What if We Had Social Justice MOOCs?

Social movement organizations face the task of convincing people that their particular issue is:

  • an injustice or crisis
  • to which there are alternatives or solutions
  • and that an individual’s participation is significant and meaningful in helping to achieve change.

They also must help build the skill set of people who already agree with them and who, in turn, will help organize others. All of these elements involve education.  Leaflets, teach-ins, workshops, alternative media publications, and websites have been among the educational efforts of social change organizations.

But, to my knowledge, social justice organizations haven’t fully exploited the web as a place for sustained education about the issues they address and the actions they advocate.  The web offers a platform that is low cost, widely accessible (even with continuing digital divide issues), highly engaging, multi-media friendly, and deeply social.  It would seem to be a valuable resource for movement organizers.  Yet, its use as an educational tool seems limited so far.

Meanwhile, in the broader society, education via the web has exploded.  From Ted Talks (“Ideas Worth Spreading”) to Khan Academy (“You can learn anything.”), the web is being used to learn things.  Perhaps most notoriously, MOOC efforts–with all their limitations–have targeted education and skill-development via the web.  Coursera, for example, offers series of free courses organized around areas of specialization, such as data science, business foundations, and the like.

What if there was an educational hub for promoting democracy, instead of only individual advancement?


Why couldn’t a broad progressive coalition produce a similar educational hub where anyone could learn about issues and develop basic skills useful for democratic participation?  Imagine the “course” list:

  • the basics of economic inequality and possible alternatives,
  • racism in America: how progress was made, what is needed now
  • change that works: inspiring examples and models from around the globe
  • what unions do, and how to start organizing one at your workplace
  • the theory and practice of nonviolent social action
  • how to build an effective website for your group
  • framing your group’s message to communicate effectively

The list of possible topics seems endless.  What would you want to learn?  What might you teach?

Progressive groups already have experience and expertise in teaching people about issues and skills. To name just a couple: United for a Fair Economy has long done popular economics education; the Center for Third World Organizing offers community action trainings; the Midwest Academy teaches about “Organizing for Social Change”.  But nearly all of these efforts still rely on face-to-face workshops, trainings, and institutes.  What if some of this material could also be offered online?  Not as a replacement for the more intensive face-to-face trainings, but as a broader stage on which to share some of the information and insights that activists have?  In some cases, academics could be tapped to offer context and “big picture” analyses  (Marshall Ganz’s organizing work comes to mind).

I’m not talking about traditional academic classes, though.  There’s no tuition, no credits, no exams, no semester structure.  This is popular education; imagine the Highlander Center Online; Freedom MOOCs!  Democratic education about democracy and the challenges it faces.

Mainstream MOOCs as they currently exist–and education more generally–are profoundly individual strategies and responses.  Improve your life by getting a credential or skill that will allow you to advance…individually.  This effort would need to be fundamentally different.  The real challenge would be designing online learning experiences that truly take advantage of the web’s potential to connect people and encourage further contact offline, perhaps connecting them with groups that already exist locally. (Traditional MOOCs already employ face-to-face meetups to supplement courses.)

Yes, there would be major issues:

  • A serious effort would require some staffing and resources–presumably all without fees or commercial sponsorship.  But setting up such an infrastructure would be relatively simple and could be done for a modest investment–a tiny, tiny fraction of what the labor movement spends in a single election cycle, for example.
  • Who and what are included?  Who decides?  On what basis?  How is quality maintained? How is debilitating political infighting minimized?  The politics of such a space would be a challenge but not insurmountable…and itself an exercise in democratic participation.

But, still, couldn’t Social Justice MOOCs be a useful addition to the democratic discourse?