Vanessa Bajko

Vanessa Bajko has written 2 posts for Take Five

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.

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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.

A Reminder: Why Foreign Trade Agreements Can Be Good Public Diplomacy

Within the first 100 days of office, Donald Trump formally withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and notified Mexico and Canada of his intentions to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

All contending presidential candidates ran on anti-TPP platforms during the 2016 election. In fact, Trump’s pledge to bring jobs back to the states was what attracted his core voter base.

Many oppose multi-lateral trade agreements, such as the TPP and NAFTA, in fear that they will damage our manufacturing sector and enlarge the trade deficit. Others support these agreements in hope that they will grow exports and propel our economy forward.

The difficulty is that there is little alignment between those two groups, and finding common ground on what exactly these trade agreements will and won’t do is extremely complex. Debating the economics behind the deal has proven especially futile and even beside the point.

Today’s trade agreements are rarely about trade alone. Rather, they are long-term public diplomacy efforts which follow a relational framework in bringing nations together.

So, let’s resurrect the TPP for a few minutes and discuss exactly what will happen to those Pacific Rim relationships in our absence.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A primary objective of the TPP was to exert control on China. This objective has been a U.S. foreign policy goal since the Nixon era, and according to The Atlantic, is only becoming more difficult to manage. Of main concern has been the enormous increase in China’s global trade surplus since the 90s, a topic that Trump has not shied away from.

Trump has declared on numerous occasions that China would’ve benefited from the agreement due to back door channels, but by leaving the deal we’ve opened the front door to China ourselves. According to the New York Times, China has much more space to fortify its economic supremacy in Asia with the U.S. in standstill. One Washington Post article found that a deal between China and Japan alone could jeopardize $5 billion in U.S. dollars.

After speaking with experts on the topic, Politifact ranked Trump’s TPP China claim to be “Pants on Fire” false. In other words, it was virtually impossible that China could have taken advantage of the TPP in a major way.

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Photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

However, what’s potentially more devastating than deserting this longtime foreign policy goal, and aiding China in its newfound economic foothold, is the lack of support we’re showing our allies in the region. As much as Obama worked to control China, he worked to tap a growing region and to forge meaningful partnerships in that area of the world.

The TPP would have been the first time that both small and medium-sized American businesses, and TPP member-state businesses, would’ve had access to nearly half of the world’s economies. The biggest driver for most TPP participants was access to the U.S. market. According to CNN, America’s GDP accounts for 69% of the combined GDP of the member countries. Our departure from the agreement is a major let down to many of these emerging economies.

Opponents of the TPP have called the agreement a “job killer,” but, leaving the deal is exactly what may hinder job growth. As Forbes explains, leaving the TPP may lead to a later trade war wherein prices will shoot up and drive down demand, limiting the spending of American consumers and leading to fewer jobs.

What’s more is that the possibility of a trade war is not entirely outlandish. One New York Times article speaks to our now strained relationship with Japan and the fear that the lack of an agreement will bring on the trade wars we saw in the 1980s, back when our nations saw one another as economic opponents.

Whether or not the TPP would have been as financially fruitful as the Obama administration expected does not get to the heart of the issue. As Defense One explains, free trade deals are most valuable due to their ability to strengthen diplomatic relations and reduce future conflict, not their ability to produce dramatic economic welfare.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TPP was by no means a perfect deal. The agreement became an extremely intricate arrangement concerning pharmaceutical regulations to environmental protections. According to Senator Warren and other elites, the deal even ran the gambit of allowing for corporatocracy through secret tribunal clauses outlined in the deal.

However, by pulling out of the agreement, we’ve not only added to our wavering credibility by abandoning yet another foreign policy objective, but rendered our Pacific Rim allies ripe for the picking.

With all this in mind, it’s important to remember that the TPP was not the only multi-lateral agreement in the works. Coming up next are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Trade in Services Agreement (TISA).

With a delicate global order hanging in the balance, it’s crucial that America does not lag in foreign commitment. Unfortunately, and unless Trump suddenly drops his protectionist stance, pushing for these trade agreements might be almost entirely up to our foreign partners.

To sway public opinion, a departure from the relational framework which grounds these agreements may be best. Instead, our foreign allies should work on deploying multi-platform information campaigns, where they can engage the American public directly and explain to U.S. citizens why free trade is valuable to U.S. foreign policy efforts at large. Better yet, these information campaigns can take a note from Vox and explain how our manufacturing sector has been dying since the 1940s and is not a result of trade agreements between our nations.

Persuading the American people will not be easy. According to Pew, Americans have been wary of foreign engagement since the Cold War. But, if the TPP has taught us anything, it’s that an imperfect situation is still worth exploring.

With stronger social media campaigns, more op-eds from legitimate elites and a proliferation of accessible literature on the issue, foreign entities can control their messaging and begin to alter American perception away from Trump’s.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.

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