developing Countries

After leaving my career to move to Austria from the United States, I found myself at home, bored, but busy taking care of my infant son. Contemplating going back to school, I enrolled in the online course International Women’s Health and Human Rights at Stanford University. Every week there was a reading from the professor’s text book, an opportunity to chat online, reading responses to share with classmates and requirements to find other classmates for discussions in person or via Skype. There were live video chats over tea and links to diverse media sources.
Pictured: Professor Murray during a Tea Time Chat

Every week we tackled a new challenging aspect of women’s health starting from before birth and working our way through to death. The course was intellectually stimulating and emotionally challenging. The weekly courses brought purpose to my life and completing the assignments gave me confidence that I could succeed in a full-time master’s program. The materials were reflexive but from a distinctively western viewpoint. On this point let me echo that UNESCO’s Open Education Resources (OER) movement is a form of ‘intellectual neocolonialism’, offering a second-class education without credit or accreditation (1). A disclaimer for the course states (2):
PLEASE NOTE: The content of this course is intended to promote contemplation and discussion of global health issues. Certain issues may be controversial in some cultures and/or disturbing to some people. As such, participants must be aware that some content may be objectionable or uncomfortable to view/read/access. If you feel you might be offended by the content of this course, you should not continue. You access this material at your own risk and are solely responsible for compliance with the laws applicable to your country of residence.
Like out of date textbooks and electronic waste and surplus feed corn, it may be useful to someone and an alternative to throwing something away, but it isn’t the best way to meet the needs of the developing world. It brings to mind the scientific tracts and correspondence courses available to women, excluded from Universities and professional careers, as a way to improve their minds and drive out superstitious beliefs. My own path to the course was through the Federation of American Women’s’ Clubs Overseas, with it’s own agenda for western ideas about “improv(ing) the lives of women and girls worldwide, especially in the areas of education, the environment, health and human rights.” Classmates from developing countries included activists against female genital cutting, the course was literally bringing western ideas into traditional communities. The course was a resource, a source of empowerment, and an activist network for change. A neocolonial force meant to embed itself within traditional cultures and modify ways of living.

Although my experience of the course was positive, there were drawbacks. I received no feedback on any of the assignments and was able to trick the system assessing completion of all the tasks. I received no credit that could be applied to an academic program or count towards job requirements. The print-at-home certificate is clear that Stanford has in no way endorsed or accepted my abilities as a student, a reminder that I applied to and was rejected from Stanford as an undergraduate student. In short, all the benefits were personal. In this way, it had a similar impact as participating in a weekly bible study, with all the normative directives that go with it. Advocating this type of education as a solution to education access problems only increases the divide between those with accredited degrees and those without. At the same time we learned in the course that any kind of education is a form of empowerment that can transform women’s lives. If elite universities like Stanford stop being afraid to give credit, they can really start to make a difference that doesn’t simply reinforce gendered neocolonial systems.

Please note: Some online courses may draw on material from courses taught on campus but they are not equivalent to on campus courses.  This statement does not affirm that this participant was enrolled as a student at Stanford University in any way.  It does not confer a Stanford University grade, course credit, or degree, and it does not verify the identify of the participant.  

This Blog response is in reference to the text below as part of the Course 201-210: Open Science: The Better Science? taken at the University of Vienna as part of the Master's Program on Science, Technology and Society in 2017.

Daniel, J. (2012). Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2012(3), Art. 18. DOI:

Picture Source:

1. Davies attributes the designation to “the president of a 300,000-student University of South Africa,” weblink to the referenced speech is broken.



  1. I enjoyed your honesty, which was quite amusing in my eyes. For example when you were talking about being bored at home, or talking to Professor Murray about birth and death.
    I personally see the health issues are universally and globally important. In a way it is good to warn people some harsh comment may follow, but telling them they should not continue to read your post is in way not helping the problem.
    Out of interest, what was the most valuable message or idea which you have gained so far through the talks with Professor Murray?

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I think I wasn't so clear, the disclaimer about being controversial was from Stanford and applied to the course material, I hope my comments couldn't be seen as too controversial. I am not really critical of the UNESCO program, just wanted to raise an interesting point. I don't know if I can choose just one topic that was valuable, they were all so important, the first week was about gender preference at birth or even before that introduced the idea that someone could give more food to boy children than girl children in times of scarcity or decide to take a boy to the doctor but leave a girl to be sick and the lifelong consequences of these decisions by parents really struck me while I was caring for my own children, especially because I stayed at home with my son until he was 2 years old (Austria) while my daughter started daycare at 10 weeks (in the US).

  2. Very cool that you have personal experiences with taking an online class like this, it definitely gives a different perspective hearing about it like this. I think that it's true that these courses will never replace traditional education and degrees, but I also think that at this point in time at least, receiving credit is not what most people who take these courses are after. It seems like personal interests are the main motivator for people to participate in MOOCs, rather than receiving academic credit. Enjoyed reading your thoughts!

    1. The MOOC format is limiting it's potential for education by not providing feedback and credit. People can't be motivated by credit, simply because it's not available. All that is left is personal interest, which is a luxury for those with "free" time.

  3. Great post, thanks for sharing your personal experiences. Did you get a glimpse on the other participants of the course? Were there any women from developing countries enrolled?

    1. Yes, there were definitely women and men from developing countries.