To say it is not the traditional classroom is a bit of an understatement. There are bright lights. There is makeup. Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are playing over the speakers as the professors and crew finalize preparations to go live. Behind the scenes there are nearly 20 monitors and a mix of professional staff and student trainees providing chat, tech, audio and visual support, and just making sure that the more than 800 students logged in and watching are actually receiving the course material through the other end of cyberspace. It is a production, and an impressive one, to say the least.
But make no mistake. There is serious teaching going on, and it is not what might immediately jump to mind when you think “online course.” The course is Government 312L, United States Foreign Policy, fulfilling the second half of the two-course sequence in American and Texas government required of all Texas college students. Perhaps the most noteworthy facet of this specific class is the team-teaching format, and the breadth of expertise covered by this particular team.
Pat McDonald is an expert in international relations. He focuses on international political economy and international security, and especially the relationship between capitalism and peace between states. Rob Moser is a student of comparative politics, and especially Russia and the former Soviet Union, and issues of democratization and electoral systems more broadly. Given that so much of US Foreign Policy involves the establishment or collapse of capitalist democracies across the world, McDonald and Moser are a forceful pair to tackle the many issues at hand, each able to add unique perspectives and strengths to course material and debate.
This live, online version of GOV 312L is designed very much with the purpose outlined by President Bill Powers in his August 2013 comments on technology-enhanced education, in which he states, “the purpose of investing our creative effort and resources in this work is clear: to transform our students’ lives, inspire their intellectual excitement, and prepare them as leaders.”
Working in their team format, the professors are presenting lecture material in 5-10 minute segments and then engaging each other in conversation and debating the material (McDonald received degrees from OSU and Minnesota, Moser from Nebraska and Wisconsin, so they are naturally prone to arguing with each other). And there will be live interviews with experts interspersed throughout. During all of this, students can interact with the professors and six teaching assistants through chat applications that allow them to post questions and comments.
One of the course goals is to push students away from thinking about politics in strictly partisan terms and instead gain a better understanding of the complexity shaping many important policy decisions that leaders face, while simultaneously fostering a healthy skepticism and willingness to challenge what elected politicians and opinion leaders say in the news. Another course goal is to confront ethical dilemmas facing American foreign policy.
To do this, one of the big questions the professors will take on is, what role, if any, should morality and ethics play in American foreign policy? This will involve examining specific initiatives, such as democracy promotion, but also ethical debates about balancing demands of security and liberty with potentially effective counter-terrorism tools such as torture and surveillance. The professors will also engage debates about economic and trade policy and global income inequality, and the tension between environmental policies and questions of ethical responsibilities to future generations. And these are only a handful of the topics to be explored.
Amidst this innovative, live, online, team format, there are still plenty of “must-dos” for the students. First, there are 24 seats available in the recording studio, and students can make advance plans to attend the lecture live. Second, there are two in-person exams that students must actually take on campus, at a testing center. There are online quizzes, and students must be logged in during the prescribed lecture time to take them or earn a “zero” for the assignment, and there is a take-home essay, to be submitted online. And if they want to review, recorded lectures are available online for students to watch as many times as they please.
To gain a taste of what this course is like check out the first few minutes of the course’s first live, online lecture.
The University of Texas Government Department is taking the lead in the fast-changing landscape of online undergraduate education. By the look of things, they have started off on the right foot.