The future of education for Shakespeare? MOOCs in action

The second of the two Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs)s on Shakespeare is now under way, and in case you fancy trying it out, is still open for enrolment. The first, the Shakespeare Institute’s Hamlet MOOC, has finished, though it’s to be hoped that it will run again. I found it thoroughly enjoyable. After an introduction with videos by Professor Michael Dobson, Fellows from the Shakespeare Institute took a week each to talk about their specialist subjects and how they relate to Hamlet. There were also sessions with actors, and I particularly liked actress Pippa Nixon’s close examination of the “To be or not to be” speech.

Jonathan Bate in Shakespeare and his World

Jonathan Bate in Shakespeare and his World

The current MOOC, Shakespeare and his World, is rather different in feel, created by the University of Warwick fronted by Professor Jonathan Bate, and designed to make use of the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  Bate has extensive experience of these materials and uses them in a very direct way to engage his virtual students with the subject under discussion.  His approach could offer an interesting model of how Museums, Libraries and Archives might really open up their collections.

I have to confess I’m already behind: so far I’ve only watched the opening sections on Shakespeare’s life, relatively easy to talk about using real objects like the Parish Church’s register. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the approach works with the plays themselves.

BBC’s Radio 4 has recently broadcast a series on the impact of technology on education, entitled My Teacher is an app.  There’s a link to the third programme here, in which, as it happened, Jonathan Bate featured.  It’s a debate between participants representing different points of view such as traditional education and the Open University. Both the Shakespeare MOOCs are by the company FutureLearn, a collaboration between more than a dozen of the top universities in the country with the exceptions of Oxford and Cambridge. The participants represented all shades of opinion, classicist Mary Beard suggesting that MOOCs could undermine traditional education, while the Open University commented that they have been using innovative technology for teaching for forty years. All agreed that there is no substitute for small-group teaching and discussion “eyeball to eyeball”, and that great teachers always have and always will make a difference.

As well as watching videos, and reading, students are encouraged to write their own comments and occasionally to complete a piece of written work. With the course being free, and perhaps thousands signed up, a range of methods of assessment are being tried, including the idea that students in groups assess each other’s work. This is the idea that’s most revolutionary about MOOCs: after all, videos and podcasts of professors’ lectures are hardly new. It’s going to be very interesting to see if they can make this valuable to students. There’s an article here on the latest in MOOC providers, and on the idea of collaborative working in teams.

One of the criticisms that has been levelled at MOOCs is that the percentage of students completing any course is very low, but of course a small percentage of a large number is still a lot. In any case who is to say that it’s necessary to complete a course, if it’s free and the person taking it isn’t interested in gaining a qualification? Katy Jordan of the Open University has just published this paper on initial trends in enrolment and completion.

A version of Richard III, one of the items discussed in Shakespeare and his World

A version of Richard III, one of the items discussed in Shakespeare and his World

Jonathan Bate pointed out that MOOCs aren’t all about university education anyway. The first person who signed up for his course was 89 years old. Many people will like the possibility of learning something new using in a structured course that’s not too much like being back at school. The FutureLearn site already includes courses on Ecosystems,  Moons, Roman history as well as practical subjects like Dentistry.

Just recently Donald Clark wrote an article looking at MOOCs, or VOOCs (Vocational Open Online Courses):
This is not about institutional learning, it’s about lifelong learning. The mistake is to take the concept of dropout from an institutional context and apply it to online courses, where one can sign up without too much commitment. There’s nothing wrong with trying a few MOOCs out to see if they’re at the right level or suit your needs.

We’ve gone for a solution that taps directly into subject matter expertise – experienced practitioners, experienced course designers and a delivery mechanism that goes straight to potential learners. That’s really what the  ‘Napsterisation’ of learning is all about, the democritisation, decentralisation and disintermediation of learning.

There’s lots of potential for organisations like U3A to run their own discussions around these courses, or for others to pick a few videos and incorporate them into their own work. Once you move away from the idea that MOOCs are all about tertiary education it becomes a much more interesting concept. The big question, that I have no answer to, is, “Who pays for it?”

But Shakespeare is, of course, a perfect subject. Even if you’ve seen every play in the theatre, read some biographies, attended some lectures, there are certain to be things you will enjoy in these MOOCs. And the current one will bring a new perspective through its use of Museum, Library and Archives objects. I’ve spent over thirty years being surrounded by items relating to Shakespeare’s works and I’m thrilled that it’s now possible for them to be brought to the attention of so many.

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2 Responses to The future of education for Shakespeare? MOOCs in action

  1. Michael Hentges says:

    Hi Sylvia, been reading your blog for a few months now and I quite treasure both its diversity and the quiet clarity with which you ponder sundry Shakespeare related matters. Goes down exceedingly well with my morning coffee. Also, special thanks for the above info and link on the Shakespeare and his World MOOC. I’ve enrolled and am enjoying the materials tremendously. Well worth the time – especially since I live across the pond and ready access to the treasures of the Birthplace Trust is a trifle complicated.


    Michael Hentges

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Dear Michael, Thanks for your comment. Glad to her you’ve signed up for the Shakespeare MOOC, and hope you will enjoy it!

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