As acronyms go MOOC doesn’t roll easily off the tongue. Massive Open Online Courses harness the reach of the worldwide web to the immediacy of social media and magically turn teaching and learning into something entirely new for educators and learners alike. As a key element in the Equally Safe in Higher Education (ESHE) Toolkit, developing a new MOOC ‘Understanding Violence against Women – Myths and Realities’ with my ESHE colleague Roisin McGoldrick took us into uncharted technological and pedagogical waters. With no students in front of you and no entry requirements, these free courses, covering every subject under the sun, attract learners from across the globe who might be studying at all hours of the Scottish day and night. Designing a course on VAW, a complex and at times controversial topic, for an invisible audience, was a challenge to two experienced educators used to the cut and thrust of lectures, powerpoint, handouts and groupwork. Converting what we knew into audio-visual learning steps to capture and retain learners’ interest over a six week period meant that most of how we did things went out the window. Knowing you are only ever one click away from internet oblivion at the best of times, teaching such a complex and highly controversial subject required us each to find a friendly yet authoritative ‘voice’, somewhere between a pal and a mentor. I won’t even go into the whole teaching to camera business…
My long experience of teaching about violence against women has shown me that it is one of the few academic subjects where students’ personal opinions can sometimes trump all the research evidence you can throw at them.
My long experience of teaching about violence against women has shown me that it is one of the few academic subjects where students’ personal opinions can sometimes trump all the research evidence you can throw at them. Violence against women (VAW) is so deeply interwoven in the warp and weft of world history and modern life that finding a way to unpack its complexities was our first task. We wanted to stimulate thinking and ideas around violence against women and girls and offer knowledge and perspectives for people to consider. We were firmly feminist in our approach and were clear that our aim was not necessarily that everyone agree but that we provided them with a strong foundation from which to build their learning and their own analyses. To do that we needed to introduce some serious sociological concepts such as gender, power and violence. We hoped this would help them make personal connections with underpinning theories, theoretical frameworks and the lived realities for women living with violence the world over.
Before we started on the content however we were clear we needed a clear ethical framework for learning. Given its high international prevalence and gendered nature, it was very likely that many of our participants would have either direct or indirect experience of violence against women and girls in private, social or public settings. We recognised that for some, this may well have influenced their decision to study the course and how they might interpret our materials. We would be covering topics which people would likely find distressing and because we were not around to have a private chat after class, we created a ‘Health Warning’ with regular reminders about the need for self-care and regular breaks to allow processing and learning. We established clear groundrules stressing the importance of being mindful of themselves and respectful of others in group discussions and in responding to other people’s posts in the online space, their sole and virtual classroom. We stressed that personal experience is wholly that – unique and personal – and should not be used as evidence of more general points that people might wish to make. The chances of disclosures were likely to be high and we asked people only to share information about themselves that they were comfortable making available in the course’s public online platform. This request was well adhered to and might be a useful reminder for use in other public social media platforms,
“Please be sensitive to the potential for causing distress to yourself and to others in what you say and post during your time studying on this course.
We observed this in action many times. Participants contravening the ground rules were dealt with very effectively and graciously by the others in ways which were a model of pro-social, measured and well-argued rebuttals.
Each learning step of the six week course contained short lectures, reading materials, hyperlinks, video extracts and opportunities for online discussion. There were quizzes and ‘live streams’ where people could tune into a Youtube channel and post questions for us to answer live on air. We eventually got used to teaching direct to camera, to breaking learning down into powerful packets of knowledge and getting to the point and sharpish! We dashed off compact articles, wandered down the vast storehouses of Shutterstock images, interviewed experts over Skype and chipped into online discussions being carried out across continents – reading discussions between people in Sri Lanka, Chile, South Africa, Russia, Italy, Burkino Faso, New Zealand, Australia was thrilling. We learned about media schedules, subtitling, editing and were fortunate in having tremendous contributions from a range of well-kent Scottish and internationally renowned experts in the VAW field and the support of a team of learning technologists and film-makers and audio-visual specialists.
Our community of learners included survivors, a range of professionals, VAW specialists, students and many FutureLearn old hands who were simply interested in exploring a new subject. Some were regular contributors to the discussion and many were not – content to learn in their own way. There is absolutely no requirement to chip in your tuppenceworth. We witnessed extraordinary moments of enlightenment as people began to make sense of their own or others’ experiences or to connect their practice with new ideas. We read with interest as people spoke of their growing confidence in their own knowledge to initiate conversations about VAW with family, friends and colleagues for the first time.
In an extraordinary piece of synchronicity, the Weinstein story and the #MeToo campaign aftermath broke when we were dealing with ‘Media Representations of VAW’. The chat was mighty and the analysis of the press coverage was a joy to behold in its confidence, knowledge and outrage!
The pleasure of taking part in discussions with participants from every corner of the globe, of hearing their perspectives and of reaching so many people was a new one to me. The feedback since the first course ended in mid-November 2017 has been extremely positive. People connected to the issue in new ways, realised that they could play a part in preventing violence against women and many resolved at the end to take action in their own communities.
The course page invites learners to join the global movement to prevent VAW. By taking part in a course like ours I believe they made a start. We explored VAW Prevention at the end of the course and when people read about the first Zero Tolerance Campaign in Scotland, the 16 Days of International Activism against VAW, the Inside Outside Project, One Billion Rising and White Ribbon for instance many were inspired into taking action in their own communities. Learning about VAW is an intervention and a key part of primary prevention. Knowledge is indeed power, we busted some myths and laid down some realities and just maybe we have helped bring about some changes of mind.