January may have come and gone but it’s not too late to start out on your new year’s resolution if that was to learn something new. With hundreds of free courses available online from top universities around the world – covering everything and anything from calculus to climate change – MOOCs might just be the answer you’re looking for.
It’s now nearly three years since the UK’s own platform for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) FutureLearn launched. Since then, around 3,000,000 learners have joined courses run by its 82 partner institutions based both in the UK and around the world. Its providers, offering a growing range of courses, include many of the best UK and international universities, plus well known cultural institutions, like the British Council, British Library, British Museum and the National Film and Television School.
Of course this development in MOOCs is not new. The evolution of the experiment in this new form of online, distance learning en masse can be traced back to the mid-2000s with trailblazing innovations arising first from the States. The New York Times heralded 2012 ‘the year of the MOOC’, when the main US MOOC platforms, Coursera and edX, registered a huge surge in interest for their courses. Since then, now on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world, more and more people have woken up to the unique offer of free, flexible, online courses that not only can help to exercise the grey matter but can also advance careers.
On trains and planes, people with no necessary prior knowledge in these areas are logging on via tablets and smart phones, watching the latest videos, reading around the topic and sharing their ideas and questions with virtual, global classroom reaching into the thousands
Searching across these different MOOC platforms it is clear to me that there is literally a course for everyone and on anything. On Coursera, at Princetown, a six-week course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology; on edX, from MIT, the fundamentals of aerodynamics and aircraft design; or, via FutureLearn at King’s College – the buzzword of the times – a course on the internet of things.
On trains and planes, people with no necessary prior knowledge in these areas are logging on via tablets and smart phones, watching the latest videos, reading around the topic and sharing their ideas and questions with virtual, global classroom reaching into the thousands. Despite all this, and despite having witnessed the development of successful MOOCs from the sidelines at the University of Bath since 2013, I have yet to complete a MOOC. Work, family, life and a combination of other factors have all conspired to get in my way, but this year I’m determined to rectify that. Before my decade anniversary of having first graduated arrives later this summer, I will have completed my first MOOC and I’ll share the experience with University Business readers via the blog. That’s the idea, at least.
There’s a MOOC for that
Clearly a big part in dedicating your time to study a MOOC, which on average takes around three hours a week, comes down to your own individual interests in a subject.
The University of Bath currently offers three MOOCs via FutureLearn across different disciplines which will each run again this year. Roughly 30,000 people have now taken part in our longest-running MOOC, ‘Inside Cancer: How Genes Influence Cancer Development’. Led by Dr Momna Hejmadi of the University’s Department of Biology & Biochemistry, the popular course offers an introduction to those interested in understanding how genetics influence the development and the spread of cancer and the course has been completed by people of all ages and backgrounds.
Our other long-running course, ‘Making an Impact: Sustainability for Professionals’, led by Dr Emma Emanuelsson from the Department of Chemical Engineering, will run again for the fourth time this year. This course is specifically targeted at people working in organisations and hoping to develop new sustainability strategies. Since it launched in March 2014, over 15,000 people have taken part in the course.
The idea of the course is to challenge some of ideas which might exist about these issues in order to assess analytically the complexities and realities of warfare in the 21st Century
For me, with a background in politics and a keen interest in current affairs and international relations, I’m interested in furthering my knowledge in this area as well as challenging some of my own thinking. With this in mind, I’ve enrolled on Bath’s newest course, ‘From State Control to Remote Control: Warfare in the 21st Century’. Last time this ran in 2015, over 3,500 learners from some 67 countries signed up for regular online seminars over the six week period.
Genning up on Remote Control Warfare
The focus of my MOOC is on the growing, global trend away from state control warfare towards so-called ‘remote control’ methods. These are the kinds of things that are referenced on our TV screens everyday: the use of drones, special operations forces or even private military companies. The most high profile example of this in recent times would be the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, but in reality there are numerous similar actions taking place around the world every day.
The idea of the course is to challenge some of ideas which might exist about these issues in order to assess analytically the complexities and realities of warfare in the 21st Century. With a particular focus on cases from Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, the course tackles the philosophical, ethical and cultural challenges raised by this all.
In advance of starting I meet up with Dr Wali Aslam, lead educator on the MOOC from the University’s Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies, in order to gauge from him how best to approach studying for the course.
“Some people might come to this course with pre-conceived ideas about the use of remote control warfare by states, in particular the use of drone strikes”, he tells me. “This is not surprising given 24/7 rolling news and instant social exchanges via Twitter and Facebook, but one of the challenges for these learners is to really listen and reflect on different ideas from different perspectives. By following the online lecturers, reading around the subject and discussing ideas with the rest of the group this will help you develop your arguments and think more rationally about the wider issues at stake.”
ABOVE: With students on campus, Dr Wali Aslam has pioneered innovative learning and teaching styles drawing on new technologies, including video conferencing with guest speakers from around the world
I ask Dr Aslam what else learners should expect and what other tips he would offer. He reinforces one of the key selling points for a MOOC in my mind; the idea that you are taking part in a course accessed by people from around the world each with unique perspectives and, potentially, with direct experiences of the challenges discussed in the course. The last time this course ran, ex-professionals from prestigious security and intelligence agencies around the world joined discussions.
“Be open to a different way of learning, be courteous and mindful of other cultures and come prepared to get involved in online discussions from the outset,” he says. “Also, come prepared to self-learn over and above the information we’ll give you through the course.”
Find out more about the University of Bath’s MOOCs by visiting: www.bath.ac.uk/study/moocs
MAIN IMAGE: Dr Wali Aslam with Andrew Dunne discussing the latest University of Bath MOOC.