A lone student in Singapore sits at a computer, carefully taking notes during a lecture about engineering. Another student does the same across the world in a house in Brazil, and another is listening to the same lecture in an apartment in Australia.
These students are all benefiting from a relatively new trend in online learning: MOOCs, shorthand for massive open online courses, which are being offered by major American universities. Some of these courses draw as many as 100,000 students, each one learning for free, with no admission requirements.
The upside is obvious: Lectures from brilliant professors are available to everyone—and these are not one-off TED talks or videos of old lectures. They are full, ongoing courses that really teach something.
Until now, the glaring downside has been that these students lack anything close to the communication with professors or teaching assistants that "traditional" online learning (yes, it's now been around long enough for us to use that term) offers. Many of them also lack the chat-room interaction with other students that online courses are known for.
But the State Department is expanding its program to offer MOOC access and group support to a growing number of international students.
Increasingly, students "come together around the world," says Craig Weidemann, Penn State's vice president for outreach and vice provost for online education. "You might have a group at a coffee shop in Brazil or India,” he says, who have “come together around a topic and are trying to learn from one another.”
Launched in October, the program now includes consulates and embassies in more than 40 countries. These include Iraq, where students can enroll in a MOOC taught by the University of California, Berkeley, on written English.
The program adds rocket fuel to a growing trend that online learning experts were already seeing with MOOCs: small groups of students gathering in coffeehouses or Internet cafés to listen to MOOC lectures and tackle coursework together, sharing support and learning from one another.
But "the real richness with MOOCs is the engagement of students coming together around the world around topics," Weidemann says, and the State Department program is encouraging just that.
Until now, a big challenge for global online classes has been access to reliable broadband connectivity. MOOC Camp takes care of that.
Ideally, access to MOOCs and group support will bring students closer to their goals.
Weidemann says a recent Brown University MOOC explored the question “Is engineering right for you?” For a student who hasn’t been encouraged to aim for a career in science or technology, such a course is a chance to “realize you’ve got an aptitude for this,” he says.
Whether that leads to studying in the U.S. or in one's home country, it can be the beginning of a bright future.