Monday, 7 March 2016

MOOCs for writers by Dawn Finch

Pic Credit SBF Ryan via
My first job after leaving college was as a researcher. This was over thirty years ago when the internet was still a figment of programmers' imaginations, and research was done the old-fashioned way – the dusty way. I worked at a cathedral education unit and spent my days wading through large tomes pinning down details that would engage and inform children. It was enjoyable and rewarding, but hugely time-consuming. I dealt with professionally edited books, professional librarians and academics, and I felt able to trust the information I found.

Spin on thirty years and, as a children’s writer and librarian, I’m still doing research but everything has changed. The internet has revolutionised the way we do our research, and 21st Century libraries have access to a whole world of information that was once out of my reach, but it’s not that simple. Technological advances have made research both easier, and more complicated. With a virtual world full of the kind of clutter and opinions that bear a powerful resemblance to a shouty drunk propping up the bar, it has become harder to know who to trust. As a writer of children’s non-fiction I know that my sources must be solid and reliable, but the whole gamut of opinions out there often adds too much noise to research when I’m really looking for clarity. As a writer of fiction, I want my research to be solid and informative so that I’m not misquoting or falling into anachronism.
In short, it’s a nightmare!

In the library world there has been a lot of talk and excitement recently about MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses. These are courses that have been designed and delivered by some of the world’s top educational establishments – and they are free and open access. Experienced academics and professionals write and deliver the courses, and they are edited and checked by the establishments that they represent. These courses are funded by large institutions or grants, and they are designed to offer a taster to higher-level academic study, or to simply inform. They offer free education to the masses and are another step towards a more informed populous.

I have been asked to comment on MOOCs a few times and so I felt that the best way for me to offer an opinion on them was to do one. I enrolled in a six week course from Warwick University on Literature and Mental Health. The course is completely fascinating and is supported by many documents, interviews, professional opinions and recordings. I have access to video interviews with top professionals and academics, and I can study at my own pace in my own home. Throughout the course we have been looking at poetry and prose and how it can support mental health and wellbeing. I am one of hundreds of people studying this course and each module has space for comments and so we have the opportunity to connect with each other and talk about the course and the issues raised.

When studying this course it occurred to me how useful these courses would be for writers. The courses offer a simple way to cut through the noise of the internet and instead hear a balanced academic view of a subject. The courses that I have looked at all examine both sides of the issues covered and allow access to information that might otherwise be tangled up in the Web. The courses also recommend books and other materials that link to the subject, and so we have neat shortcuts to finding things that can further support our research.

The courses have been delivered in the US by organisations like Coursera and EdX, and in 2014 we saw the establishment of the UK organisation FutureLearn, and more recently Open Education.
I decided to concentrate on FutureLearn as they offer the widest range of courses and are also offering the first Open Learning courses created and funded with the support of the BBC. I searched the site with a view to the kind of courses that might be helpful for writers.
FutureLearn, the top MOOC site for the UK
The site is easy to search and is split into categories and collections. In the collections, there are some incredibly useful courses on marketing and these cover things like branding, digital marketing and transmedia storytelling.

Similarly, in the “Get Ahead in the Digital World” collection we can find courses that offer an insight into robotics, childhood in the digital age and the internet of things - all useful courses for writers, and all subjects that might otherwise prove hugely expensive to learn. There are courses available on screenplays, filmmaking, special effects, photography and animation.

Writing a crime novel and want to be spot on with your references? How about courses in forensic science and criminal justice, or maybe witness investigation, or identifying the dead?

Researching an historical novel? Maybe try a course on heroism in the First World War, or propaganda, or superpowers of the ancient world, or life on Hadrian’s Wall?

Art, history, language, music, art....there are short courses available on pretty much everything you can think of.

There are some negatives to these courses; they are not supported by a lecturer and so you are largely just dropped into the course alone, and they are, on the whole, without validation and so do not count as part of a degree or higher level qualification. The dropout rate on these courses is incredibly high with estimations of completion rates being somewhere in the region of 25%, but none of this matters if you are using the courses for research, or to immerse yourself in a subject prior to writing about it. I like to think of these short courses as a way of plugging a gap in my knowledge. They may not offer all the information on the subject, but they will give you the information you need to get you started. It's not going to make you an expert, but it's going to help and it's enjoyable too.

I am greatly enjoying the Literature and Mental Health course and feel that it will be incredibly useful to my work in this field. I have already signed up for a course on the Gothic Revival (delivered by Stirling University) and in the spring I’ll be doing a couple of courses on the First World War. I love the fact that I can chat online about poetry, history, literature and art with like-minded people, and I can do that wherever I am in the world. I can sit in bed with my tablet and immerse myself in conversations about Donne, Rossetti and Shelley, or I can sit in the library and turn to the librarian with a whole new booklist to request – and I can do all of this free of charge. MOOCs particularly lend themselves to study in a library where there is a trained professional as you can have that extra support, and you can reach out for help and extra materials.

Open access is the foundation of the library system, and I see MOOCs as part of that and as another important step towards a more literate and informed society.

Dawn Finch
Children's writer and librarian
President Chartered Institute Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)
Children's Writers and Illustrators Group Committee (CWIG)


Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for all this, Dawn. I'd heard of these courses, mostly in passing, but hadn't come across anyone who'd done one, so this does give a useful context. Plus the fact that there's no time-wasting travel involved. (Not that travel always is, but it can be inconvenient.) One advantage could be that a course can be started now, not when the next term/semester/year starts but I'm not sure if that's true. I must investigate . . .

Dawn Finch said...

They start at all different times. The Gothic Revival course is currently on week 2 (but you can still join it, and it's brilliant) and the Literature and Mental Health course has finished but is due to run again in a few months. Most courses seem to be around four to six weeks long, and they require from one to three hours work a week. I say "work" but most of it is reading or watching video presentations.
You don't have one-to-one lecturer time, but there is often a Q&A open session online, and the message boards are monitored by lecturers who will comment and reply where necessary.
I must confess that I'm hooked. Finally a productive use for my tablet too!

Sue Purkiss said...

These sound great - thank you, Dawn!

Jo Franklin said...

This has made me feel terribly guilty as I signed up for a two week course and only watched the 2 minute introductory video. It has nothing to do with the course content, but my inability to schedule it into my day. I believe strongly in self improvement and am booked on a Stand Up Comedy course at the City Lit in May but that is in person, not online.
Is there a course on being disciplined about how you spend your time online? I think that's the one I need to study first.

Heather Dyer said...

Fascinating and inspiring, thanks.

Dawn Finch said...

Believe it or not, there are! I've just found four short (2 week) courses about the different elements of learning online. There is also an OU course about online learning.
I find that watching the videos isn't always for me and so I download and read the transcripts. I can have these on my phone and read them in transit, or tucked up in bed. It was a bit of a chore fitting them in at first, but I find I only need to schedule 15 mins at a time. That helps. I can't just sit down and study as there is too much else to do!