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Globalization class reaches worldwide with free, online course

September 2, 2014

Professor Matthew Sparke’s “Introduction to Globalization” course has long been popular with UW students and international studies majors. But Sparke sees the material in his class as equally relevant to a broad spectrum of people who are coping in a globalized world. “The course is about how minds and decisions are shaped by all the economic and political interdependencies that we call globalization,” he said.

matt_sparkeTo make his course materials more widely available, Sparke created a massive open online course – or MOOC – on the topic. MOOCs are free online courses delivered through platforms, such as Coursera, which allow students to access videos, readings and discussion forums on a specific topic.

While online learning has been a popular, and sometimes controversial, topic of discussion in academic circles for years, the more recent introduction of MOOCs has baffled institutions of higher education because they cost a lot to create without an immediate return on investment. The quality of courses also vary widely.

Sparke sees room for both MOOCs and online degrees, which he stressed are very different from one another. Sparke is also Director of the B.A. in Integrated Social Sciences (ISS), a new UW degree-completion program that is entirely online. He doesn’t see MOOCs as a danger to tuition-based education unless the courses start to displace other academic voices. “I think we can offer MOOCs as a form of educational broadcasting that doesn’t undermine other faculty and institutions,” he said.

But he did share his concern that the expense of creating a MOOC might mean that only elite universities have the resources to do so, leading to limited points of view online. The recording and organization of the video lectures for his own MOOC were funded through the ISS budget because the same materials will also be used alongside additional assignments and exams as an online course in the new online degree.

Sparke does not plan to offer any sort of certification of completion for his MOOC (which some MOOCs offer for a fee). Instead, he said, “I hope the experience of taking a global online class about globalization with other participants from all over the world will yield its own benefits for everyone involved.”

Final evaluations from the course have been coming in and have been overwhelmingly positive, Sparke said. A common refrain among students is that the course gave them a new perspective and a more thorough understanding of the implications of globalization. Several said they would be recommending the course to others.

According to demographics provided by Coursera, the majority of Sparke’s students already have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Only about a quarter do not have a B.A. degree. “The profile of students is so different,” Sparke said comparing the MOOC to his undergraduate class at UW. “The students come from all walks of life. Many of them are older and have the time and interest to put their energy into online courses.”

Sparke said he even met with a group of Seattleites who are taking the MOOC and have created their own in-person discussion group. Other geographic discussion groups have also formed, including one in Abuja, Nigeria.

A total of more than 45,000 students from 196 countries have clicked the enroll button for Sparke’s MOOC, though only about 15,000 of those have engaged with the course. Sparke in turn expects about 2,500 people will complete the course. Statistics from the course show the highest percentages of enrollees are from the United States, India and China. About 40 percent of enrollees are from emerging economies, according to Coursera.

Sparke plans to leave the course materials up and freely accessible on the Coursera platform for the coming academic year. “Everyone is welcome to watch them at any time,” he notes, “and feedback from JSIS alums is always welcome too!”

Professor Matthew Sparke’s “Globalization and You” on Coursera:


– By Kristina C. Bowman,