MOOCs and the Promise of Internationalization

The MOOC's Chinese edition.

The MOOC’s Chinese edition.

A MOOC at Duke University, “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education,” opened on Monday morning. A few of us gathered in the university’s Smith Warehouse, anticipating a rush of technical questions about the online course. None came.

Instead, people from around the world began to introduce themselves. The first comment was from Britain, then from Germany, China, Brazil, and Quebec. Introductions from a few American cities—Boston, Des Moines, and Asheville, N.C.—interspersed with those from the international community, which then grew to include representation from Morocco, Russia, Thailand, and Ukraine.

From my seat in Durham, N.C., I began to wonder whether the MOOC would offer not only a new perspective on education in the 21st century but also a solution to the somewhat insular conversations that we’ve been having in the United States about the future of higher education. Specifically, I wondered if the MOOC represented one way to internationalize American education.

Recently scholars and activists have stressed that, in today’s interconnected world, professors need to prepare students to think globally. In a recent Chronicle article, however, Stanley N. Katz argued that “global” is not the same concept as “international.” To internationalize the curriculum would mean to teach students to think from a variety of different perspectives, to teach foreign languages and cultures, and to do so from a perspective that promotes lifelong learning. Students in the United States need to learn how people outside our country think about global issues in order to rethink solutions to problems that affect us all—like that of higher education.

As Katz and others contend, however, the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s have made it difficult to take a strong stance in favor of internationalizing education. During the second meeting of Professor Davidson’s face-to-face graduate class at Duke, “History and Future of Higher Ed,” we joined a Google Hangout with colleagues at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Stanford University to discuss Christopher Newfield’s book Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class, which argues that liberal education came under attack during the culture wars precisely because conservative forces felt threatened by a growing middle class that did not embrace conservative values.

Subsequent reduction in financial support for educational institutions resulted in diminished resources in the humanities. Humanities courses that would provide an international perspective, or at least teach students to think more liberally about race, ethnicity, and cultural diversity, were cut in order to direct finances to more “technical” disciplines. Those tendencies have not only put students at a disadvantage but also perpetuated a popular myth that a liberal education is somehow no longer valuable.

Yet it is through a liberal education that students learn to think complexly about social issues by learning about perspectives that are very different from their own. Internationalizing education is one way to increase the chance that students will begin to not only see the world as globally interconnected but also value diversity across communities, societies, and borders. It is this diversity of ideas, perspectives, and ways of being that stimulates cross-border discussions, increases cultural understanding, and leads to more-nuanced solutions for our changing world.

As Professor Davidson states during the first hour of the MOOC, “diversity is our operating system.” Given the vast international community that has signed on to participate in the MOOC, that statement holds true in a demographic sense for an online course that is intended to reimagine higher education. The question remains, however: What type of internationalized liberal education will the online platform offer?

The fact that there are participants from various backgrounds from around the world does not automatically mean that meaningful cross-border conversations and debates will occur. Yet the sheer number of people involved—14,000 across the globe, not counting 15,000 signed up for the Chinese edition—increase the chances. In just the first 24 hours, people in the United States were conversing with their international peers on the purpose of higher education. They were also posting stories about their favorite teachers and their own educational experiences.

In those exchanges students drew on their own expertise—what is going on in their regions, countries, schools, and families. The hope is that they will increasingly begin to compare and contrast their experiences with those of people in drastically different contexts.

Of course, that type of exchange takes place on a micro scale on college campuses across the United States, but what is different about the MOOC is the extent to which students are exposed to an expanded community, which includes college students alongside retirees, teachers, parents, administrators, and other lifelong learners.

Those expanded communities offer opportunities for students to create subgroups through the public forums. They can also share their ideas and resources by connecting to Hastac’s #FutureEd initiative. The diversity of ages, life stages, careers, and educational experiences represented in the MOOC and the #FutureEd movement will increase the visibility of alternative perspectives and foster possible solutions to current challenges in higher education.

Nevertheless, diversity also raises some difficult questions that students will have to think about and address. Those are questions of access, such as who gets to join the conversation, who gets to lead conversations, and who ultimately gets to decide the future of higher education. Some barriers exist. For example, even though the course is produced in Chinese, communication between Chinese and English speakers will still be limited to those who are bilingual. Access to computers and Internet connections also keep some people out of the conversations on #FutureEd and make it hard for them to join the MOOC.

As we embark on an experiment in collaborative learning through the face-to-face class and the MOOC, I hope that we will increasingly keep those questions in mind, even as we celebrate the diversity that we have already witnessed and contributed to with our own unique perspectives and backgrounds.

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