Roosemberth Palacios sports braces on his teeth and a curly mop of hair. At 16, he finds high school boring. So after school, he logs onto his computer and hunts for challenges.
He’s found them in difficult online courses offered by professors at Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He says he’s aced a course called “Machine Learning” by hotshot Stanford professor Andrew Ng, scoring a perfect 100. And he took a sophomore-level course by MIT professor Anant Agarwal called “Circuits and Electronics,” tallying 91 percent.
To patch up some weakness he saw in his own math skills, he took a course, “Numerical Analysis,” offered online by the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland. The class was in French.
The world of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, is roiling academia at universities in the United States, where they are labeled either the future or the downfall of higher education.
A few superstar professors pull in upward of 10,000 students around the globe into free, or nearly free, courses. But others perceive the courses as a dangerous fad that will shrink faculties, turn existing professors into glorified teaching assistants and replace meaningful classroom discussion with message boards and student-led forums.
Lost in the debate about online learning, however, is its impact in far-flung regions of the globe, places like the electrical engineering department at the University of El Salvador and the modest walk-up apartment of the Palacios family, above the medical clinic of Dr. Roberto Palacios Navarro, Roosemberth’s father.
“At school, he hardly studies. He just shows up and takes the exams,” Dr. Palacios said of his son. But it isn’t for lack of ambition. “He wants to learn,” he said.
Added the son: “I don’t like simple things.”
That is evident within minutes of arriving at the open-air, tile-floor home, where the teenager shows off a workbench where he solders circuit boards and flips through the pages of his own proposal to build an unmanned helicopter.
Because of his knack for acing tests, Roosemberth was selected more than a year ago to take part in a gifted students program at the University of El Salvador, in the capital, San Salvador, some 20 miles to the east of this town. It was at that program where he heard a talk by Carlos Martinez, an electrical engineering professor and strong advocate for online courses. The teenager signed up for the “Circuits and Electronics” course.
He had to go to an Internet cafe a block from his home to hear the lectures by Agarwal, who is president of edX, a nonprofit consortium set up in 2012 by MIT and Harvard that has offered 72 courses online.
“Sometimes I had to stay up very late. I’d tell myself, ‘It’s worth losing a little sleep over,’” the adolescent said.
But he was excited by the courses.
“They’ve been really worthwhile because I’m learning things I don’t learn in school and that I don’t think they even teach in the university here,” he said. “For instance, we don’t learn artificial intelligence here. We don’t have labs for it.”
US academics who offer online courses say the ability to reach undiscovered bright students in the developing world is one of the benefits of online learning.
“Nobody would disagree that, by and large, intelligence and ability are distributed equally around the globe,” said Armando Fox, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of a lab there studying online courses. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to find and cultivate that talent.”
Mr. Fox said online courses also have the effect of “raising the bar” for university professors, many of whom have ambivalent reactions to online courses.
“You look at another person’s lecture and you think, ‘Wow! That person has a really great technique or ideas. Can I emulate that?’” Fox said. “The other way is to say, ‘Uh oh, I’m in trouble because the other teacher is making me look bad.’”
That tension exists at the University of El Salvador, this nation’s largest public university, although with an ideological overlay. Some see the online courses, which are offered mainly by edX and two for-profit entities, Coursera and Udacity, as an encroachment on regional academic autonomy.
“There are those who see this as a ‘Yankee invasion,’” said Martinez, the crusader for online courses at the electrical engineering department.
Since early 2012, Martinez has convinced scores of students and a handful of faculty to take online courses. He said the professors have been impressed by some of the teaching techniques in the MIT “Circuits and Electronics” course.
“It comes at you faster. They tell you in 50 minutes while our own courses last 100 minutes,” Martinez said.
Online courses increasingly are offered in different languages, including Spanish, French, and Chinese. Technology helps ease the burden for Spanish speakers of understanding lectures in English. Most lectures have subtitles. A Google translating tool for simultaneous translation can also be used.
Already, the impact of online courses is rippling across Latin America.
“Approximately 10 percent of the 1.3 million people on the edX platform come from Latin American countries,” Dan O’Connell, a spokesman for edX, wrote in an email from Cambridge, Mass., the consortium’s headquarters. They come not only from populous countries like Brazil and Mexico, but also places such as Haiti, Belize, and Uruguay, he added.
In El Salvador, students with better English skills chip in to post questions to a global student forum for each course, seeking clarification of material they have not understood well.
“It helped that we had previous knowledge of the subject. So if a word was badly translated, you still get the gist,” said Josue Arana, a 25-year-old senior electrical engineering major.
“These students got into these courses enthusiastically,” said Jorge Zetino Chicas, an engineering professor and photovoltaic systems expert. Part of the reason is that teaching styles differ. “We teach from textbooks. They (MOOC professors) apply what they teach. This helps with understanding.”
Mauricio Rodriguez, an engineering student, cracked a grin while telling of an MIT professor’s experiment for an online “Electricity and Magnetism” course he took.
“The professor attached electrodes to a cucumber and you could see the cucumber burn,” Rodriguez said. It was better than any textbook description of the principle under discussion, he added.
The university offers no credit for the online courses, but students covet the prestige of a certificate for a completed course from MIT or other renowned institutions.
Word of the online courses has spread to students outside of the sciences and engineering.
Nahiely Mendoza, 24, who graduated with a law degree in December, said she looked over the online listings and grew excited.
“I wanted to take ‘Intellectual Property,’ but I got in too late. So I signed up for ‘Justice’ by Professor Michael Sandel,” Mendoza said, referring to a Harvard professor who’s hugely popular course deals with justice, equality and democracy.
“I felt it was much harder than our university courses,” Mendoza said. “I was used to classes that were more controlled by the professor.” But the online course had study groups with people from all over the world. She was hooked and has just signed up for two more, one on globalization and another on 20th century ideas, both offered through edX from the University of Texas at Austin.
“I’m entertained by studying,” Mendoza said.