You’re a smart kid in a poor country with subpar universities. Option #1: Leave to attend college somewhere else, like the US. Option #2: Go online and try to teach yourself.
Now, there’s a middle path.
Beginning this fall, U.S. embassies around the world are hosting weekly discussions for students enrolled in free online courses, called MOOCs, in partnership with Coursera, the Silicon Valley-based platform with over 5 million users. Embassy employees and Fulbright fellows (Fulbright being an academic exchange program sponsored by the State Department) will volunteer to host the discussions. There will be over 30 sites to begin with, in countries like India, China, and Bolivia. Topics include English, science, technology, engineering, business, and U.S. civics.
“The State Department and USAID promote a more peaceful, prosperous world, and we all know one of the best ways to get there is to ensure that all people have access to high-quality education,” says Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which is running the “MOOC Camp” program. “We saw MOOCs as this great tool to achieve a number of goals,” she says.
“It gave me, like, a taste of what is first world education,” said Alejandra B., a 21-year-old student studying business at a Catholic university in La Paz, Bolivia. She started the MOOC Camp in September, meeting weekly with other students who were taking Foundations of Business Strategy, a Coursera course taught by Michael Lenox at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Alejandra liked learning the real-world case studies and how to write a business plan.
The La Paz example was an exceptional one. In addition to going over the materials in the MOOC, facilitator Yuki Kondo-Shah, an assistant cultural affairs officer in her first post, arranged video chats with U.S. entrepreneurs, like the founder of Disqus and Fundly. And the embassy is following up with a business plan competition for local students, with an iPad Mini as the prize. Alejandra is working on a website that gathers data about rural areas in Bolivia. “I’ve been fascinated with MOOCs ever since they came out,” says Kondo-Shah. “I thought this would be a great opportunity to work with Bolivian students and get them exposed to American-style education.”
The State Department’s sponsorship of this project isn’t all altruistic. They have the official goal of having more foreigners learn English and experience the U.S. education system. Every participant in a “MOOC Camp” will meet with an advisor from State’s EducationUSA program, which helps international students go to U.S. colleges.
For its part, Coursera is providing training resources for facilitators. It will be tracking students’ success through the platform. The idea is that people will find it easier to persist and succeed in the online, video-based interactive courses when they have the chance to get in-person support from facilitators and from peers. Increasing student success through this so-called “blended learning” approach is pretty important for Coursera and the other MOOC platforms. Globally, 90% of those who enroll in the online courses created by professors at universities like Stanford, Pennsylvania State University, Wesleyan, and Yale don’t finish.
There’s some interesting political undertones to this experiment. Although MOOC platforms have partner institutions located around the world, the very idea of MOOCs has been labeled “cultural imperialism” for broadcasting courses created at elite institutions. This impression can only be enhanced when a MOOC program is literally sponsored by the U.S. government for U.S. diplomatic reasons.
Also, MOOC Camp is running in some countries not known for freedom of speech, like China and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and it’ll be interesting to see how the American liberal arts approach to classroom discussion flies in such settings–especially when the topic is U.S. power itself.
“We see this as an opportunity to draw an audience and create a forum for open and spirited discussion,” says Curtis. “One of the classes is American foreign policy. I think that will make an extremely rich forum to debate the issues.”