- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - Taking University of New Hampshire’s online course about the first-in-the-nation presidential primary was a homecoming of sorts for Susan Murray.

As a UNH senior in 1979, she was thrilled at the prospect of covering presidential candidate Jerry Brown’s speech for the school newspaper. Working up her nerve while waiting for him to arrive, she told herself she’d ask him a question if he smiled in her direction. Instead, he got out of a limousine and barked, “Get these people away from me.”

“His face was a mask of irritation,” Murray said. “He clearly didn’t relish any crowd, that day anyway.”

But 36 years later, Murray relished being part of a crowd of more than 2,000 people who signed up for the free, six-week course.

“I was just interested in seeing what kind of political discussions came out of it, and who joined in,” said Murray, a book editor who lives in York, Maine. “There is so little political discussion - I don’t mean people ranting from extreme ideological points of view - but just having real conversations. So I think anything like this that is a step in that direction is a good thing.”

Saturday was the last day for those seeking a completion certificate or continuing education credit to finish the course’s 13 quizzes, but the material itself will remain available online. That includes video lectures by professors Andrew Smith and Dante Scala that explore how and why New Hampshire rose to its prominent position in the nominating calendar, the art of organizing and campaigning in New Hampshire, and the political landscape heading into the 2016 contest. A series of videos called “Faces of the Primary” introduced students to grassroots activists, campaign strategists and journalists who’ve played key roles over the years.

“We could’ve done twice as much and still be going and not have covered everything about the primary, but I think we were able to cover all of the major points,” said Smith, a political science professor and director of the UNH Survey Center. “We gave people a sense of the history, and also gave people a sense of the political science of the primary.”

He and Scala made adjustments as the course progressed. After hearing that initial videos clocking in at 11 or 12 minutes were a bit too long to hold students’ attention, they shortened the others to more manageable lengths. Concerns that discussion forums would become negative free-for-alls never materialized, he said.

“Maybe I was expecting the worst of people because of reading the comments on newspaper stories, but I was really surprised - pleasantly surprised - at how polite and civil and engaged people were in the discussion forums,” he said. “We didn’t have to say anything to anybody, or pull anybody’s plug.”

Most of the students were in New Hampshire or the surrounding area, but some were as far away as Italy, England and Saudi Arabia. Students ranged in age from teenagers to those in their 90s, he said. In addition to UNH alumni, he noticed another group:

“I’ve heard from a lot of reporters covering the primary who’ve taken it because they need a primer on the primary,” he said.

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