Diversity and Democracy

A Collaborative Alternative to MOOCs: AASCU's Global Challenges Project

How can we best prepare students to be culturally competent, globally aware citizens capable of leveraging the knowledge and skills necessary to engage difficult global issues? Failure to provide such an education invites a grim future for all, but determining how best to do so can be daunting. To foster creative approaches to teaching about global challenges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) created its Global Challenges Project. Conceived by George Mehaffy, AASCU’s vice president for academic leadership and change, the project (which I direct) uses technology effectively and cost-efficiently to support faculty as they educate students to become globally competent and engaged citizens.

Massive Collaborative Design

The Global Challenges Project is the first offering developed using AASCU’s Red Balloon model. The model draws its guiding metaphor from a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency exercise where teams used the Internet and social networking to locate red balloons scattered around the country. The winning team of five individuals found all ten balloons in less than nine hours by relying on a social network of some four thousand people. George Mehaffy (2010) thought that American classrooms could benefit from a similar model, one that relies on the “wisdom of the crowds” and uses technology to connect faculty and students in building content superior to what any single faculty member might be able to create alone.

The Global Challenges Project deploys this model while building on the Seven Revolutions framework developed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a leading nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC. CSIS developed the framework as a lens through which to consider seven key drivers of global change: population, resources, technology, information, economies, conflict, and governance. As participants in the Global Challenges Project, faculty from multiple disciplines on a dozen campuses across the country collaborated to design learning objectives (see sidebar below), lessons, assignments, activities, quizzes, and exams associated with these seven global challenges. These scholars have assembled valuable teaching resources—including videos, books, articles, and web-based materials—that they have refined on their home campuses and through institutes and workshops around the country.

These materials have evolved into what AASCU is calling a Massive Collaboratively Designed Course. An effective alternative to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), the course curriculum is available for use on any campus. Created collaboratively, the course encourages collaboration in another sense: it provides educators with a set of tools to bolster their teaching in content areas outside of their disciplines, allowing modifications to make the best use of an instructor’s particular expertise, to highlight issues of special relevance to the campus or the community, and to meet specific learning objectives. The course uses a blended model, where supplemental assignments and interactions outside of the classroom allow students to meet face-to-face less often than in a conventional course. Finally, project offerings include a pre- and post-course test, and campuses using these materials can join a national assessment effort aimed at measuring students’ learning and attitudinal shifts. Nationally, faculty use the Global Challenges course in a wide range of settings, including honors programming, first-year experiences, writing or speaking classes, global studies classes, and discipline-specific courses.

Example: Fort Hays State University

At Fort Hays State University (FHSU) in Hays, Kansas, the course has been taught by faculty from multiple disciplines as an offering in the upper-division integrative component of the general education program. Students come from all majors, and although most are in the upper division, the course also serves freshmen and sophomores in FHSU’s Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science (KAMS). In fall 2013, international students comprised about one-third of students in the course, a composition that added to the richness of the global conversation.

The FHSU course builds on several elements included in the AASCU Global Challenges course shell, which students access in lieu of a textbook at a cost of $50 per student. (The course shell comes bundled with a digital subscription to the New York Times, allowing students to examine global challenges through the lens of evolving news and current events.) Adopting the learning objectives developed by the AASCU scholars, FHSU faculty begin the course by requiring students to identify relevant issues and trends, and ultimately ask students to create solutions to the seven challenges. In addition to studying the seven challenges, students explore the futures perspective, considering possible, probable, and preferable futures (see, for example, Bell 2010).

Like sections on other campuses, the FHSU course connects local and global issues. For example, in fall 2013, students considered the impact of changes to China’s one-child policy alongside the effects of demographic shifts in Kansas as the population migrates from rural to urban areas. The FHSU course further connects local and global questions using the AASCU course’s prepackaged Global Village assignment, where each student adopts a different role in a village demographically representative of the world’s actual population. Throughout the semester, students research and blog about how each of the seven global challenges affects their global villager. In the fall 2013 course, faculty modified the assignment by having students share their blogs in class presentations and discussions, thus adding oral presentation skills to the course learning outcomes.

Faculty on many campuses, including FHSU, have added a service-learning component to the course. Students implement a local solution to a specific global challenge, making even more explicit the connection between thinking globally and acting locally. During the fall 2013 semester, a group of Chinese students, concerned about water shortages in their home country and in Kansas, mounted a public awareness campaign to help educate FHSU students about water waste and to encourage conservation. Likewise, a group of KAMS students hosted a popular rockets and robotics workshop to inspire interest in technology among area grade-school children.

Promising Evidence

Preliminary assessment data and anecdotal evidence suggest that the Global Challenges Project is effectively advancing global learning and engagement. With challenging content and tested pedagogical approaches, the course confronts students with the promise and peril of our interdependent world. Most students who have encountered the material have responded with a sense of social responsibility and a desire to take action—signs of civic learning at its best.

Global Challenges Project Course Learning Objectives


Upon completion of the course, students will be able to

  1. Identify issues, trends, and impacts for key global challenges, drawing from various disciplines;
  2. Explain the relationships between and among global challenges;
  3. Employ credible resources in learning about key global challenges;
  4. Analyze political, economic, social, and/or environmental impacts of key global challenges;
  5. Evaluate approaches and/or solutions to key global challenges;
  6. Create a solution toward a more preferable future for issues related to one or more key global challenges.


Upon completion of the course, students will have

  1. Developed a sense of global empathy to better understand how these trends are affecting and being affected by different groups of people;
  2. Recognized the importance of key global challenges;
  3. Acquired an intellectual curiosity about key global challenges;
  4. Developed an interest in taking action and being engaged locally or globally.

The following scholar campuses have participated in the Global Challenges Project: California State University–Fresno; Dalton State College (Georgia); Fort Hays State University (Kansas); Fort Lewis College (Colorado); Georgia College and State University; Kennesaw State University (Georgia); Northern Arizona University; Richard Stockton College (New Jersey); Southeast Missouri State University; University of Arkansas at Fort Smith; University of Minnesota Duluth; and Western Kentucky University. To learn more about the Global Challenges Project, visit www.AASCUGlobalChallenges.org. To learn more about the Seven Revolutions framework, visit www.CSIS.org.


Bell, Wendell. 2010. Foundations of Futures Studies: Human Science for a New Era. 2 vols. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Mehaffy, George. 2010. “Medieval Models, Agrarian Calendars, and 21st-Century Imperatives.” Teacher-Scholar: The Journal of the State Comprehensive University 2 (1): 4–20. http://www.fhsu.edu/teacher-scholar/resources/Current-Issue/medieval_mod....

Shala Mills is chair and professor of political science at Fort Hays State University and national coordinator of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Global Challenges Project.

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