Dual-Purpose Online Courses for the Web-Grant University

August 18, 2014

You probably know that massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are an education revolution. It’s not uncommon for tens of thousands of people to participate in a single course. It’s also not uncommon for these courses to take a conventional approach to learning, as if still bound by the limitations of a classroom. But what if instead of purely academic pursuits, participants in these courses were engaged in service-learning or innovation activities? The educational outcomes and real-world impacts could be staggering.

Consider this. The Manhattan Project was arguably the most important research and development program in U.S. history. From modest beginnings in 1939, the project progressed enough in just 6 years to help end World War II. A comparable, but more peaceful, effort is needed to respond to many of our current challenges, whether poverty, climate change, water shortages, or inequality. Yet these challenges require a different approach from the centralized and secretive Manhattan Project. As journalist Tom Friedman puts it, “We need 100,000 people in 100,000 garages trying 100,000 things.” MOOCs make this broad participation achievable!

Sustainable Energy Innovation is my first attempt at a dual purpose MOOC. Course participants work through modules designed to help them identify energy innovations and move them from idea to reality. In addition to the participant learning outcomes, a unique goal for this course is that it helps participants create energy innovations that they actually implement. This second goal has not been easy to achieve, but I am encouraged by some recent successful examples. Project participants have already produced energy innovations that are slashing carbon dioxide emissions and saving millions of dollars in energy costs.

Nathan Beasley is one example. Nathan participated in a version of the Sustainable Energy Innovation course in Fall 2013. He is working on a project to make bicycles that provide transportation and help people do other vital tasks such as pump water, husk wheat, etc… These bicycles could raise the standard of living for many among the more than 3 billion humans living on less than $2.50 a day. Nathan, who is in the United States, worked with some of the other online course participants to learn more about challenges unique to developing regions. Through these and other contacts he made, Nathan is closer to reaching his goals for a project that not only provides bikes but also creates jobs and provides education in developing regions. Ultimately, he hopes the local communities will be able to take ownership of his project.

Nathan is exceptional. The crucial next step is to scale-up the project to engage more participants. Can we reach the 100,000 participant goal? Will this put a dent in our energy and climate challenges? It’s certainly worth finding out.

This webinar shares more detail about these preliminary efforts to connect service-learning, innovation and MOOCs. We discuss the course, what has worked (and not) in past offerings, and plans for improvement in future iterations.

It’s certainly not all figured out, or even close. But, together, I think we can come up with ways for MOOCs to have an even a bigger impact. What could your contribution be?

|Written by Clemson Online’s Leidy Klotz, Scholar in Residence and Associate Professor of Civil Engineering.

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