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Culture and communication

MOOCs make history

When it comes to research there’s a huge emphasis on global reach and public engagement. So, when a partnership with the world-renowned British Library to widen the impact of Nottingham research inspired an online contribution from a Rohingya Muslim, who’d fled Myanmar for a Malaysia refugee camp, Professor Maiken Umbach knew she was on to something.

With Professor Mat Humphrey from the School of Politics, she had created a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for a British Library exhibition on propaganda. The MOOC, run via FutureLearn, was called Ideology and Propaganda in Every Day Life, and featured more than 20 academics from Nottingham, the US, China and Malaysia.

The MOOC has been a huge success, widening the impact of Nottingham research to a global audience and enriching future research with knowledge exchange.

“The British Library's exhibition was concerned with the concept of propaganda and predicated on a view that propaganda's very much a top-down process, whereby states or political parties can indoctrinate people,” said Professor Umbach. “Our research takes a different view. We understand propaganda as something that works only if it interacts with bottom-up beliefs, words and images that are already in people's heads, that have become naturalised, that we take for granted or that we take to be common-sensical, self-explanatory, and true through the accumulated word of history.”

There was a significant crowd-sourcing element to the MOOC, with learners invited to comment on, and upload images that responded to or encapsulated themes being discussed. It attracted 60,000 to 70,000 comments in addition to uploaded images, and downloads of Open Access articles referenced in the MOOC multiplied by around 100.

Professor Umbach gets a large number of requests to appear on television. So why a MOOC?

“Sticking a ready-made narrative on a public platform like TV – that doesn’t really engage people. For many, a MOOC is the only opportunity they have to access research, to become part of the conversation rather than just being presented with the final products and publications. It deconstructs the single, authoritative voice.”

The MOOC brought together voices from across the globe; 50% from the UK and 50% from the rest of the world.

“What was thrilling is that these courses bring together demographics that are normally completely segregated, even on social media.”  One debate, between a former US Marine and a self-proclaimed anarchist from Mexico about a photograph the Marine had uploaded to represent liberty, “was a very civilised conversation”.

"It's not just about research having impact; it's about that impact generating further data to close that loop"
Professor Maiken Umbach

“The MOOC gets people to not just seek affirmation of their pre-existing views but engage with others they would never normally come into contact with.

“It brings to life history as an interactive research process. We know this from the classroom, but, as a profession, we haven’t translated this into how we engage beyond the classroom.

“We were really thrilled that people jumped into direct engagement with academic research. But we worried that we hadn’t equipped them to engage with academic texts; the language is sometimes inaccessible, the conventions representing academic debate are not self-explanatory.”

And so came a second MOOC. Learning from the Past? A Guide for the Curious Researcher aims to empower people to become active users of the British Library resources and of academic work in general. It combines skills training provided by academics from Nottingham and the University of Birmingham, and curators from the British Library and the University’s Manuscripts and Special Collections.

The first MOOC allowed the team to appropriate cultural beliefs and stereotypes that are already out there to create a rich database on which to base further research into cultural and geographical boundaries, and boundaries of time.

"It brings to life history as an interactive research process"
Professor Maiken Umbach

Ian Cooke, Head of Contemporary British Publications at the British Library, collaborates with the University and joined Professor Umbach on an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) impact leadership scheme that helped widen the scope of the project’s ambitions. 

He said: “Working with Maiken, Mat and others at the University of Nottingham has helped me to understand how ‘impact’ is understood by universities. It has given the British Library a rich understanding of the potential of MOOCs to reach and engage with a diverse audience in a way that encourages interaction without underplaying the complexity of the objects and issues we have to discuss.”

Analysis of 25,000 MOOC learner comments has also informed a forthcoming 2019 academic journal article, The Personal and the Political, which analyses how ordinary people imagine and practice political ideas and concepts. Professor Umbach said: “It is an interesting example of how outreach can both disseminate research, and in turn contribute to new research.

“It's not just about research having impact; it's about that impact generating further data to close that loop. That was really important for us.”

Maiken Umbach

Maiken Umbach is a Professor of Modern History. Maiken is working on an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded three year project on Photography as Political Practice in National Socialism, in collaboration with the National Holocaust Museum. Professor Umbach co-directs the Centre for the Study of Political Ideologies with Professor Mat Humphrey from the School of Politics.

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