Reporting Back from MOOC-Landia

We're now halfway through my six-week Coursera MOOC (massive open online course), 21st Century American Foreign Policy (#AFP 21), about which I'd written for HuffPost on the eve of its launch. I want to share some of the experience thus far.

Enrollment is pretty global; check out this map representing a portion of the 20,000+ students. I do get more international students in my classes at Duke than I used to, but this is orders of magnitude beyond that.

True, intensity of interaction is not the same as in on-campus, for-credit, degree-granting courses (thoughts on this aspect of high-tech higher-ed in my prior piece). This is a non-credit, continuing-ed type of course. But here too technology helps a bit. We've done one Google Hangout, with about 15 students hooked in live and others watching the streaming; we'll be doing another this week and one at the end of the course, varying the time of day to accommodate the different time zones of our global student body.

Mine is one of the courses on which the State Department is partnering with Coursera. A few days ago we did a live session coordinated by the U.S. Beijing embassy and Shanghai and Guangzhou consulates with Chinese students taking the course. I've also gotten some Tweets from the U.S. Embassy in Finland about students they are working with.

And then there are the comments from students on the message board about the value of the opportunity to them, which without any claim to being a representative sample, are affirming and gratifying as to any teacher.

While all these help supplementally with direct interactions, most of the format still is non-synchronous. I record lectures (short ones, 4-6 per week constituting a unit), they watch and listen. More interactivity would be beneficial all around. On my end there's only so much personality one can inject while lecturing into a laptop camera; the ol' reliable jokes and asides that help lighten things are a lot riskier when you can't cue off facial and body language reactions. For students I'm sure staring at me and accompanying PowerPoints and visuals gets old. Given the rapidity of innovation and experimentation in these first couple years of online higher-ed, my guess is we'll soon have more options for making the educational experience more dynamic.

With U.S. foreign policy the subject matter, I've also viewed this as a policy-political experiment on whether with such highly charged subjects as the Arab-Israeli conflict, China-Japan relations, U.S.-Cuba, counter-terrorism, U.S.-Russia "re-re-set," and American exceptionalism, and with online as our means of instruction and communication, could we avoid verbal food fights and diatribes and foster civility of discourse?

So far it's been better than I feared, but less than I'd still like. We have had to lock a couple of threads on the discussion board that got abusive -- but only a few. We've also had discussion threads that not only have been informed but have churned ideas from the students that I'd put up against many of the expert blogs and sites.

This week we're doing a "your turn" exercise: if you could change one aspect of U.S. foreign policy, what would it be and what would you change it to? Back soon with answers worth reporting