Over the past eight months, USIP’s Academy has launched 8 self-paced, online courses, registering more than 3,000 people in more than 134 countries. The work, however, is not solely a numbers game. Peacebuilders, activists and educators working in conflict zones must be able to take the knowledge, skills and perspectives that USIP offers online and adapt them for their own specific needs in the field.  A case of young Khmer activists in Vietnam and Cambodia and another involving students in Hawaii interested in peacemaking illustrate the need.

Joshua Cooper works with young Khmer activists. Photo credit: Joshua Cooper.
Joshua Cooper works with young Khmer activists. Photo credit: Joshua Cooper.

Joshua Cooper, a lecturer at the University of Hawaii and director of the Hawaii Institute for Human Rights used USIP’s online course, Civil Resistance and Dynamics of Nonviolent Conflict, with a group of indigenous Khmer youth in Vietnam and Cambodia who are organizing for rights and justice with the help of supporters around the world, and separately with a group of his students in Hawaii. The goal of the course is to enhance nonviolent strategies and empower more people to understand the dynamics of nonviolent civic mobilization.

The idea in each case was to integrate the online course with on-site work. Cooper saw the online course as valuable not only for individuals wanting to learn on their own but also for groups that want to learn together.

Cooper works with the Khmer youths and spiritual leaders as an adviser to a United Nations program. The activists include members of the organization Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation. During the period when they used the Civil Resistance coursework, they met every Sunday, joining together via Google hangout from all over the planet – from Hawaii to Phnom Penh to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to Seattle and Florida.

They started each of their meetings with a short overview outlining the session’s relevance to current campaigns for human rights in Southeast Asia.  Throughout the week, they would post their insights along with links to specific podcasts and videos from that week’s session onto social media sites. That enabled the participants to share what they were learning with other youth leaders in their networks who are regular participants at the United Nations, in the international arena and in the ASEAN People’s Forum, a conference held each year prior to the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.  

The use of the online course allowed a global group of front-line activists and community leaders to establish an agreed instructional pace appropriate for their needs, ask immediate questions of one another, share common ideas and foster informal discussions, online and offline. They also took the knowledge, skills and perspectives that were shared and presented during the online course and applied them to current struggles in Cambodia, such as the ongoing protests that followed the general elections in July 2013, partly over Vietnamese influence in Cambodia and over low wages for garment workers.

Political science course

Separately at the University of Hawaii – West Oahu, Cooper’s students agreed the online course would be a good addition to the readings in their Introduction to Political Science course. Each week, they would review one of the sessions online, listen to the podcasts together in class, and then debrief and discuss them as a group.

They applied the various methods for analyzing nonviolent conflict to current campaigns for justice in Hawaii and around the world. During the current events portion of the semester, the students connected lessons introduced in the online course to the youth-led movements in Venezuela and Taiwan.  One student’s final paper was a review of Taiwan’s Sunflower Revolution, based on these analytical tools.  They also discussed on how nonviolent resistance could have changed the current situation in Ukraine.

The students found particular inspiration in the “On the Ground” interviews featured in the online course. These are short video conversations with activists and organizers who have had direct experience in nonviolent action. So Cooper assigned the students to conduct their own “On the Ground” interviews with activists in Hawaii.  

With both of these groups – activists and students – the online course helped foster deep discussions about current strategies and tactics being incorporated in movements around the world, Cooper said. It also encouraged in-depth analysis of alternative direct actions that could challenge oppressive power structures and build broader nonviolent movements, he explained. 

In follow up conversations, he told me he intends to use the online course as a model for community campaigns and college courses to further inspire nonviolent struggles for human rights.  Next year, he will be integrating another USIP online course, Global Religious Engagement, into his work with faith-based communities. That course is currently in beta mode and being offered at no charge for a limited time.

Daryn Cambridge is a senior program officer in USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, where he leads curriculum development and educational design for Academy Online. For complete details of our online courses, see our web site. You can view a TedX talk by Cambridge entitled “Bridging the Distance: Teaching and Learning Peace Online.

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