Beth Carter Good evening, everyone. This is Beth Carter, for BBC Radio. The Open University yesterday announced that it had signed up half a million participants in what they claim is now the world’s largest online course. The OU’s MOOC is about something many of you will be familiar with – getting old, and the many challenges and opportunities that come with that.
In the studio with me is Jane Dyson, who is the course co-ordinator. Jane: at 55, and coming from a social services background, you seem to be the least likely person to be running such a massive, technology-based program. How did that happen?
Jane Dyson: (laughing). Well, it’s all my own fault! I’ve been an OU graduate for many years, and they have an online alumni forum, where they ask former students for ideas about what are the most pressing issues we see in the world, and what the OU could do to address some of these issues. I do a lot of work advising elderly people, their families and even employers these days about the many different kinds of issues that arise with aging.
The OU has many courses and online materials that deal with lots of these issues, but you have to sign up for a degree or diploma or you can just get the materials online but without any support. Also, there are just too many different issues for even the OU to cover in its formal courses. So I suggested that they should do a MOOC where all the different people involved – health care workers, social workers, care givers, family, and most important of all, old people themselves – could talk about their problems and challenges, and what services are available, what people can do for themselves and so on.
Beth Carter. So what happened then?
Jane Dyson. The OU asked me to come in to my local OU regional office, and I met with several people from the OU, and after that meeting, they asked me if I would be willing to co-ordinate such a course.
Beth Carter. Now tell me more about MOOCs. I remember they were big about 10 years ago, then they went all quiet, and we haven’t heard much about them since. So what’s made this MOOC so popular?
Jane Dyson. The problem with the earlier MOOCs was that participants just got lost in them. Many of the MOOCs were just lectures and then it was up to the participants to help each other out. There was no organization.
What the OU did was to ask those who signed up for the ‘Aging’ MOOC to fill in a very simple online questionnaire that asked for just a few details such as where they lived, whether they were professionals in aging, or family, or elderly people themselves, and then used that data to automatically allocate participants into groups, so that there was a mix of participants in each group.
Beth Carter. Why was that important?
Jane Dyson. Well, at the OU, the Institute of Educational Technology had done some research on the early MOOCs, and had identified this problem of how to get groups to work in large online classes. They worked with another research group in the OU called the KMI, who developed the software we are using that allocates participants into groups so that there is enough expertise and support in each group to help with the issues raised in the group discussions.
Beth Carter. And how does that work?
Jane Dyson. You wouldn’t believe the range of issues or problems that come up. For instance, we have family members desperate because their father or mother is suffering from dementia, but don’t know what to do to help them. We have some seniors who feel that their family are trying to force them out of their homes, while they feel they are quite capable of looking after themselves. We have social workers who feel that they are liable to get fired or even prosecuted because they can’t handle their case load. And we have some participants who are just old and lonely, and want someone to talk to.
When we put all these participants into an online discussion forum, the results are amazing. What’s really critical is getting the right mix of people in the same group, with enough expertise to provide help, and having someone in that group who knows how to moderate the discussions. We have a huge list of services available not just in Britain but in many of the other countries from which we have students. So the course is a kind of self-help, support service within a broader community of practice.
Beth Carter. Let’s talk about the international students. As I understand it, almost half the participants are from outside the U.K..
Jane Dyson. That’s right. The problems of an aging population aren’t just British. The OU is part of a very powerful network of open universities around the world. When we were talking about starting this course, the OU went to several other open universities and asked them if they were interested in participating. So we have participants from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain, Japan, Canada, the USA, and many other countries, who participate in the English language version.
In Spain, though, we have a ‘mirror’ site, with materials in Spanish, Basque and Catalan, and the discussion forums are managed by the Open University of Catalonia. That brings in not only participants from Spain, but also from Latin America. We are about to develop a similar agreement with the Open University of China, which we expect will bring in another half million participants. What’s really neat is that because we have so many participants, there are always enough dual language participants to move stuff from one language discussion forum to another.
Beth Carter. So what’s next?
Jane Dyson. One of the big issues that keeps coming up in the Aging course is the issue of mental health. This of course is not just about elderly people. The Aging course has already resulted in petitions to parliament about better services for isolated elderly people, and I think we will see some positive developments on this front over the next couple of years. So I think the OU is thinking about a similar MOOC on mental health, and I’d really like to be part of that initiative.
Beth Carter. Well, thank you, Jane. Next week we will be discussing online gambling, with an addiction counsellor.
This was developed as a ‘what if?’ scenario for the U.K. Open University as part of its planning for teaching and learning in 2014.