For many who sign up for the courses, the experience is a solitary one. Students log on whenever they please and have no face-to-face interaction with virtual classmates.
Enter the U.S. State Department, which has launched a new initiative aimed at making online learning a more interactive experience for learners across the globe. The program, called MOOC Camp, invites people taking the courses to gather at U.S. embassies, consulates and other spaces over a period of several weeks to discuss class content. Discussions are led by Fulbright scholars, embassy staff or others with a connection to the State Department.
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The State Department ran a pilot version of the program over the summer but is starting a new group of courses this winter. Courses are being offered in India, Nigeria, Tanzania and Peru, among other countries. The State Department plans to announce new locations in coming days and weeks, and students are encouraged to check the department's website for new announcements.
The online courses, which are entirely free though not for credit, include subjects such as public speaking, college writing and entrepreneurship. Coursera, a well-known MOOC provider, has partnered with the State Department to carry out the program. The company provides guidance to course facilitators and collects and shares information about what is and isn't working in the classes.
MOOC Camp aims to provide a high-quality, American-style learning experience, Evan Ryan, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, wrote in an email. While the courses are open to anyone, she says young people in particular have much to gain from participating.
"Around the world, young people share a common desire for educational and economic opportunities," she wrote. "This program allows young people in particular to improve their English language skills and learn the basics of entrepreneurship. Both are vital in today's global economy. We also think that by experiencing U.S. higher education, they may become interested in studying in the United States."
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Sindy Louis-Gracieuse, a 31-year-old full-time physical education instructor, decided to take a MOOC through the program to increase her job skills.
Louis-Gracieuse was one of about 150 students who signed up for a University of California—Irvine course on emerging classroom technology for K-12 teachers during the State Department's pilot program in Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. Students in the course, which was provided through Coursera, gathered twice a week at a local university to discuss the concepts.
Louis-Gracieuse says she loved the chance to learn both online and with classmates – an approach that education experts call blended learning.
"Sometimes it's good to meet people and talk about your experiences and your difficulties and your challenges," says Louis-Gracieuse, who wants to use her new skills to become a better teacher.
"It's very encouraging that the U.S. is trying to help us to improve ourselves and be independent," she says. "When someone is trying to help you, you must go for it."
The State Department hopes to bring MOOC Camp beyond capital cities to rural areas where there is a need for education, according to Ryan. It's a lofty goal, but one that sometimes poses challenges.
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In Cotonou, Benin, for example, U.S. diplomats had no problem attracting interest in MOOC Camp. The only problem: The West African country's Internet connection was too slow for people to log on and watch the courses. So embassy officials used their own connection to download the courses and then burned them to DVDs, which the students could watch on their own time, according to Doug Johnston, a public affairs officer in Cotonou.