A consortium of small colleges and universities in developing nations around the world is collaborating on a multidisciplinary course that delivers many of the merits of MOOCs but also provides experiential education directed at pressing local needs. The desired result of this pilot is a powerful blend of multidisciplinary scholarly perspectives, global insights from direct interactions with academics around the world, and applied experience such as comes from helping host communities confront barriers to their sustainable development.
Massive open online courses are invaluable sources of knowledge delivered to every corner of every continent. One can hardly overstate the revolutionary and potentially empowering contribution of MOOCs toward human development as they stream information across recently bridged digital divides. However, what’s missing from this Internet-delivered treasure trove is the focused insight and skill that comes from analyzing, understanding, and working on issues of local importance.
MOOCs from major universities in the United States or Britain are necessarily sweeping in scope – and often laced with informative case studies – but they rarely if ever speak to the specific conditions and challenges that a given student experiences every day. In this respect, MOOCs are geographically generic, lacking the capacity to drill down to the granular details and nuanced elements of a regional issue. So while institutions of higher learning will do well to tap MOOCs for their powerhouse instructors and insightfully articulated content, they should also look to the development needs of their host communities for learning opportunities that provide direct experience, not to mention the rewards that come from confronting, analyzing, understanding, and surmounting a local challenge.
American University of Nigeria (AUN) is trying to reconcile the efficiency of MOOCs in knowledge-sharing with the skill-building experience that comes from community service that is directly tied to local needs. In the pilot course described here, we are introducing a third element, which has an intimate connection with local issues in other parts of the world, not just in reading or videos, but through the receipt of tailored content from and interaction with participating faculty from around the globe.
The subject matter for the pilot course is water; the venues are Africa, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Lebanon, and the United States. The course, entitled Global Explorations of Water,  is multidisciplinary, exquisitely relevant, and locally originated, albeit from multiple communities. Water is of course supremely important in all the venues, but in different ways that call for a breadth of understanding and versatility of analysis.
The course grew out of the work of the Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA), a Great Lakes Colleges Association-based initiative dedicated to supporting liberal arts in higher education and fostering global connections among faculty members in both teaching and research. For several years, GLAA has hosted workshops that convene professors from many disciplines and countries for training and facilitated interactions. Last summer’s three-day workshop at the College of Wooster focused on water in the fullest spirit of the liberal arts tradition, with a rich potpourri of lectures, exhibitions, performances and field trips in art, faith, science, policy, technology, and management. The attendees from the countries listed above spoke to their region’s most pressing issues surrounding water. For instance AUN’s representative described desertification and flooding that arises from deforestation; Forman Christian College’s (Pakistan) attendees discussed agriculture and biofuels.
The faculty member from Earlham College addressed environmental justice in the Great Lakes region. Other colleges brought forth similarly diverse and pertinent issues and perspectives.
The course’s design and delivery is straightforward, requiring no special software. Faculty members select, develop and post their content in one of a number of places on the web, sometimes videotaping classroom lectures and other times simply speaking into their computers and referencing accompanying presentation slides. The online materials are available to students and faculty members at any of the participating institutions. Several faculty members have taken themselves or their classes into the field, videotaping hilltop mini-lectures, discussions, and interviews with stakeholders on local water issues.
The switchboard for the course is a website that provides basic information and points to the pertinent content on the web, be it faculty-posted materials, TED Talks, or literary readings.
Videoconferencing is another, powerful element of the course. The interactions between African students and faculty from abroad add a dimension that reading or videos never could. For instance, we at AUN have had students briefly describe their assignments to faculty from widely varying disciplines and geographies to receive feedback and perspective that a single local instructor could scarcely offer.
As mentioned above, this fall’s pilot offering is driven by AUN, whose faculty and students post the lion’s share of content. Faculty from other countries and disciplines who participated in the GLAA workshop are also posting content on regional water issues that speaks to their expertise, addresses their local challenges, and tailors itself to the overall themes of the course.
Although AUN students are the only ones participating in this pilot course, the content and lessons learned will be available next spring to the faculty in Pakistan, Lebanon, Bulgaria, and the U.S., as well as a possible sequel at AUN. It will be the instructors’ prerogative to select among the already available web-posted content, to develop and post their own, and to assign their students the appropriate community-based learning experience. To access this content, the instructor may choose to develop his or her own switchboard website. The instructors will also have the chance to arrange video conferences with their colleagues from afar. Looking forward, Global Explorations of Water will likely become a “cumulative course,” updated each semester with new content while drawing retrospectively on content from earlier offerings. The richer and more diverse this content – and the greater the selection available to a given instructor – the more the course will assume the merits of a MOOC, although never at the expense of local relevance and experiential learning.
Charles C Reith is interim provost and director of sustainability at American University of Nigeria.