#FLvirtualrome : An exciting MOOC about Ancient Rome

Last week I stumbled across a fantastic MOOC – FutureLearn’s course on the history and architecture of Rome.

I wasn’t looking for this course, but Rome is a city that I have recently thought I would like to visit and then FutureLearn’s newsletter listing this course landed in my inbox. I signed up, thinking this would be an opportunity to find out whether I really do want to visit Rome. I have completed Week 1 of the course and now know that I do.

It’s been a while since I have felt excited by a MOOC. I am surprised by my response. I am not a historian and have never had more than a passing interest in history. At school I had to choose between history and geography for my ‘O’ levels (that dates me!) and I chose geography. In my school days history was memorising dates and facts and I have always had a terrible memory! Of course geography and history are closely aligned so over the years when I have visited sites such as Machu Picchu, whilst the geography is spectacular, it has been impossible to ignore the history, but I have never tried to commit this to memory. Whatever sticks, sticks and I have learned that whatever sticks usually sticks because of some sort of emotional reaction.

Dr Matthew Nicholls, from the University of Reading, who is the tutor for this 5-week MOOC, is succeeding in eliciting an emotional response from me, i.e. I feel motivated. After the first week I already know that I will probably not engage in social interaction in this course. At the moment I do not want to do a history project or take this further. I just want to know enough to know what I am looking at when I visit Rome.

Why, after just one week, do I think the course is so good?

Matthew Nicholls is clearly very knowledgeable, passionate about his subject and an excellent communicator. He makes the subject come alive and is not at all patronising despite obvious considerable expertise, not only with Ancient Rome but also with technology.

The course content is colourful and lively. The text is easily accessible and there are lots of references provided to follow up on for those who want to extend their study. There are also lots of photos and the videos are very good. We see Dr Nicholls in Rome, and also in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I never realised before that so much historical information about buildings, aqueducts, roads, sewers and people could be gleaned from coins.

But best and so impressive has to be the 3D digital model of ancient Rome built by Matthew Nicholls using SketchUp. This is used extensively to explain how Rome was built and the significance of different buildings and roads. To see how amazing this model is you would have to join this free course, or there is also a very interesting video on YouTube by Matthew Nicholls in which he explains how he built the model and how he uses it with his students at Reading University.

A friend recently told me that he didn’t think it was possible to have an emotional response to an online course in the same way as you can in a face-to-face course and implied that this diminishes the online experience. I have had lots of social experiences online over the years which have elicited an emotional response. I am intrigued that this course is able to do this through its content alone, without the need for social interaction, although there are plenty of opportunities for adding comments to the discussion forums and making social connections if you wish. Maybe I will change my mind about participating in the discussion forums as I work through the course. I think Phil Tubman’s Comment Discovery Tool, that I wrote about in a previous post, would make a great addition to this course.

Promoting discussion in FutureLearn MOOCs

                

MOOCs: Back to the Future. This was the title of a lunchtime seminar I attended last week in the Educational Research Department of Lancaster University, UK.

In this seminar Phil Tubman  (PhD student with Educational Research and School of Computing and Communications, and also Senior Learning Technologist in the ISS eLearning team at Lancaster), shared the progress he has been making on his PhD into whether MOOCs are living up to their promises. The title of his talk was chosen to suggest that with respect to MOOCs we currently have our backs to the future. As such we need to turn round and look for ways forward.

Given that he works for Lancaster University Phil is well placed to explore social learning in FutureLearn MOOCs. Lancaster University is a FutureLearn Partner.  Phil is interested in the problems of sustaining discussion in online forums and the role of the FutureLearn platform in this; FutureLearn claims to be a social learning platform.

Phil and his colleagues have looked at discussion threads in forums and found that they don’t include many members and that conversations often do not extend beyond a first reply. These findings are supported by other researchers. Phil and his colleagues have therefore designed an intervention which they hope will increase and improve interaction and social learning in these  forums. This is an interactive word cloud which they have called a Comment Discovery Tool (CDT). This tool displays the top 200 words from a forum thread as a word cloud. MOOC participants can then click on a given word to display all the comments which include that word. The example shown in the seminar was from FutureLearn’s MOOC on Wordsworth. Phil clicked on the word ‘daffodils’ in the word cloud which took us to all the relevant forum posts. Having done this, it would then be possible for the MOOC participant to follow the discussion from there without having to wade through potentially hundreds of forum comments and threads. Phil is continuing to develop this tool for his PhD and is interested in whether and how the comment discovery tool will affect interaction in the FutureLearn forums.

I look forward to seeing how this develops.  Phil and his colleagues, Phil Benachour and Murat Oztok have submitted a paper on this to the Learning Sciences Conference 2018, and a recording of Phil’s seminar will ultimately be posted here – http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/educational-research/news-and-events/seminar-series/