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Two Leiden MOOCs in New York Magazine’s Top 21

‘Heritage Under Threat’ and ‘The Rooseveltian Century’ are among the 21 best MOOCs for a general public according to New York Magazine.

New York Magazine chose the 21 most beginner-friendly MOOCs. They are open to all. The magazine also interviewed students who had taken the MOOCs.

Sada Mire used to work as an archaeologist at Leiden University.

Heritage under Threat

The Heritage Under Threat MOOC (followed by over 5,800 learners, rated 4.9/5) was developed by the Centre for Global Heritage and Development, a collaboration between the universities of Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam. Swedish-Somali archaeologist Sada Mire, who was working at Leiden University at the time, developed and teaches the MOOC. Cultural heritage around the world is under threat in a number of ways, explains Mara de Groot from the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University and coordinator of the Centre for Global Heritage and Development. ‘It is accidentally or intentionally damaged or even destroyed in wars or conflicts, as with the ruins of Palmyra in Syria, which were destroyed by IS (see banner photo). Alternatively, there is no money for conservation. But a greater, less visible problem, is how much heritage disappears unnoticed because of construction work and agricultural developments.’

Raising awareness was the first goal

The MOOC begins with the question of what heritage is, before moving on to strategies for preserving our cultural heritage. ‘We wanted to raise awareness of heritage at risk in a wide public, including people who have limited access to a university,’ says De Groot.

Depiction of Tlaloc the rain god, of one of the indigenous communities in the Brazilian rainforest. Deforestation affects not only the rainforest but also the indigenous communities and their cultural heritage.

The MOOC teaches students what heritage is, why it is often claimed by groups and how closely linked it is to group identities. ‘We thought the topic would interest many people. Sada also has a large network in East Africa, and managed to inspire many of her contacts there to follow the MOOC. We didn’t do any research into whether the MOOC did actually contribute to heritage protection, but awareness of the threat to cultural heritage can help people identify risks and speak out against them.’

Learn and enjoy

Mazuba Kapambwe, a podcast host from Zimbabwe who followed the course, wanted to find out more about how to protect heritage sites in Zimbabwe. She learned a lot about how to do this, she told New York Magazine. ‘But I also enjoyed the fantastic footage and can only praise Dr Mire’s thoughtful teaching style. The course showed heritage under threat around the world. There were also many guest appearances by officials from UNESCO, for instance, who spoke about their work to protect heritage sites. I really did learn a lot.’

Giles Scott-Smith

The Rooseveltian Century

The MOOC The Rooseveltian Century (followed by over 6,500 learners, rated 4.4/5) looks at how the three Roosevelts – Theodore, Franklin and his wife Eleanor – shaped the development of US history through the 20th century. Theodore was president from 1901 to 1909 and Franklin from 1933 to 1945. Eleanor is still considered to be the most politically active of all the first ladies. The course covers their biographies and how each of them put forward a unique view on the meaning of security, equality, and freedom, and how they, in their own particular ways, sought to improve the lives of citizens through engaged and enlightened public policies.

Re-evaluating the role of the Roosevelts 
Historian Giles Scott-Smith had been working at the Roosevelt Institute for some time already when he and his colleague Dario Fazzi started thinking about how they could re-evaluate the role and importance of the three principal Roosevelts in US history. Scott-Smith: ‘It was in 2015, when MOOCs were starting to gain serious attention, that we saw the opportunity for a new kind of history course, entirely digital. The aim was to develop the MOOC in time for its launch in January 2016, to mark the 75th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms Speech in 1941. And we succeeded.’ 

Pushing the technical limits
The MOOC was a new medium for learning and the two researchers also wanted to investigate this. ‘We pushed the technical limits for the time – that was much less than now – and worked with images, on-site locations and innovative assignments. We wanted to test what was possible. For this, collaborating with my colleague Dario was perfect. He made a huge contribution.’

President Franklin and his wife Eleanor, who was also politically active.

MOOC participant and futurist thinker Susan Cox-Smith must have been looking through today’s eyes when she called The Rooseveltian Century a ‘conventional’ course in the New York Magazine. But she also has a compliment for Scott-Smith: she says he ‘really understand[s] what online education is about.’ She describes how the course is peppered with surprise quizzes to make sure you’re paying attention. Scott-Smith is pleased with the compliment: ‘For the MOOC to receive this recognition four and a half years after its launch is confirmation that we made something of lasting value.’

A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course that can be followed online for free. Famous universities around the world currently offer around 3,000 MOOCs on the Coursera platform. All disciplines are represented; there’s even a ‘How to make a MOOC’ MOOC. The democratic premise of the Coursera MOOC platform, which was launched in 2012 by two Stanford professors, was to offer free academic education to anyone with a PC and internet connection, anytime, anywhere. There are paid plans that give you access to extra options: workgroups with other students, extra assignments and a certificate on completion of the course. Around 47 million people had followed a MOOC by the end of 2019, and since the outbreak of the corona pandemic, an additional 10 million have joined them. Leiden University passed the one million student mark for the 30 Leiden MOOCs on Coursera at the beginning of the year. 

Michelle Olmstead

The future of MOOCs

Michelle Olmstead, Director of the Centre for Innovation (CfI), has the following to say about the status and future of MOOCs: ‘We see MOOCs as one of the formats in the enormous spectrum of online learning options. The expertise, technology and content that results from creating a MOOC will continue to be of huge relevance to the future of online learning. We apply this expertise and technology to many other products, such as virtual and extended reality, online community development, SPOCs and blended learning. The expertise that Leiden researchers and lecturers have gained in creating MOOCs is also of use in these times of corona.

‘MOOCs have also taken on other roles, for instance as an introduction to a degree programme or as part of a pre-bachelor’s and pre-master’s programme. They are offered as a form of research impact in grant applications. And institutes and researchers successfully use MOOCs to increase their international visibility or share their research.’

MOOC obsolescence Veroudering van MOOCs
‘In general, the idea that MOOCs soon become obsolete is somewhat of a misconception. Many of our MOOCs were created over five years ago, but are attracting increasing numbers of students. We now have 1.14 million enrolments in the Leiden MOOCs on Coursera and FutureLearn. We find that while MOOC topics may become less popular for a short time, subjects often resurface every few years and a MOOC will become popular again. Both of the MOOCs shared by New York Magazine are great examples of this as they were developed a few years ago but are still acknowledged as some of the best (and most relevant) in the world.’

Text: Corine Hendriks
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