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WASHINGTON -- Minutes into a State Department-backed presentation on online courses, department officials tried to load and play a short video about the merits of MOOCs. The sound system seemed to be out, and the video wasn’t streaming properly. One panelist experimented, holding a microphone to the central computer.

“Sorry for the technical difficulties,” a State Department official said.

The lesson seems irresistible: technology yields rich possibilities, but also unforeseen complications.

MOOCs have become one of the United States’ major educational exports. In the first year of MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT through the online education site edX, two-thirds of the enrollees hailed from outside North America.

Now, some online education advocates argue that MOOCs can lure international students to colleges and universities in the U.S. The University of Pennsylvania has developed a MOOC precisely for this purpose: a course titled “Applying to U.S. Universities.” And the State Department has woven online courses into its international education agenda, with the hope that MOOC-driven outreach programs will entice foreign students to study in the U.S.

At a panel held here Tuesday, a Penn administrator and State Department officials advised U.S. higher education leaders on how colleges and universities could use MOOCs to recruit international students.

Many institutions would like to boost international enrollment. International students, ineligible for many forms of financial aid, frequently pay sticker-price tuition. They also enrich campuses by bringing with them knowledge of different languages, cultures, histories and landscapes.  

In the case of international recruitment, the desires of university leaders to diversify their campuses seem to dovetail with diplomacy goals. Recruiting international students to U.S. institutions is the “basic objective” of EducationUSA, a State Department-supported network of student advising centers, said Meghann Curtis, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for academic programs.

EducationUSA, which has sites in 170 countries, places advisers in U.S. embassies and consulates. These advisers give foreign students information about applying to American colleges and universities. The program aims to increase the “mobility of international students coming to the U.S. to learn about the U.S., understand our ideas, our values, our educational system, and then take that knowledge back to their home countries,” Curtis said.

Drawing foreign students to American institutions not only promotes international understanding; it’s also good for the economy, proponents contend. International students contributed $24 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2012-13 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report.

The State Department’s online education venture is the MOOC camp initiative, which the department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs began in fall 2013. International students taking MOOCs on a range of topics get together in person to discuss the content. Sixty-five embassies now host facilitated discussions of MOOCs. Facilitators are typically either embassy officials or alumni of government-funded exchange programs such as the Fulbright, said Paul Kruchoski, a policy adviser for the department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Between January and May 2014, roughly 2,000 students worldwide participated in these camps, Kruchoski said. The camps are free of charge. At most embassies, any student can participate. Meetings typically take place at U.S. government-owned locations. Program participants also get access to EducationUSA’s college advising resources.

With an in-person facilitator, camp participants completed the MOOCs “at a 40 to 60 percent rate” in the program’s first semester, Kruchoski said. The average MOOC completion rate is in the single digits (estimates range between 4 and 7 percent).

The courses come from Coursera and edX as well as providers such as Open Yale. English language, STEM subjects, and entrepreneurship rank among the most common State Department-recommended offerings.

English language is the most sought-after subject, Kruchoski said at the forum.

The MOOCs are always in English. In some places, the advisers facilitate the course in a local language. In Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, students discuss the MOOCs in French, Kruchoski said.

The department plans to add courses from Udacity in coming months.

Kruchoski said he’s heard anecdotes of people who have done the MOOC camps and subsequently enrolled at universities in the United States. “But we can’t demonstrate a causal relationship because it’s too soon,” he said.

Isolating a causal effect may be impossible, Curtis said. Students who participate in the MOOC camps are self-selecting. They’re often already interested in American higher education. Why else would they take U.S.-produced MOOCs run through a U.S. embassy? So it’s difficult to show that the MOOC camps themselves are drawing foreign students to American institutions.

Nonetheless, Curtis said, the initiative is “a great way to showcase excellent American colleges and universities.”

More Straightforward Approach

While most of the courses discussed in the MOOC camps showcase U.S. higher education indirectly, a University of Pennsylvania-produced course is less subtle. “Applying to U.S. Universities,” a four-week course that launched in March, attracted 20,000 enrollees. (Just 398 took the final exam -- which, to be fair, isn't an atypical outcome for a MOOC.)

Erick Hyde, the course’s instructor, said at the forum that the MOOC’s goal was to educate international students about the U.S. college admission process – not to drive applications to Penn. Hyde will teach the online course again in August.

IP address data showed that the biggest share of enrollees (about 17 percent) came from China, Hyde said. The U.S. had the second-biggest share, with roughly 16 percent.

Many of Coursera’s instructional videos are on YouTube, which China blocks. Hyde said there was “a lot of mystery” about how Penn’s MOOC was brought to China. Penn intended for the MOOC to be broadcast in China through mirror websites. Hyde said, however, that he wasn’t sure which Chinese site ended up hosting the course’s videos.

Although the so-called Great Firewall can apparently be circumvented, another test for MOOC proponents remains. The demographics of MOOC-takers may pose a challenge for diplomats and admissions officers who hope to use online courses as a college-recruitment tool.

For one, most MOOC-takers already have college degrees. Lee Ullmann, who facilitated a course in Santiago, Chile, said at the forum that he had 12 students in his group. Of the 12, only one was still pursuing an undergraduate degree. The rest had graduated.

Hyde, too, said he had more graduate students than undergraduates enrolled in his course.

MOOCs also tend to attract more men than women.

State Department officials said, however, that they were pleased with the MOOC camp initiative thus far.

“We’re going to keep running it until we see a reason not to,” Kruchoski said.

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