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Facilitating extraordinary conversations

Steven Reid UCT MOOC

From left: Stanley Henkeman, Prof Steve Reid (lead educator) and Dr Peter Anderson 

Earlier this year the first two UCT MOOCs, Medicine and the Arts and What is a mind?, launched on the the FutureLearn platform. The next iteration of Medicine and the Arts starts on 21 September 2015 – sign up here. With several more courses in production, we are reviewing what we are learning about designing and delivering open online courses through analysing the participant interactions, survey responses and data analytics generated during the course run.

Reach and coverage

Enrolments across the  two courses attracted  more than 20 000 people, who came from an interesting diversity of backgrounds – not only geographically (participants came from over 120 countries – see map below), but also with different perspectives and contexts.  For example, in the Medicine and the Arts course, significant numbers of patients, as well as the expected healthcare practitioners and artists joined, making for rich sharing of experiences and perspectives.  Compared to other FutureLearn courses, UCT courses have attracted a higher than usual proportion of South African participants – 21% (Medicine and the Arts) and 14% (What is a mind?).


There was a full spectrum of ages (from teens to retirees), but more women than men joined the UCT courses (62% for What is a mind?  and  81% for Medicine & the Arts), and  consistent with other sources, the majority of people already had university degrees.


Scale of participation

The taught Masters course upon which the Medicine and the Arts MOOC is based normally enrols up to 20 postgraduate students each time it runs.  The MOOC, which takes a small selection of the topics and introduces the medical humanities, had more people fully participating than the academics are likely to reach in many years of teaching the face-to-face masters module.

Participant interactions

Creating and running this Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC) was a new experience for the course team. Lead educator Professor Steve Reid wrote to participants after the last week of the course ”Even as we head towards the end of the course this is just the beginning in some ways: new ideas and connections, new ways of thinking, and for us new ways of teaching and learning over the internet, are the start of new projects and different ways of doing things”.

In the words of Medicine and the Arts course participant, Cilla Sparks, I have so enjoyed the breadth of this course, the bringing together of so many diverse perspectives. This “cross fertilisation” has given me many new ideas to explore around creativity, play, epigenetics, ancestry, linguistics and, above all, the interconnectedness of our minds, bodies and souls, as well as our whole planet. Not bad for a 6 week course!  And Samantha Clark said  “I love(d) the fact that people from around the world with different experiences, from different backgrounds and from different specialities can come together to discuss the same topics and learn from each other.               

The high level of social learning in the courses was surprising and rewarding. Even with large numbers, there was still traditional cohort behavior – with students logging on at the beginning of modules, participating in active online discussions in response to video lectures and reviewing each others’ assignments.  

Deep engagement with the content was evident – for example, Italian doctor, Andrea Mazzella  made the most ‘liked’ comment made during the the course:

Many are interpreting “medical humanities” as a way of making modern medicine more humane, because it is allegedly technology-bound, hyperspecialised and distant from the actual people and their problems. As a junior doctor I can say that this should be only part of the field’s aim, also because – let’s not forget – technology, drugs and specialisation are a great advance to medicine, which would have dramatically fewer options if they did not exist.

In my opinion this field is concerned with this question:

“How does society handle the concepts of illness, disability and death, and how can people be prepared for the inevitable manifestation of these?”

As expected, with the voluntary low stakes MOOC format, there were many who did not complete the entire course, but comments from those who did are an indication of the value of open learning, and demonstrate the positive exposure for UCT :

This was my first online course (as well as my first course in the past few years in general, as I usually put them together and follow them through with students of my own). Still, I have to say that my expectations for the next course have been considerably raised after six weeks of stimulating and inspiring videos, articles, ‘conversations’ and comments of other course participants. A big thank you to all of you and to our educators from UCT! (Iva Bura, Croatia)

This course has been very interesting and has definitely shaped the way I view patients in the medical profession. I’ve now realized how distant one can be when working with people with medical conditions and through this course I have grown to love and consider the social aspect of patients as being crucial to advancing the care that they receive. A big thank you to Prof Reid and his team for pulling off this amazing course. I happy to add yet another UCT course behind my name. (Mapitso Thaisi, South Africa)

