public diplomacy

The Future of MOOCs in Public Diplomacy

The classroom’s matriculation to the web, where larger audiences can be reached and wider breadths of information are available, is a natural course. Such transformation has already taken place from casual discussion of academic material on blogs and forums like this one, to more structured and sophisticated online learning platforms like Khan Academy.

Since their arrival over fifteen years ago, MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, have not only been an interesting development in higher education, but an inevitable one.

While most MOOC courses originate from American universities, majority of MOOC users live abroad and welcome the often-free resource with open arms. In fact, the bulk of MOOC users are living in developing nations. This statistic is not lost to the U.S. State Department, who saw the diplomacy potential in these courses early on.

Back in 2013, as part of their EducationUSA program, the State Department began hosting MOOC Camps in U.S. embassies across the world. Today, foreign students enrolled in Coursera MOOCs, one of the largest online-education platforms, can still attend weekly meetings where Fulbright Fellows are ready to discuss their course material.

The MOOC Camp program even offers each student the opportunity to meet with an EducationUSA advisor one-on-one to discuss a continuation of their studies through attending college in the U.S.

As State Department officials described at the onset of the program, both MOOCs and MOOC Camps aim to ensure access to high-quality education where it is lacking so as to promote a more peaceful and prosperous world.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There’s just one problem: we may be over stepping our boundary. While U.S. led MOOCs are benefiting millions of students on a global scale, they may be harming the long-term development of local education systems.

For instance, Kepler University in Rwanda, a U.S. accredited MOOC program, has advertised in the past its superiority over any other cheaper education option in the area. However, while Kepler may be beneficial to the few Rwandans who are able to pay the tuition, it simultaneously detracts attention away from pre-existing university programs and regional efforts to develop the education sector at large. (It’s the supposedly superior nature of private U.S. universities that’s left American public schools in the lurch).

At the heart of MOOCs, is the idea that those with knowledge should share it with large and diverse audiences, who without the Web, and without the knowledge being low-cost, would not have access to valuable information. It is a generous, selfless concept.

However, if the U.S. wants to build long-term relationships and genuinely benefit our foreign partners, figuring out how MOOCs can enhance local education systems, instead of just challenging them, is the issue at hand.

Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 12.43.36 PM

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, not much progress has been made in this area since the issue’s emergence a few years ago. Currently, EducationUSA remains solely dedicated to connecting U.S. higher education professionals with international students, and familiarizing foreign institutions with the U.S. system of higher education.

Additionally, and unlike most soft power initiatives, the Department has the unique opportunity to measure the programs’ successes through completion rates and grades; there is truly little room for the lack of improvement thus far.

In order to continue providing access to quality education, while building soft power and promoting U.S. interests, the State Department may want to double down on the face-to-face components of their MOOC Camps and other online learning programs.

Despite the great proliferation of online learning, the power of face-to-face interactions suggest that person-to-person learning will never fade away and are crucial to student success. In fact, face-to-face interactions in concert with online lectures is what has led to better, widespread student engagement in online courses around the world.

By uniting students through face-to-face interactions, foreign education institutions can use MOOCs as a learning tool instead of a crutch. Simply by physically coming together, can individuals recognize their need for better educational spaces, greater technology, or even for more rudimentary school supplies, such as pen and paper. In these ways, attention toward local education infrastructure will be renewed and strengthened.

Additionally, the State Department should encourage greater face-to-face interactions between higher-education MOOC users. Instead of solely focusing on connecting U.S. higher education professionals with international students, the State Department should focus on connecting foreign higher education professionals to other foreign professionals.

By facilitating engagement amongst highly educated citizenry, the State Department would be facilitating conversation between that foreign nation’s leaders. The State Department might even consider curriculum for foreign diplomacy officers specifically and create a platform where MOOC users can design their own educational system. In these ways, MOOC learners could use EducationUSA to more effectively realize local projects. With meaningful face-to-face interactions alongside accredited course material, the possibilities are endless.

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