World War 1: A History in 100 Stories
Two years ago the wholly owned subsidiary of the Open University called ‘FutureLearn’ launched its first online course to bring free online learning to a global Internet audience. The courses are written, produced and presented by universities around the planet and delivered to the highest standards, those from the UK typically working with the BBC, for example. FutureLearn recently welcomed its 2 millionth student.
Five of the hundred or more courses now on offer are on the First World War.
One of these, from the University of Monash, Australia ‘World War 1: A History in 100 Stories’ has just begun.
It is free to join, free to follow and as an introduction to learning online an indulgence if you are fascinated in the First World War. These courses are ‘open’ to everyone with an Internet connection and as easy to follow on a smartphone as a PC.
‘Accessibility’ is an OU and FutureLearn mission.
Every possible way to permit ease of reading and following the content is designed into the course. Every video is supported by a transcript. All text is plain and bold and carefully spaced across the page. Icons and buttons are self-explanatory and there is plenty of help, including getting in touch with a person either from the course you are on or FutureLearn. You can download pieces of the course too if that’s how you prefer to read and add notes.
FutureLearn builds on decades of experience the Open University has in delivering distance learning and is led on the former head of digital from the BBC. They are designed, and constantly adjusted and improved, with ease of use in mind.
Courses typically run from between three to five weeks. Some are twice this length, some just a couple of weeks. The courses offered are as varied as anything you might wish to study at university.
There are five courses on the First World War:
A History in 100 Stories. Monash University. Just started.
Changing Faces of Heroism. University of Leeds. Starts 26 October.
Trauma and Memory. The Open University. Starts 16 November
Aviation Comes of Age. The University of Birmingham.
Paris 1919 - A new world order? The University of Glasgow
These courses are ‘modular’ - they are offered in a carefully thought throw sequence of ‘learning moments’.
Typically they are designed, each week, to require a couple of hours of your attention though in this instance they think that four hours is more realistic. You can spend longer, or skip a week. Catch up later, or just move on. Most students enjoy taking part in the discussions that are attached to every one of these ‘learning moments’. These are with fellow students, under the watchful eye of both junior and senior academics who like to join in from time to time. It is a learning experience, so there are sometimes tasks to complete, such as an end of week ‘quiz’ or a short assignment that is graded by a fellow student, just as you might be expected to grade someone else’s piece.
You are helped through this process and it forms an essential part of the learning experience. Watching videos and reading ‘stuff’ isn’t enough to learn something: you need to discuss it, then put your own thinking on the line.
World War 1: A history in 100 Stories is the work of Monash University, Australia.
This latest ‘presentation’ of the course opened to students on 12 October.
A number of speakers, senior and junior university academics, introduce and carry you through the meticulously prepared content. In this instance the angle is very much the Australian perspective, it is nonetheless, for the First World War enthusiast a fantastic experience, even an indulgence.
There is something of that BBC ethos to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ and to deliver the very best 21st-century learning experience.
The course begins by following the story of a couple of brothers who were sent off to Gallipoli, one of them dying there, the other heading for the Western Front where he too lost his life. It then looks at the roles, volunteer and paid, that women took before moving on to the contribution by indigenous peoples, as well as other 'Dominion' men from India, and those from China too. The speakers draw on collections curated in museum exhibition set up to mark the Centenary. Bereavement and commemoration are key themes which run throughout this course.
Peculiar to this module, and taking a creative risk, many of these ‘100 stories’ are delivered in silent videos, very much in the style of a silent movie of the era, with captions.
The argument, shared in many of the comments, for and against, is that it is evocative of the time and, given that so often these people died, it is respectful and gives space for the viewer to reflect. Some argue that a voice over would still be helpful. You can judge for yourself. The effect is often extremely moving. The ‘comment’ thread can easily run to over 1,000 contributions. That may sound daunting, but these conversations are easy to follow if you attach yourself to a few people, for example, or just follow one part of what is being said. How this is done is carefully explained and quite quickly becomes intuitive. Think of yourself as a guest at a very popular event: everyone is talking, but you only need to join in the conversation around you.
The courses are repeated across the year
World War 1: A history in 100 Stories was first ‘issued’ in April this year (2015). It is now therefore on its ‘second presentation’ and just started this week, Monday 12 October. Now’s the perfect time to join in, more often than not many see the first weekend as the opportunity to settle down with the week’s ‘work.’
Each week is carefully planned around a theme and divided, in this instance, into a little under 30 of these learning ‘moments’ that may each require just a few minutes to complete. You can dip into it across the day, doing a little a time, or settle down to complete one week of such activities in a couple of hours; it is entirely up to you. Like leafing through a rich ‘coffee table’ book you can dip in where you like, skip a few pages or go back as you like. Although a five weeks course the online discussions remain alive for a month or so afterward as people continue to discuss the topics closest to their hearts. A good percentage of people will repeat the course six months later and so build on their knowledge and the experience.
Written by Jonathan Vernon
Jonathan completed a masters degree at the Open University in ‘Open and Distance Education’ in 2013. As a fan of learning online and an enthusiast for FutureLearn and the First World War he has completed all the above courses on the First World War and will join them again as they each come back 'online'.