CONCORD, N.H. -- When Secretary of State Bill Gardner and former Gov. Hugh Gregg teamed up to teach college students about the New Hampshire primary 15 years ago, they devoted one session to the then-novel idea of using the Internet to keep the public informed about candidates.
As the 2016 contest approaches, the University of New Hampshire plans to use the latest Internet technology to educate students far beyond its campus through a Massive Open Online Course exploring the state's treasured first-in-the-nation tradition.
Starting in the fall of 2015, enrollment will be expanded in a class the university has offered for the last several election cycles. Those participating from afar will be able to watch lectures and presentations from classroom guests and join in on discussions, said Dante Scala, who will teach the class along with fellow political science professor Andrew Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center.
Topics will include research on the presidential nomination process, how it has evolved and New Hampshire's history of holding the nation's first primary. Students will hear from political activists, candidates and journalists who descend on the state every four years.
"Usually the nation comes to New Hampshire. We're trying to bring a part of New Hampshire out to the nation and beyond, so people can learn about the primary even though they're not here," Scala said.
The class will be the University of New Hampshire's first MOOC. Unlike those enrolled on campus, participants elsewhere won't receive credit for the class, and the university hasn't decided yet whether they will be asked to complete assignments or take tests or how much they will be charged.
Scala said he and Smith hope to work with colleges and universities in Iowa, home to the nation's first presidential caucuses, and with high school social studies teachers around New England who might want their students to tune in and follow along.
"We also think there's an audience out there of political junkies - the type of person who might actually visit New Hampshire on vacation to see candidates," he said. "We're basically hoping to bring a civic education aspect to all of this."
Camilla Cooper, a 2013 UNH graduate who took the class in the fall of 2011, said she enjoyed hearing from campaign experts and being encouraged to attend political events outside of class. She once even found herself in a diner quizzing Newt Gingrich.
"Going to school in New Hampshire, it was more exciting for us to understand versus someone who might be out in Oregon or California. A lot of people might not be able to pinpoint New Hampshire on a map," she said. "But if they talk about other states trying to get in the race to be first, maybe it will help people relate a little more."
Gardner, a fierce protector of New Hampshire's status and the sole person responsible for setting New Hampshire's primary date, effectively quashed a plan to promote the primary as a tourist attraction in 2007 because he feared it would further the misconception that the primary is a cash cow. But he has no problem with the new course.
"I've always said that people across the country, as they read about what's happening in the primary, vicariously participate themselves," he said.
Like Gardner, the late Gregg was a champion of the primary who considered the state a model for hands-on democracy, a place where voters demand face-to-face interaction with candidates and give longshots a chance. Gardner said he hopes the new UNH course will further Gregg's goal of explaining the New Hampshire primary's history and why it's important.
"From a distance, in an academic way, you can make all kinds of arguments why this doesn't make sense, but if you experience it, it presents itself in a different light," he said. "Hugh wanted there to be a place where people could get an understanding of what actually happened and why it happened here. So, if this course adds to that and helps that, it's a good thing."