‘Helen and the Mentors’: life in a MOOC

Updated 6 April

The last thing I did at The Open University before leaving was to produce a MOOC. I’m so glad I did this, because the challenge of writing around 35,000 words that took advantage of the FutureLearn platform – arranged in ‘steps’ of 750 words or five minutes or so of audio or video – was a brilliant way of ending a career in university teaching. The deadlines were insane and the pressure relentless, but I learned so much, a lot of it from the great team supporting me at The Open University, whose creativity and ability to think outside the box made the MOOC engaging and enjoyable for learners. If you fancy doing something like this yourself, here are some thoughts now that the first six-week run has ended.

Producing a MOOC 

First, the production process. It’s clear to me that this needs to be collaborative, as I’ve described in more detail here. That means not simply bringing in the odd expert along the way, but having a core group with whom you can do the all-important intellectual planning process. A good MOOC needs a shape and a story – ours was about moving through the body from head to toe, and involved engagement with the learners’ expectations and assumptions at every stage. Our support team wanted us to have fun, and while some learners seemed to want us to give them lectures (boring!!) the vast majority loved the fact that we had discussions and asked questions and even had two wonderful videos in which Laurence Totelin made ancient recipes. The video in which I put replica armour on Patty Baker also went down well, with learners commenting that they could really see how heavy that armour was. One learner commented that she’d previously imagined one wrote a MOOC by dusting down some old lecture notes – it’s not like that at all!

It was made clear to me at the beginning that learners would come from all over the world and would not necessarily have English as a first language. I was asked, before I wrote a single word of teaching material, to construct profiles of my imaginary learners, and this was a good exercise; I kept them in mind throughout production. Sometimes a real learner would say something about herself which made me wonder if one of my imaginary learners had come to life! The backgrounds of learners were very diverse, some having several degrees already, others with no formal higher education. Some had never taken a MOOC before, others had done 40, 50, 60 – or more. This range of experience meant there was support in how to use the system available for learners from each other. It also meant that tips on other MOOCs were offered. I added in a request for those who’d taken one particular MOOC I knew about to share their learning from that one with my learners, and I think this cross-referencing between MOOCs will become ever more important.

Some surprises

There’s a lot of discussion on MOOCs. Some learners seem to comment on every single ‘step’. The majority, however, are mostly silent. But due to the numbers (around 7000 enrolled, 50% of them active on the course, which is the normal pattern), this still meant that one ‘step’ would normally have over 200 comments. This means that any response given by me or by the two Mentors (appealingly described as ‘Helen and the Mentors’, which sounds like a 1950s band) could disappear down the list, meaning that a similar question would turn up later. The FutureLearn method of sorting comments by ‘most liked’ at least meant that those later to the discussion could see where the action was. However, seeing what kept coming up was useful in discovering what people’s expectations were, and what knowledge they had already.

As I’d expected MOOCs to lack much really personal interaction, I was very surprised that there was at least one subgroup where they’d all ‘met’ each other on previous MOOCs on the FutureLearn platform; this was disconcerting, as their in-group could look offputting to other learners.

I hadn’t expected the arguments to be quite so intense! I’d expected there to be some friction between proponents of herbal and orthodox medicine, but we had some very heated discussions indeed, especially when herbalists recommended a particular plant and other learners then linked to online materials warning of the dangers of that plant. I hadn’t anticipated that homeopathy vs orthodox medicine would be even more contentious! The question of whether peeing on a jellyfish sting soothes, or makes it worse, was another point of contention.

Nor had I expected the level of self-revelation. Learners told each other many details of their own health, as well as sharing fascinating stories about the past. Those joining in the comments threads for each ‘step’ were mostly those in their sixties and seventies, as far as one could tell, and they clearly enjoyed ‘Do you remember …?’ discussions on, for example, Izal toilet paper or what they were taught about reproduction when they were at school.

Some satisfaction

One of the most satisfying aspects for me was that the key message about how to use primary sources seemed to get across. We used a mixture of medical texts, non-medical literary sources, material culture and osteology, and flagged up the point that none of these is straightforward to use. Another cause of satisfaction was watching myths shatter. Throughout the course, we challenged some of the ‘facts’ which do the rounds on the internet. In one step written by Laurence Totelin, learners were asked to investigate sites claiming that apple cider vinegar was first used by Hippocrates. Many learners realised that sites simply repeat each other and don’t bother to back up the ‘Hippocrates’ claim at all – although some were still saying they would start using apple cider vinegar because Hippocrates clearly did. You can lead a horse to water, but…! Many of our learners came from science backgrounds and were very enthusiastic about learning ‘how to do’ the history of the ancient world.

Some frustration

Ah, though, ‘the’ ancient world…! My main frustration turned out to be with the small number of learners who didn’t miss an opportunity to chastise me for ‘only’ doing ancient Greece and Rome. No matter how many times I pointed out that the short course description made it abundantly clear that this course was about these cultures – and that this already meant we were covering about 1000 years – and no matter how often I noted that the precise title was chosen by FutureLearn not by me, and that this is what I know about and there’d be little point in me talking about something I don’t know about, there would still be complaints.

And this is part of a larger frustration – and surprise. These courses are free. Even though, since my course had its first run (the next one’s in June), FutureLearn has changed its payment model to encourage payment up front, it will still be possible to do the course for free – it just means that you’ll have to pay if you want to take the test at the end, the one which means you can get a certificate, and that you won’t have access to the course materials beyond an 8-week period. Yet, in my free course, some people felt it was fine to complain that they weren’t getting what they wanted, that they wanted Ancient Babylon or more on the male body or the omission of any comparison with current medical practices … which amazed me, because in MOOC-world, nobody is compelling you to take any course at all! I’ve since read an interesting piece about  the supermarket Waitrose’s withdrawal of its free coffee offer which makes the point that ‘The problem with “free” promotions is that they can quickly lose their intrinsic value. Consumers start to look at them in a different way and see them as a right, rather than a reward.’

Overall, then? I’m glad I did it, not just because it extended my own experience but because it clearly engaged learners and fed their passion for the past – or even gave them a new interest in a previously-unfamiliar area of history.


2 thoughts on “‘Helen and the Mentors’: life in a MOOC

  1. […] In terms of the timing – why I should have this nightmare now – I suppose I’m currently at a transitional point in the process of my retirement. So far, since 1 February, it has been busy, with two public engagement activities, two ‘events’ to attend to mark my retirement, a couple of academic blog posts to write, some short talks to give, a trip to Barcelona to deliver a lecture (which required researching and writing), a seminar outside my usual topics to attend just because it sounded interesting, a day conference, and – most significantly of all – six weeks spent moderating the first run of the MOOC I put together on Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World. I’m going to write about that MOOC experience separately. […]


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