Monthly Archives: October 2016

A MOOC mentor’s perspective on supporting learners

In this post Aamirah Sonday talks to Aimee Dollman, Lead Mentor of the What is a Mind? MOOC on supporting learners in massive open online spaces. Enrollment information for What is a Mind? can be found here 

The lead educator is always the face of the MOOC but behind the scenes there are a myriad of individuals working tirelessly to ensure participants get the most out of the course, not least of these are the mentors.

Mentors are the helpful souls who guide and facilitate discussions on MOOC platforms, they also answer technical questions or flag any problems  that may be encountered. In the case of Aimee Dollman, lead mentor on our MOOC What is a Mind?, being a mentor can sometimes be difficult given the number of participants (sometimes up to a couple of thousand) but it is rewarding when learners grasp a concept that they had been struggling with.

She believes that MOOCs are unique in that “you can learn about any topic you want in your own time. You can participate as much as you want or as little as you want but you can actually learn something whether it be for credit or not.” “You are in charge of what you do which I think is pretty brilliant.”

As this MOOC presents material from the relatively new field of neuropsychoanalysis, it is sometimes difficult for participants to grasp the complex terms and this is why having a mentor is very important to What is a Mind?. Furthermore, Aimee and fellow mentors understand that participants come from different time zones and therefore make an effort to be online at different times “to accommodate for people from across the world.”

As a mentor, “it has been really interesting to see the huge variety of people from around the world. There is this common thread whether you live in a remote location in Asia or a major city in Britain – people have the same or similar questions, suffer from the same problems and are wanting to learn more. It’s really nice to see so many learners taking the course. Old and young, sometimes with no background in psychology. It is also great to read about people’s different perspectives and realise that at the same time there’s this collectiveness between people whether a professional or not.”

Aimee believes that participants of What is a Mind? are given the tools to critically think and engage with the material. “It also allows  them to see an interdisciplinary perspective. Our question and answer sessions allow participants to ask questions about the topic of the week – even something somewhat off topic – it makes learners really think and also facilitates further discussion.”

For example one question was “what is the difference between thinking and feeling? It is not something we think of everyday but once you delve deeper into these concepts it is really interesting. We also look at what makes us; the brain and the mind together”.

Having mentored four iterations of the course Aimee has realised that “you can’t please everyone.” However, participants find it helpful when provided with extra reading materials and the team have developed “a more dedicated reading list” although this is not without its challenges. “Another difficulty we run into is open access. The MOOC itself is open access but we’ve struggled to find other open access material. So for example, journal articles or books that Professor Solms may suggest are not freely available all the time. That’s what irritates people at times because they want more but we can’t give them access.”

That’s why MOOCs are great, they are “really about bringing open access knowledge to people”.

In Aimee’s experience the best tip she could give anyone participating in a MOOC is, “Don’t worry if you can’t work through the material and keep up with other actively participating learners because we understand that everyone has different schedules – a lot of people apologise for not getting to things or their poor English or poor grammar, many also don’t want to share ideas because they aren’t professionals. Don’t worry about that. If you want to discuss something go for it. It does not matter if you are not a professional. It is important to get everyone’s perspective.”

Commenting on working with Professor Solms Aimee says, “It has been great to work with him as his level of knowledge and enthusiasm for this field, as well as willingness to share this knowledge, is inspiring. And even though he has a rather busy schedule, he makes time to address the weekly questions no matter where he is, and enjoys answering them.”

The experience of learners taking Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion

For many, there are insurmountable barriers to accessing quality education. These barriers may be physical disabilities, geographical remoteness, social problems or a myriad of other kinds of obstacles, but they have a common result – for all these people, educational opportunities are often limited and inaccessible.

Over the past few years MOOCs have been noted for breaking down the financial barriers to education by offering fee-free courses, however, unbeknown to many, international MOOC platforms pay special attention to accessibility. For the educators creating the Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion MOOC, accessibility was a particular concern given their focus on disability and on reaching learners from low income countries. We use this blog to tell the story of a few learners on the MOOC who describe aspects of accessibility in the MOOC which are important for their personal circumstances.

For the disability community, the platforms have to comply with strict accessibility regulatory frameworks of their host countries, ensuring that there are subtitles on each video file and that there are transcripts which can be downloaded. Images must also have proper descriptions so that screen reader software can decipher them.

Ari from Johannesburg is blind but he does not let this hinder is thirst for learning. In the past he struggled to find a way to get to lectures and courses offered at the usual educational institutions but is now enthusiastic about MOOCs as they allow him to study. Ari is not the only person with a disability; we don’t know how many people taking the Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion course are living with a disability, but there have been significant individual stories.

Accessibility in MOOCs is of broader value than only those with a physical disability. Reduced mobility in elderly people often places enormous barriers for accessing education. Molly, a pensioner from Cape Town explained how she attended the University of Cape Town’s annual public education programme, Summer School which offered two weeks of lectures on a range of topics open to all. But the lectures were held on the main university campus, requiring her to drive or take public transport, walk up steps and navigate the lecture theatres. In her eighties, with her physical mobility reduced – both walking and driving – she is limited to the retirement complex in which she lives. But with a computer and an internet connection, she has rediscovered the joys of lifelong learning from her own room, having enrolled and completed over 10 MOOCs on FutureLearn.  

Making education accessible is also about geography and location. Alison, an occupational therapist working at a rural hospital told us how she has struggled to find staff development opportunities for her team as it is impractical and expensive to drive hundreds of kilometres for a seminar or training workshop. But she found it very convenient to download video lectures from the Education for All MOOC and then play them offline during a staff meeting. As a result she was able to structure a discussion around the topics raised on the MOOC and implement changes in the outpatients practice, of the hospital where she works, treating families of disabled children.  

Alison’ story alludes to another unappreciated value of a MOOC: the flexibility. Working people may be bound by office hours. Others have family responsibilities which mean they may need to carve out study time late at night; or on a weekend. They might choose to spend one evening doing an entire week’s worth on the course, or squeeze in half an hour every day during a lunch break at work. In Alison’s case, she could download videos and then use them at a different time from the course schedule – when it suited her team.

Traditionally, online courses have been mostly accessed using desktop or laptop computers, but not everyone has regular access to a computer. Mobile devices (particularly phones) are more affordable and increasingly ubiquitous, and can be used to access online courses. Nomfundo explained to us how she had participated in the Education for All course, including submitting peer review assignments, and bought a certificate entirely on her smartphone.

The design of Education for All assumes that learners will interact with many others participating in the course, and share experiences. Aside from the discussions on the video lectures and readings, there are structured assignments submitted for review by others on the course (peer reviewed assignments).  

I enjoyed the assignments because they gave me the opportunity to design interventions that I could use. Peer reviews offered insight to my thoughts and I learned new strategies I may not have known. I believe I [sic] hands on activities as they enable me [to] understand and these two strategies came in very handy! (post course survey)

The course was aimed at people involved in some way in trying to promote inclusive education – teachers, school administrators, family or community members. The first run of the course (May 2016) reflected the intended target audience.


The free six-week online course – Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion – from the Disability Studies Division, at the University of Cape Town is offered through the online learning platform FutureLearn. It has been endorsed by the South African government’s Department of Basic Education for teacher professional development, and received very positive reviews on the open MOOC website, Class Central.

Some of the learners’ mentioned in the blog appear in a learner stories video on the CILT website).