THE BLOG
10/15/2013 10:06 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

MOOC-ing About in High Tech Ed and High End Global Dialogue

I'm about to venture into MOOC-land ("massive open online courses"), with my 21st Century American Foreign Policy course (starting October 20), as part of the Coursera consortium of which Duke University is a member, with two main objectives in mind.

One is educational: In between Nirvana-like grandiose claims and Luddite fears of change, what is the potential of high tech higher ed? Mine is a non-credit course more in the continuing education than degree-earning mode but with some lessons for for-credit applications of the technology.

The other is policy-political: With a subject likely to elicit strong views across what is a global student body, and with online as our means of instruction and communication, can we have an informed and respectful dialogue? If we can, it'd not only be significant educationally but also have political and policy implications.

As to the educational, I've been teaching university courses on American foreign policy and other aspects of international relations for over 30 years. Some have been large lectures, some medium-sized mixes of lecture and discussion, some seminars. My book, American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century, just published in its 5th edition by W.W. Norton, is used widely in universities in the US as well as internationally. I've also spoken to many groups around the US and internationally with general interests in foreign policy.

I go into this MOOC with a sense that these 21st century versions of the 1950s television "sunrise semester" take continuing education to a whole new level. If we really mean what we say about the importance of life-long learning, that is important in itself.

I also believe that online education can and should have more of a role in university degree programs, but how to optimally do so needs to be carefully thought through. Large lectures seem to have the greatest potential. Many professors already are using "flipped classrooms," making their own videos for students to watch and using the class time for further development of key ideas and discussion. This still brings the class together physically so retains the advantages of real contact and direct interaction. Going more massive online --- e.g., a number of universities using the same lectures -- would have to have comparable opportunities to digest and not just ingest, interact and not just intake.

I'm more questioning of whether MOOC-types should supplant smaller classes and/or ones that put heavy emphasis on developing research and writing skills. One doesn't have to wax nostalgic to acknowledge the impact a particular professor had in a class right-sized enough to have lots of interaction, and especially one that stressed research and writing. I consistently tell my students here at Duke that the content of the course is not just an ends in itself but a means to the ends of developing critical thinking, research and writing skills. Whatever career path they pursue thin analysis will hinder advancement, and bad writing will sink good ideas. I have a hard time seeing how online class sessions and machine-gradable assignments can develop these mindsets and skill sets.

As to the political-policy aspects of an American foreign policy MOOC: How is our discussion of issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict, China-Japan tensions, U.S.-Russia "re-re-set," U.S. policy towards Cuba, military intervention, and other highly charged topics going to go? Here's part of my opening message to students:

With thousands of people enrolled, from all over the world, there are going to be disagreements among us. That's natural. But ours needs to be an informed and respectful dialogue, in which people can disagree without being disagreeable. There's already way too much nasty, accusatory and mean-spirited rhetoric in the world. We'll both learn more from the course, and contribute positively well beyond the course, by making our message board and other communications a model of an informed and respectful dialogue.

Can we achieve this? We'll see.

The course is still open, we start October 20. You're welcome to check it out and help us make this both a valuable educational experience and an example of quality political and policy dialogue. We'll also be using a Twitter hashtag , #TeachForPol, if you want to follow/engage outside the course. And with thanks to HuffPo , I'll be back with some observations as the course proceeds.