These observations and reflections help us learn about designing online learning in formal and informal contexts. CILT’s role has been to help the academic course conveners design engaging learning pathways through an online course at scale and to create short, powerful video lectures for use in this environment. The experience and skills being gained in the partnership between the learning designers, video producers and academics in the course creation teams has already been useful in thinking about mainstream provision for online courses at UCT.  In the words of Associate Professor Susan Levine, co-convener of Medicine and the Arts,  As the first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) to be offered by UCT, we have been very encouraged by its success, and it will have a definite impact on our teaching from now on. Our face-to-face students on the same course have given us the opportunity to compare learning online with that of the classroom, and the differences are fascinating.

Medicine and the Arts begins

UCT MOOCs Medicine and the Arts

The idea for UCT’s first free online course Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare was born following the success of an interdisciplinary Masters course, Medicine and the Arts. Why not share this incredible line-up of the university’s academics as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), asked the Vice Chancellor? After a nine months gestation UCT, partnering with FutureLearn, launched Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare. And what a healthy beginning it has been. Hosted on the international MOOC platform, FutureLearn,  the free online course went live on 16 March 2015 with 7 700 learners enrolled.

The original Masters course, Medicine and the Arts was developed by anthropologist Associate Professor Susan Levine and medic Professor Steve Reid in 2014. As they explain in a blog post on the FutureLearn platform, one of their goals was to promote the emerging field of Medical Humanities, with a particular emphasis on what this means in a developing country context. It has involved considerable effort to redesign the Masters course for a larger general audience, with the academics working with a team of learning designers and video production staff from the university’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT). Yet this has been very rewarding, drawing in perspectives from participants from around the world.

After two weeks, what can we say about the course?  In the first week, over 2300 people took part in an animated discussion about what medical humanities is and why it might be important. As lead educator, Steve Reid commented after the first week in his email to participants: The online space is a new and exciting one, with the strangeness of never meeting most of you physically, but it allows us to have a series of extraordinary conversations, that are located precisely in that inter-disciplinary space that we were aiming for. And so too with the online course process, there is the vague sense that because it is online and we do not meet in the flesh, it is “unreal”.  However the online discussions and responses are strikingly authentic and personal, and in some ways are more real than the somewhat contrived presentations in the videos, since they are dealing with your real experiences in hundreds of different situations.

Learning in a global space has led to transformations in personal world views. Participants  from the UK have expressed amazement about some of the realities of healthcare in developing countries, with  the need for heart valve transplants in week one and  the incidence of TB and the difficulties of treating sick children with poor socio-economic backgrounds in week 2 coming to the fore. Learners from developing countries including Mexico, Brazil, India, Sudan, Afghanistan, South Africa and Kenya have shared details about their local context showing that while there may be difficult problems and resource constraints, concerns about humanising healthcare are common across geographical and economic locations.  

Over three thousand people interacted with the material in the first two weeks. Comments and discussions saw extraordinary exchanges between people from across the world (over 100 countries) and out of various disciplinary perspectives (nurses, doctors, patients, occupational therapists, homeopaths, musicians, art therapists, carers working with the elderly, with children, with the mentally ill and with the terminally ill). Participants have shared their healthcare responses with some writing poetry in response to UCT professor and poet Peter Anderson’s guest lecture on the ‘heart of art and literature’.

The diverse course participants include school-going youth, university students, working professionals, people at home dealing with illness and retired people. At the end of week two’s  module on ‘Children’s voices and healing, Susan Levine reflected:  I am struck by the intimate stories many of you have shared. Irrespective of whether you are a nurse, artist, social worker, speech pathologist, psychologist, medical doctor, musician, public health worker, journal editor, academic or from any other other profession, all of you in one way or another were able to step into an interdisciplinary framework and consider the importance of listening to what children have to say about their treatment, illness, and how they face the prospect of death and dying.

