Why no MOOCs on Gaza?

Note: the Inside Higher Ed version of this entry is available here.


I don’t know about you, but my sense is global politics seems to be on the up this summer regarding turmoil and debate. And, consequently, there is a lot of debate about conflicts in places like the Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and so on.

In this context I watched some fascinating, if depressing, documentaries last night on PBS’ Frontline. They focused on Syria and Iraq and were relatively well done, helping me to learn more about these complex countries and their associated conflicts.

While I’m lucky enough to get PBS on TV, many people are not, both here in the US and abroad. Moreover, even though the Frontline shows were longish documentaries, the one on Iraq (‘Losing Iraq‘) was only 84 minutes; a length of time requiring focus and exclusion, especially regarding material on historical context, as well as the differing standpoints on the same issue or debate.

Now I know there are some fantastic courses and deeply knowledgeable experts in research universities regarding these ongoing conflicts and complex places.  And MOOC platforms are, as we now know, structurally biased in favor of partnering with highly ranked research universities. Aha, I thought, what a perfect role for MOOCS — 3 or 5 or 8 weeks worth of rigorous analysis and facilitated deep learning via free and easily accessible MOOCs! The perfect complement to quickfire media coverage, often uncontexualized and implicitly biased in one direction or another.

My search, though, for MOOCs on Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Gaza came up with…nothing. Zip.

Admittedly I was held back by the absence of effective content search functions on the majority of MOOC platform sites.  There is virtually no capacity to search through content by keyword, at least as far as I can see. Here is how select MOOC platforms deal with curious prospective students:

  • Coursera: you can only search by course title, broad topics (e.g., social psychology), and partner university names
  • EdX: you are only provided with a drop-down menu on topics (e.g., Computer Science, Law, Social Sciences)
  • FutureLearn: you can only browse by course title
  • iversity: you browse or search by course title

Only Udacity allows keyword searching in a very easy to use way. But Udacity is not the type of platform to serve up social science or humanities MOOCs that are most likely to deal with these places and their associated conflicts.

But I digress so back to my main point in this entry: where are the MOOCs on Gaza? Where are the MOOCs on Iraq? Etc., etc.

These are not insignificant places and conflicts. And to be sure handling vigorous student participation would require great planning and focus. But there is, arguably, a real need for public service to enhance deep learning on complex events versus generic or broad disciplinary takes (e.g., international relations). I suspect a lot of people (alumni included!) would benefit from engaging with a well planned and executed MOOC on the history and politics of Gaza & Israel right now.

Are universities with MOOC initiatives just searching for low-hanging fruit (i.e. existing broad undergraduate courses that can be morphed into MOOCs)? Are universities and professors just risk averse regarding potentially controversial ‘open online’ course topics? Are MOOCs the equivalent of taste-testers (at food festivals) for university courses and programs, a charge I’ve often heard directed at one MOOC platform. Perhaps the international collaborative potential of MOOC platforms has not been recognized, yet, and relevant professors and researchers in various countries/universities/think tanks have not yet worked together to create the ideal MOOCs on these places and associated conflicts?

Or maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree and I should just be satisfied with quality non-fiction books, TV stations like PBS, and some periodically good coverage in select media outlets?

Kris Olds



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