IST professor to address U.S. Department of State about the impact of MOOCs

In recent years, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have enabled millions of people across the world to have access to free higher education. While the original purpose of the MOOC model may have been to make higher education more democratic, it is increasingly being used as a tool to foster mutual understanding between the United States and other countries, and provide an opportunity for students across the world to “test drive” a U.S. higher education experience.

Carleen Maitland, an associate professor at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), along with Eric Obeysekare, an IST doctoral student, are delivering a presentation to the U.S. Department of State on Friday (Oct. 17). They will discuss her research on international students’ experience with MOOCs and how the State Department has adapted the model to promote international relations, diplomacy and development.

Through the course of their research, Mailtand said, “we began to understand that for some international students, they were interested in learning the content of the (MOOC) course, but the course also represented an important cultural experience.” 

Maitland and Obeysekare, her advisee, will deliver a talk at the State Department’s new Collaboratory, which designs, pilots and spreads new ways to further educational and cultural diplomacy. One of the Collaboratory’s current projects is the design and coordination of the MOOC Camp initiative in which 205 courses have been taken by more than 4,500 students at more than 65 embassies and consulates around the world.

“We want students to connect with U.S. colleges and universities, and the State Department has long supported work to increase the number of international students studying in the United States,” said Meghann Curtis, U.S. Department of State deputy assistant secretary of academic programs.

A MOOC is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the Web. In addition to traditional course materials, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for students, professors and teaching assistants.

Maitland’s expertise includes both critical and practical analyses of international, sectorial and organizational contexts where information and communication technologies (ICTs) are used to foster economic and social development. Her work has been carried out in the U.S., Europe, Africa and the Middle East, while working with organizations such as the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), Save the Children and the U.S. State Department.

Maitland and Obeysekare started their research last spring, she said. As part of their efforts, they conducted interviews with U.S. embassies in locations such as Peru, Belize, Armenia, Macedonia, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In these interviews, Maitland and Obeysekare asked the MOOC Camp administrators about their program goals and received varying answers. Some Embassies use MOOC Camp to expand their social capital within their territory, while others are aimed at educating local citizens in areas that could improve their lives, such as sustainable development and entrepreneurship.

“It was just interesting to see how (the embassies) were making use of MOOCs,” Maitland said.

MOOC Camp involves facilitated discussions around MOOCs, OpenCourseWare and other free online courses. They are hosted at U.S. embassies, consulates, American Spaces and other public spaces around the world. Facilitated discussions are led by alumni who have participated in U.S. government exchange programs, such as the Fulbright Program, and U.S. embassy staff, who are familiar with the course materials and volunteer their time. The subjects offered in MOOC Camp range from entrepreneurship and college writing to science and technology.

“We have a strong interest in helping to meet the aspirations of young people, enhancing learning opportunities and offering skills and knowledge that they can use throughout their lifetimes,” Curtis said. “As a result, students are able to take courses from top U.S. universities, to gain useful new skills and knowledge, and to learn in a community of students who share their interest.”

The MOOC Camp initiative was launched in August 2013 and formally announced in October 2013. In the program’s inaugural year, embassies, consulates and partner institutions hosted more than 200 total courses in more than 60 countries. In the first year, on average, between 40 and 60 percent of the MOOC Camp participants completed their courses. In addition, camps in Kolkata, India, Kinshasa, DRC, Jakarta, Indonesia and many other locations had more than 80 percent of their participants complete their courses.  

The success of the MOOC Camp initiative, Curtis said, can be attributed to its innovativeness and flexibility. MOOC Camp utilizes a blended learning approach, in which students learn through a mix of online education and some in-person discussion or instruction. Along with weekly meetings, many facilitators also host enrichment activities, such as guest speakers, and working with professors of the actual MOOCs. For example, Curtis said, the U.S. embassy in La Paz, Bolivia, used Google+ Hangouts to connect Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to a group of undergraduate business students participating in the weekly discussions.

“MOOC Camp relies on the interest of communities of learners around the world and on the successful adaptation of the material to a cross-cultural context,” she said. “While courses are from U.S. institutions, meeting locally allows participants to look at how an issue is discussed in the United States, comparing it to their experience locally. This offers a richer perspective and helps create connections between our countries.”

Maitland’s research supports Curtis’ statements that blended learning plays an important role in localizing MOOC content. Her research finds that students and staff embrace the global nature of MOOCs, but this limits their meaningful engagement with course content.

“Facilitation helps with engagement, but may also provide benefits in social capital formation and logistical support where Internet access is constrained,” she said.

Maitland said that she expects an increasing number of international development organizations to use MOOCs as training vehicles for communities in underdeveloped countries. In addition to the educational benefits, her research finds that students also generate several forms of cultural capital through these programs. Based on her research findings, she has developed recommendations for organizations on how they can maximize the potential of MOOCs.

“By highlighting the cultural experiences students have, we’re trying to get people to see MOOCs in a different light,” Maitland said.

This project was supported by Penn State University's Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL). COIL's mission is to guide the transformation of teaching and learning processes by supporting researchers who invent, investigate and implement the effects of technologically enhanced learning environments. For more information, visit

Last Updated March 17, 2015