As we move through the course, we look forward to richer discussion and greater sharing of experiences.  For UCT, the launch of the MOOC  has achieved one of our stated objectives: to ensure that the knowledge offered in these digital education environments is not only of and about the developed world. We’ve made a healthy African footprint in the global world of MOOCs. There are more courses in production – so watch this space!

Evaluating UCT MOOCs: a strategy for learning


Associate Professor Suki Goodman from the School of Management Studies reflects on UCT’s decision to offer Massive Open Online Courses in the context of global changes in higher education that are increasingly mediated by technology and the internet. She talks specifically about the necessity of evaluating and monitoring this process so that lessons, learning and feedback can be applied to UCT’s broader offerings in face to face, blended and online teaching and learning contexts. This post is an edited version of a speech given at the UCT MOOCs launch event on 24 February 2015.

The writing is on the wall, or more appropriately the dashboard. The world is changing, everything is moving, the rate of change accelerating and technology is the engine driving it all. What a few years ago was fantasy and Sci-fi is currently being operationalised. The educational revolution, the revolution in education is happening, it’s happening now.

The introduction of the massive open online courses (MOOCS) and other UCT online investments like the Faculty of Commerce’s online Postraduate diplomas means that we retain our currency. We showcase our capacity to play in this space, a space occupied by the biggest and the best universities in the world. This allows us to contribute to the global conversation in education taking place.

The most successful institutions of higher learning in the future will also be the ones most advanced and proficient in online – those that know how to maximise the power that this space has to offer. And that maximisation will ultimately come from academics, learning practitioners and educational researchers reflecting on and refining what works, how it works, and what takes for it to work – for people to learn in virtual environments. They’ll need to ask questions pertaining to sustainability and revenue generation, how this revolution changes what we know about best practice in teaching and learning, how can it help us prepare scholars to enter universities better equipped, how we manage fulcrum transition points like the transition from UG to PG, what can we do about throughput that we haven’t been able to do before….and these are just some of the emerging questions!

Throughout our team’s development of an evaluation strategy with the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching’s (CILT) MOOC Implementation team we have found an underlying motivation gravitated towards these questions: how we use this opportunity of developing UCTs first MOOCs to master aspects of the online learning territory, so that we can ultimately all benefit from new-look pedagogy – pedagogy that can feed into residential, blended and online teaching. There’s a recognition that teaching excellence now, already, and guaranteed into the future is going to be heavily influenced by our ability to harness the available technology and the sooner we learn how to harness it for the good, to learn how to learn, to learn how to bring about learning the more successful we are likely to be.

So the MOOC project means that, for example, the staggering science involved in Prof Mark Solms’ neuropsych work – science that is changing how we will eventually understand what it means to be human – is available, accessible and open to an ever increasing audience in the form of the free online course What is a mind? That in and of itself is a spectacular thing.  

But also impressive are the massive “behind the scenes scenes” –  the  internal developing and unfolding processes that are being bedded down to make these MOOCS happen – the across university interactions, the horizontal and vertical networks of stakeholder engagements, the project management, CILT’s learning design team bedding down into the belly of the institution to the heart of departments’ core business of translating research into teaching not to mention the the mapping and managing of new data points, the analyses of new sets of learning analytics and…much more.

Our evaluation strategy is designed to give some structure, some framing to all this other stuff and the strategy demands that at every level of the UCT MOOC project stakeholders measure, monitor and reflect on MOOC performance and the initiatives emerging outcomes.

And even here in the behind the scenes are innumerable opportunities to generate new knowledge and contribute to science, the science of effective teaching through the online medium. As evaluators we surfed the boundaries of our own evaluation discipline to find a strategy that made sense in this complex dynamic intervention

For a large, heavy and in many ways “old-school institution” like UCT the agility required to be successful in MOOC-land constitutes a significant departure from many aspects of business-as-usual…but perhaps it is in the vision and implementation of these new ways that continued flourishing of this great academy is fortified and with that the assurance that we keep on trending.