A MOOC With Meaning

A Stanford University MOOC raises public consciousness about nuclear weapons dangers, the course designers say.

May 17, 2017

Informed citizens have a greater ability to effect global change than at arguably any point in history. With the advent of social media and increased internet penetration, activist campaigns—such as ONE and KONY 2012—have galvanized millions around the planet and at times have compelled governments to act against poverty, climate change, and human rights abuses.

Yet, there is still immense untapped potential in online educational programming to spur a passionate populace to action.

Under the sponsorship of Stanford University, we designed a massive open online course (MOOC) to raise public consciousness about the past, present, and future dangers of nuclear weapons. Most individuals—and many policymakers—remain blissfully unaware that risks such as nuclear terrorism, a regional nuclear war, or a nuclear conflict started by accident are higher today than during the Cold War.

Our course, Living at the Nuclear Brink: Yesterday and Today, successfully appealed to a broad audience and increased discourse about this existential threat facing humankind. Consequently, we believe our experience lends insight into MOOCs in general, and demonstrates that they can be a powerful tool to create an informed citizenry.

The course, which ran for 10 weeks in the fall of 2016, hosted over 3,000 participants from 112 countries. This group consisted of individuals from age 14 to 93 with diverse career backgrounds: from Air Force colonels to U.S. senators to scientists to diplomats to journalists. There were filmmakers, engineers, high school students, educators, and stay-at-home parents. These participants viewed 5-minute to 15-minute videos, often dealing with sophisticated concepts, from the science of ballistic missile systems to former President Ronald Reagan’s rationale for deploying nuclear missiles in Europe in 1983.

Despite the complexity of course content, our audience exhibited remarkable engagement. Nearly 30 percent of students satisfactorily completed the course and received a Statement of Accomplishment—far higher than most MOOCs, which have average completion rates below 10 percent. This sustained involvement can be attributed at least, in part, to the staff’s concentrated effort to tie course content to current events.

At the conclusion of every week, we held wide-ranging discussions where the lecturers wrestled with questions asked by course participants in the weekly forums. Topics included inquiries about no-first-use—a policy the Obama administration was weighing implementing, which would have established that the U.S. would not use nuclear weapons unless previously attacked by them––the risk of proliferation in East Asia, rising tensions among Pakistan and India, and the debate about nuclear policy in the 2016 election. The participant discussion anticipating the nuclear policy of the soon-to-be-in-office Trump administration was the most active thread of the entire course.

Topical Application Proves Useful Tactic

These connections between course material and current events proved crucial because they demonstrated that nuclear science and policy do not have to be abstruse, but rather are topics essential to understanding contemporary world affairs. Bringing topical applications to course content is a useful tactic for future MOOCs to enhance student engagement.

In an increasingly interconnected and multipolar world, it is imperative to engage citizens from countries around the world. An advantage of an online format was that it brought together a much more geographically diverse group of participants than is typical of a Stanford class. As a result, in the discussion sections we led, issues and topics were brought up that are not normally considered in mainstream discourse of the topic or in prominent international
relations publications or textbooks.

For instance, numerous course participants discussed the Treaty of Tlatelolco—a little-known accord signed by a number of Latin American and Caribbean nations banning the testing, use or manufacture of nuclear weapons in the region—and the positive precedent it set for disarmament efforts. Conversation about the treaty highlighted the critical role that non-nuclear weapons states can play in nuclear security and nonproliferation. By encouraging such a discussion, which most courses about nuclear weapons do not address, we were able to engage audiences who may previously have felt unaffected by the issue.

Most encouraging, in our post-course survey, a number of course participants expressed that they felt better equipped to be agents of social change—they gained the requisite knowledge to become activists in this critical area. Consider one survey response: “The serious, depressing content was balanced by optimism that it is not too late to take action. The final message I got: Never give up! I’m going to try to be an educator and activist in my community.”

To most course participants, the experience was not only edifying, but served as a rousing call to action. At a time when America’s military and national security leaders have proved unable to update outmoded doctrines like mutual assured destruction, the grassroots activities of citizen educators and activists will be critical.

The higher education community is frequently critical of MOOCs, particularly courses in the humanities and the social sciences, where knowledge gained is not easily evaluated by electronic grading. And to be sure, there were some limitations to our course. Because we needed to reach a large audience, we relied on pre-recorded lectures, limiting the engagement participants had with lecturing professors. And because these lectures were recorded two years ago, some discussions—such as our segment on the Iranian nuclear program—were outdated.

However, by and large, our experience revealed that if MOOCs are structured appropriately for a non-specialized audience, then they can be tangible mechanisms for those in academia to catalyze social change and empower people around the world. Our experience counteracts many of the criticisms of administrators and professors about the dissemination of humanities and social science courses to the online realm.

The insights we generated are important because MOOCs will be an integral part of the educational future. A burgeoning global middle class is seeking to become more active in global affairs. Yet, most people around the world do not possess the access that students have at Stanford—a citadel of scholarship in international relations. In fact, UNESCO estimates that in order to meet demand around the world, a college of 30,000 students will need to open every week for the next 15 years (from Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of a Liberal Education).

If educators endeavor to meet this extraordinary demand, existing online content must be fine-tuned and new content must be created and disseminated. The lessons that we learned in Living at the Nuclear Brink can and should be applied to existing and future MOOCs.



William Perry served as the nineteenth Secretary of Defense from 1994
to 1997. Sarah Sadlier and Kiran Sridhar, Stanford students, helped
design and teach the course.


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