This month the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning held its annual conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was invited to serve on the Presidential session on Distance Education and Planning Education – What are the key opportunities and issues? I learned about the University of Florida’s online degree in planning, as well as Kansas State Universities multiuniversity degree in community development. The focus of my talk was on the future of planning education, giving consideration to the future of i or e textbooks and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).
Many of the participants universities had recently signed onto various MOOC platforms such as Coursera, EdX, and Udacity. I raised questions, such as what should our role as planning educators be in MOOCs? Is this part of the land grant mission of many of our universities? What are the benefits of having well educated citizen planners? Is this a marketing opportunity to attract more students to our noble profession? What is the benefit that we are providing and the benefit we are receiving?
We all agreed that there is no business model yet, but should the lack of business model stop us collectively from proceeding with engaging in MOOCs. One audience member raised the concern about devaluing the university and our profession making the comparison to what has happened with the journalism and the rise of citizen journalists (blogging, etc).
After the session, several of us agreed that this is an important topic that merits further dialogue. I suggested that we bring this dialogue to our international joint ACSP/AESOP conference this summer in Dublin, Ireland.I put out a call on our planning listserv to find colleagues interested in collaborating on this session. Within a minute I had a response from Tom Sanchez of Virginia Tech, whom had expressed strong interest at the session in Cincinnati.
As I was pulling this panel together and reading more and more about MOOC’s, I thought how can we possibly have a strong dialogue when none of us has taught a MOOC. Sure we have plenty of experience in distance education, but not in the current iteration as MOOCs.
I asked Tom if he’d be willing to co-teach a MOOC with me. We both teach similar courses on technology for planners at our institutions. Tom was an eager and willing partner. I’m fortunate that Tom shares my get it done attitude. In just one short week we went from our idea to having a Coursera course ready to announce.
TechniCity is our brain child (should be live on Coursera in the next week). We took a look at what we were offering in our existing courses and thought about how we can broaden out a bit to make this a course of interest to a broad community. We debated who is our audience? City planners, of course! Urbanites, yes! Engineers and computer scientists, absolutely. Our course looks at how technology shapes our cities. Exploring how we design tools to engage with the public, how we analyze the city, the infrastructure the drives our cities growth, and the role that creative entrepreneurs have in making our cities great.
I’ve been absorbing everything I can about MOOCs. I’ve found that the student blogs have been particularly helpful in understanding what people enjoyed and did not enjoy about their courses. I signed up for three MOOC’s Social Network Analysis, Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, and Community Change in Public Health to get a handle on how these are structured, the positives and negatives. All of this helped in developing the concept of what TechniCity should be.
What role should the MOOC play? What is its purpose and what should participants get from it? I settled on the idea that a MOOC is a virtual salon. The French and Italians were famous for their salons during the 16th through 18th centuries. The basic idea is that a group of people would get together at the home of an inspiring host to have invigorating conversation and have fun. The idea of the MOOC as a salon resonated with me. The salon served as an informal university for women, allowing women to pursue a form of higher education. Women engaged in stimulating academic discussion. The salon hosts selected the subjects of the gatherings, focusing on social and political topics for example. The host played the role as mediator, directing the discussion.In my mind each MOOC course can serve as the salon, encouraging informal university education. My role is as the salon host, selecting the weekly topic for discussion. Students view and read about interesting topics and then engage in dialogue and share their experiences.
The challenge of course is how to create a salon-like atmosphere for thousands of students. Tom Sanchez and I are going to strive to experiment with a variety of opportunities for peer engagement. Similar to Charles Severance’s office hours for Internet History we’ll be organizing in person salons. Of course the point is that this is an online course and you shouldn’t need to go anywhere. So we will also be experimenting with a variety of online engagement opportunities. As city planners we are very interested in online engagement of citiizens. We should be thinking the same for our students. We welcome thoughts and ideas for how we can creating an engaging space for students to share their ideas and experiences.
Stay tuned. I’ll continue to report out on our experience in preparing for and teaching TechniCity.