"How to Change the World" is packing a punch. This is the MOOC I signed up for a few weeks ago. On the one hand, I am impressed with what can be done in such a setting. On the other hand, I now recognize firsthand some of the unique challenges for MOOCs in the context of their original stated mission. Today, I'll focus on some of the positive highlights.
On my very first peer assessment activity (homework is evaluated by one's peers according to a rubric provided by the course instructor/staff) I read and assessed in order: an essay by someone in an affluent US suburb dealing with plastic waste, an essay by someone in rural India dealing with horrific industrial pollution and a kick you in the gut essay by someone from Syria. The Syrian conflict will never again be to me simply something awful and far way as seen on television. It took just one student's 3 - 4 paragraphs to reorient my perspective.
This was only the beginning of several weeks of reading and interacting with students from around the globe. What an incredible experience. What an incredible opportunity. I find myself dying to get to the end of the day so I can log in and read the discussion forums, student essays and the class Wiki as students delve into complex issues and how to take meaningful action from each of their unique perspectives.
Everything is optional in this class; in other words you watch as many of the lectures, interviews and videos as you like, do as much of the extensive reading as you like, do as many assignments as you like, etc. Staff monitor the Forums to ensure discussions don't devolve into polemics or grandstanding about topics unrelated to the course material. But this is not done in a heavy handed way, and thoughtfully presented controversial discussions are encouraged. Anonymity is allowable for each post; sometimes people choose to post anonymously, but surprisingly few do so.
Extreme poverty, Climate Change, Global Disease and Health - these comprised Weeks 2-4. Not lightweight stuff, and not simplified for general distribution. The nature of this (as with many bricks and mortar based courses) is that if you want to skim through it and pay partial attention you can do so. On the other hand, for those students who want to wrestle with the tough questions and the sometimes polarized approaches posited by leaders in these fields the resources are there. Just as you think you have heard something definitive from the President of the World Bank (interviewed for this class) about "what is", you hear from other experts in the Development field with years of boots on the ground who point out potential problems with his approach. Then, just in case you thought they had the last word, you click a link to hear speakers from the 2013 Social Good Summit who talk about what they are doing effectively.
And on it goes. Every week it is like this. The instructor of the course (Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University) has done an outstanding job of bringing together a multiplicity of informed and contrasting viewpoints and information for participants in this MOOC. In terms of the amount and depth of content available, this class holds its own against many in-person undergraduate classes you might find yourself sitting in.
The theme of the course comes each week in three parts:
In other words, take all this, digest it, wrestle with it and apply it. Network with other students, build coalitions and collaborations, share experiences, ideas, strategies. Every homework assignment so far has had an option to write about (citing class sources of course!) actions you can take for yourself.
Right after we spent a week discussing climate issues and problems related to carbon footprints, and I was reminded yet again how flying lifts one's carbon footprint to astronomical heights I hopped a plane to another country. I find myself in one of the world's largest cities being frequently asked for spare change by people who no doubt fit the global definition of living in Extreme Poverty (earning less than $1.25/day).
Sitting comfortably on the Metro bundled up against the cold in a set of warm layers, I have to stop and think: how do I react to those quiet pleas? Do I fall back into habitual patterns of giving or not giving those spare coins that I don't really need and which, multiplied by the efforts of others could make meaningful difference? What have I learned in class that modifies how I decide to react? It's not simple at all. It's not.
The rubber hits the road in an impressive way when an Internet MOOC pushes you to reassess your everyday choices. For those of us living comfortably in developed countries this is the power of a MOOC. I'm hearing the voices of my classmates from other countries, in other cultures, who, through engaging in this class with me, are reminding me that I, we, need to wake up.
Especially for those of us who love learning for learning's sake, it's so easy to read, learn, listen, discuss, and then fall back into doing what we've always done because it's convenient. That is a danger to be alert for when the class ends in a few weeks. That option isn't going to change the world.