Massively Open Online Course Enhances Critical Thinking and Cultural Understanding for Fourth Year in a Row

Enhancing learning and intercultural understanding have been hallmarks of World Learning since its inception. Expanding upon this mission, our growth in online programming since 2002 has enabled teachers to shift their practices to more active, student-centered learning while promoting critical thinking and intercultural understanding across the board.

This has proven possible, for example, in the format of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, where hundreds or thousands of participants join free online courses. From October 4 to November 15, 2021, World Learning offered, through the Open English Professional Network (OPEN) program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, a five-week MOOC titled “Integrating Critical Thinking into The Exploration of Culture in an EFL Setting.” The objectives of the MOOC were that, by the end of the course, participating teachers of English as a foreign language (EFL) would be able to:

  • Define critical thinking.
  • Describe themselves as cultural beings in relationship to their own and other cultures.
  • Develop their own beliefs about the teaching of culture in their context.
  • Learn and teach intercultural competence by practicing observation, multiple perspective analysis, and self-reflection.

The core content is presented in short, easy-to-read texts that are also usually presented in video format. (To see the playlist from the MOOC, click here. To see more of World Learning’s Global Development playlists, click here.) Each unit has one or two optional discussion forums facilitated by trained and mentored volunteer alumni facilitators. Due to high participant numbers in a typical MOOC, it is not possible to provide individual feedback.

How, then, can a MOOC assist a learner in the reflective practice necessary for making significant shifts in participants’ critical thinking levels and intercultural competence, or in a teacher’s practice? The first step is to have material that is both engaging and accessible enough to keep participants actively involved throughout, even if much of their work must be done online using downloadable PDF packets.

Another key element is the spiral structure of the course curriculum, where concepts are introduced early, and gradually expanded upon and interconnected through concrete, practical examples. Lastly, World Learning uses “proactive scaffolding” throughout the course, especially in self-grading, feedback-providing activities. Proactive scaffolding means that the course designers anticipate multiple areas of difficulty and build into the course user-friendly supports for the learners.

With engaging content and discussion forums, and structured courses that enable learning in intuitive and practical ways, World Learning’s MOOCs have demonstrated their value in fostering critical thinking and enhancing cultural competency. This is the fourth year in a row that this MOOC has been offered, and every time, the course has averaged a rating of 4.7 or 4.8 out of 5 stars by the participants. To date, 7,132 people have completed this MOOC and the most recent iteration had participants from 92 countries, while other iterations have had participants from more than 100 countries.

According to the most recent course survey, of 453 participants who completed all course requirements, 99.2 percent said that their ability to think critically had improved “some” or “a lot,” while 99 percent reported similar improvement in their ability to help students develop their critical-thinking skills. When it came to cultural competency, 98.8 percent of respondents reported a significant improvement in their ability to help their students learn about other cultures, while 98.4 percent improved their own intercultural competence.

Beyond the positive numbers, many participants pointed to the MOOC’s impact on both their professional and personal lives. “This course helped me to develop not only my cultural understanding but also the importance of critical thinking. Moreover, as I can share the knowledge and techniques for critical awareness of culture with my students, this course met my professional goals,” said one participant.

“Not only is this helpful to my profession as a teacher but also to me personally,” said another participant. “As I was going through each of the material posted, it also made me think of myself, my culture, and about other cultures, and the differences we all have. And that these differences should be acknowledged so that real understanding will be reached.”

One participant noted how the course enabled her to teach her students to be world citizens, “willing to learn at every moment of their lives and aware of what makes each ‘cultural being’ different from them. My aim is to lead them to shape their profile of thinking, [becoming] knowledgeable, reflective, risk-taking, caring, open-minded, balanced, good communicators. I’m pretty sure I will succeed in doing so by applying cultural and critical thinking skills in all my sessions.”

“One of things that I love about this MOOC is hearing about the ways teachers who have taken the course then implement the practices in their classes. Many others have shared their knowledge and experiences with other teachers in their communities through conferences and articles. Just yesterday I learned about a TESOL conference in Honduras where a former participant is offering a workshop on the topic,” said Dr. Kara McBride, lead designer of the MOOC and Senior Education Specialist at World Learning.

Ultimately, this MOOC continues to take participants from around the world beyond the traditional classroom setting to broaden their horizons through intercultural understanding and critical thinking, setting them up for both professional and personal success, and impacting the students they teach along the way.

World Learning empowers people, communities, and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.