Nonprofit organizations are no strangers to professional development opportunities. In just over six months, I have attended a variety of community meetings, trainings, seminars, and even a conference. While the topics ranged from youth behavior to corporate culture, one thing remained constant: the trainings served as hubs for community partners. When attending these types of events, I may shake hands with a representative of the local chapter of the Boys & Girls Club or even be introduced to an entirely new organization. But afterward, it seems that our organization often struggles to implement the ideas explored during these trainings, and I have a hard time deciding whether these events are for the content or the publicity.
Recently, however, the NPO I serve broke this mold. Several of our staff members (including me) decided to participate in a MOOC together. The hours spent learning online would count toward professional development and I could do it on my own schedule, without even leaving my house. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that maybe something was missing. What would we do, as an organization, with this newly acquired knowledge? In the nonprofit world, whenever learning occurs, concerns of implementation are never far behind.
Once the MOOC began, we supplemented the digital content with lunchtime sessions—dare I say, the NPO’s take on the graduate seminar. This small group of educated/educating minds sitting apart from the world reawakened one of my greatest worries about formal education; that is, the course content tends to get stuck within certain barriers. I fear that many brilliant ideas may never get an audience simply because they were written for a grade rather than for the “real world.” Such a strict dichotomy need not exist. A classroom should, of course, serve as a safe space to explore concepts and gain knowledge. And then it should act as a starting point toward something greater.
By participating in a MOOC within a nonprofit, we were perfectly situated to take direct action in the community. With the MOOC as the content provider on one side, and nearly a dozen area schools on the other, our organization could now serve as a bridge between the two communities that may not have otherwise met. We weren’t in it for a grade (in fact some of us, including myself, even “failed” according to the course requirements). The quizzes weren’t valuable to us. Rather, we took from the course the things that were actionable in our context.
With the common language of the course, our organization was able to reconsider many practices we have had in place for years and assess them in light of new evidence. The course identified how KIPP Charter Schools approached education through character-building in the classroom. While we don’t have classrooms per se, we do have multiple learning spaces throughout the community. We took the knowledge acquired from the MOOC and applied it to our tutoring and academic enrichment activities.
In contrast to the trainings we had previously attended, the MOOC was scaffolded, regularly scheduled, and ongoing (for the duration of the course). This course structure provided our organization with several opportunities to discuss the content over many weeks. We didn’t have the opportunity to meet other area educators, but we did create a community of learners with a common organizational goal. Together we sought to use this information to help us better serve our students.
We finished the course over a month ago now, and I find we are still using the language and concepts regularly. While I am not without my hesitations about the effectiveness of massive digital classrooms, I find that this experience alleviated many of my fears about educational barriers. We didn’t simply learn it and leave it in the back of our minds. When the result is direct action, or implementing positive social change, education certainly becomes more than a mark on the transcript or a notch on the professional development belt.
So, what happens if we apply this model to activist communities?
A MOOC could serve as a site of resistance. Imagine global classrooms that inspire local action. Imagine a course designed by a labor union covering how to organize, mobilize, and take action. Consider how actionable such an educational opportunity could be: a relevant history of the labor movement, enhanced with digital tools to help locate other nearby activists, and a final project that inspires participants to take action.
Alternatively, imagine a course on sustainable, locally-sourced food, informed or even taught by urban gardening initiatives from around the world. The final project could encourage participants to design a project appropriate for their local context. Again, the digital platform could provide the tools necessary to begin implementation, and mobilize the community around a common social cause.
The possibilities are as endless as our collective imaginings and our need for positive social change. Through years of a fairly nomadic lifestyle, I have observed that while a given community’s challenges may be localized, they are by no means local. Poverty, social inequality, and access to education, among others, are global concerns. Accordingly, open and global classrooms may serve a crucial role in the fight against injustice. So, keep learning, organizing, and taking action.