Can a (free!) online course teach you “How to Change the World”?

Figuring out how to “change the world” is never a simple matter.

Here on Everyday Ambassador, we dive deeply into this quest by showcasing the stories and experiences of individuals who venture out into the world with a desire to be of service and to create positive change. As they build bridges between cultures and foster relationships with new communities, these EAs laugh and cry, live and learn. They find there’s no silver bullet. No simple answer. Even when issues of poverty, pain, and hardship are not rocket science to understand, the solutions that bring about positive change  often must happen over long time periods, and involve cooperation across many different parties. (And notably, in the end, it nearly always seems that changing the world is ultimately about changing ourselves first.)


In other words, “changing the world” is something that most likely won’t be achieved by sitting at a laptop. It requires some living, trying, doing, being.

But could it be possible to replicate this world-changing learning process into a digitally accessible format? Could it be addressed by a massive open online course (MOOC)? Might there actually be a set of formulas and rules to learn and follow? A definitive “how-to” that can be explained through a well orchestrated syllabus and expert professors?

Well, right now you have a chance to find out! Starting this past week on Martin Luther King Day, the 92nd Street Y and Wesleyan University launched a free MOOC called “How to Change the World” — and you can still sign up! For free. Right now!

As the course website details, each week professors will be asking three major questions about one of six key topics. The questions: (1) What do we know? (2) Why should we care? (3)What can we do? The topics:

  • Week 1: What are social goods?
  • Week 2: Poverty, Prosperity and Aid
  • Week 3: Climate Change and Sustainability
  • Week 4: Disease and Global Health Care
  • Week 5: Women, Education and Social Change
  • Week 6: Education, Social Networks and Activism

Personally, when I first learned of this course I felt skeptical; in a MOOC setting, students and professors are not interacting in-person, and the sheer volume of participating students negates the opportunity for classroom-style collaboration, brainstorming, interaction, and human connection. Isn’t it this very human connection that serves as a cornerstone for changing the world?

But reading into the course description, the details changed my thinking, to believe instead that this course could be a precious experience for anyone eager to build a foundation in public service and social change.

First off, the course organizers posit the guiding question of the course outright as, “How can we use the things we share in common to address some of the most challenging problems facing the world?”, emphasizing the important of finding common ground even across diverse communities. Secondly, the syllabus explains that the course is indeed action (and interaction) oriented; students are encouraged “to participate in the discussion forums, and to meet together when possible to discuss the issues raised in the class,” and will be asked to develop “action plans,” or, “concrete steps they can take to do something positive in relation to the global challenges discussed in the class.” And lastly, as the course leader, Wesleyan President Michael Roth, has a fantastic mission for this pioneering effort: “I think together, reaching across countries, reaching across economic groups, and reaching across political ideologies, we can make a difference. We can change the world.”

So I’m wondering – will you take this course? We encourage you to do so, and to let us know how you like it and what you learn! Additionally we would love to hear about any classes you are taking or teaching this semester related to this topic!

And on that note, I’m very honored to announce that I will be guest lecturing at Georgetown this Spring semester, for Jennifer Lentfer’s course “Communications for International Development” in the Master of Professional Studies Program in Public Relations and Corporate Communications. I wish I could take the entire course myself, check out this incredible course description!

How can a new generation of communications professionals embrace nuance without turning the public off? The primary goal of the course is to provide students an in-depth understanding of the key concepts that are the underpinnings of international aid and philanthropy work, such as advocacy, results, and sustainability. Case examples and guest lectures from international development experts will prepare students to lead communications for NGOs, government agencies, and CSR efforts. By the end of the semester, students will have compiled an online portfolio of products that represent their analyses of the “best” and “worst” of international development communications.

I’ll also be moderating a panel this weekend in Abu Dhabi at the NYU Global Student Leadership Summit, all about the values of cross-cultural communication and finding common ground no matter our differences, in the pursuit of positive social change. Later this week I will share a link with you to watch it live-streamed, and participate in a Twitter chat (#nyuleaders).

As we see often with our EAs on this site, “changing the world” is ultimately not something any of us can teach in a classroom or explain on a panel discussion, because it’s a personalized journey that has more to do with the changes we each need to make in our own lives. For some people that journey will involve MOOC coursework*, for others it means international travel, for others it might mean just speaking more regularly with a neighbor. But the most universal part of this journey is the self-reflection we encourage and promote on this website. Only through this awareness and understanding of our own perspectives can we hope to align and collaborate and cooperate with others, in the pursuit of a better world.

*PS – My dear friend Andrew Gruen is helping to run another free MOOC called “Content Strategy“, for anyone who wants to “significantly improve their ability to understand audiences and develop strategic words, pictures, graphics, and videos to convey their organization’s most important goals”. If you’re involved in social good and social change work, and desire these communication skills that are so fundamentally important,  I encourage you to enroll! 


  • I’m taking the “How to Change the World” course now, and while week one’s lectures have been mostly theory, I’m looking forward to listening to viewpoints on poverty, prosperity and aid in the week 2 lectures!

    • kateotto

      Ooooh can’t wait to hear how it continues to go, Margaret – thanks for checking in. I’ll be curious to know anything that is most surprising to you (or if it all is pretty familiar?) – if you’d be interested in writing up a guest post after the course we would love to post your review.

  • kateotto

    @Melisa – thanks so much! Hope it is helpful! I’m going to try and get folks who take the course to share reviews afterward, let me know if you take it!
    @Amanda – wow what a fascinating degree! I want to hear more about your work in Cambodia! Would you be willing/interested in writing a post for Everyday Ambassador about your experience applying communications skills to your development work? If so you can email Meg at: Thanks!!

  • The “Communications for International Development” course sounds incredible! I combined a degree in public relations and anthropology in my undergrad because I believe it’s so important for communications professionals to understand the cultures and communities they are trying to reach. Now I’m working in Cambodia and use the skills I learned every day!

    Good luck with the course!

  • Melisa

    Such a great info and article. Thanks Kate :)

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