Formal online education is becoming a reality. You can earn a degree online in many fields now, including urban planning. University of Florida offers a distance learning MCP. Other schools are exploring similar options. While not a “MCP” University of Washington offers an online Master of Infrastructure Planning and Management. There are other programs available and in development as well.
Continuing education for AICP certification has a robust online market of courses from a wide range of places. Local planning organizations offer web based courses and national planning resources like Planetizen offer courses like this too. The various places to find this type of information is probably far too wide to document comprehensively.
There is another growing area for urban planning education and education in general – open online courses and shared course information from institutions of higher education. Major companies, both for-profit and non-profit, like Coursera, Ed-X, and Udacity have partnered with traditional institutions to offer courses to anyone with an internet connection. These courses and the new format have been nicknamed Massive Open Online Courses or “MOOCs.” The name is fitting as some of the courses have enrolled tens of thousands (and occasionally over 100,000) students!
Are there specific urban planning MOOC courses yet? Not exactly, but I predict that by the end of 2013, students, and anyone interested, will be able to enroll in some introductory courses on planning. Current planners can use MOOCs to expand their horizons. A community development planner may be interested in taking courses on nutrition and public health. An economic development planner may want to take classes on building a start up in order to help local entrepreneurs grow their business. (This would also be a great tool for the local entrepreneur him/herself as well). Land use planners might be interested in numerous courses on climate change, energy, sustainability and environmental science. There are also courses on global poverty that are in the planning orbit.
These courses do not provide credit towards graduation (yet), but many provide certificates of completion which might help in the job market. The knowledge and skills that these courses offer are the most valuable product though. MOOCs provide planners a chance to leaven and expand their skills by learning about emerging topics or areas that they did not have the chance to take formal college courses in. MOOCs can also serve as refresher courses in areas like statistics, economics, politics, and mathematics.
The format of each MOOC varies slightly, but expect short lecture segments, brief readings, and weekly homework assignments. Discussion boards and peer review are important parts of each course since there are so many students. MOOCs attempt to capitalize on peer to peer learning. While each platform is strong, some courses have translated to the MOOC format better than others.
If you are looking for slightly more traditional (but still free) options, MIT publishes information on every course that it offers in its Department of Urban Studies and Planning through the MIT Open Courseware initiative. The school publishes syllabi, reading lists, assignments, lecture notes (often copies of powerpoint lectures), and other information on each course. The upside is you get exactly the material that MIT students receive, but the downside is there aren’t lectures and, in general, you have to locate the readings yourself. (A visit to your local community college, public university, or library can often get you access to these though). So if you ever wanted to see what it was like to take real estate economics from William Wheaton, you can (minus the professor). Prospective students may enjoy getting a preview of what a planning education entails.
These resources are great for professional planners who want to increase their skills and prospective students who want to explore a planning education among many other applications. MOOCs can also enrich the traditional planning education. Most students in MOOCs (60 percent) are from overseas, the other 40 percent are domestic. There are few opportunities for international student collaboration that are more fertile than getting the perspective of between 6,000 and 60,000 international learners with no travel costs. Some of the courses don’t exist yet though, but when they do, planning students can immediately communicate and compare urban issues from Albuquerque to Zagreb. The teaching format could expand the international perspective for lower resource planning departments as well.
MOOCs have some challenges. There are concerns about plagiarism and cheating, which is why the courses largely are not accepted towards degree attainment (but if you are simply interested in learning more on a subject this concern is trivial). Many courses are still experimental as well – a course that is being offered for the first time may have some bumps along the way as the professor figures out how to communicate with so many students at once. (There are another set of concerns related to copyright law and developing a MOOC that could determine what readings are offered in a course as well).
In 2012, MOOCs expanded significantly, and 2013 will see further expansion. These courses are not likely to replace planing education any time soon, but MOOCs can increase the breadth of planning education and help planners develop new specialties. Planning departments like MIT have “open-sourced” their teaching materials too. Other institutions are following MIT’s lead (though not nearly as comprehensively). Professors often post teaching material on the web somewhere. MOOCs can help create international collaborative learning opportunities. The internet can be a great resource for education and collaboration and it will likely add to how planners learn and how professors teach planning and MOOCs are one of the new ways that this is going to happen.