Trinity goes digital with first free online course in September

Trinity College Dublin is making its first foray into open-access digital education with a free history course going live in September.

The six-week MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) aims to give people a “Trinity education experience” without having to attend college.

MOOCs are a growing feature of higher education internationally, and a new report has called for greater cooperation between institutions here to prevent Ireland from falling behind in the digital space.

The Trinity course, ‘Irish Lives in War and Revolution: Exploring Irish History 1912-1923’, was designed by staff from the School of History and Humanities.

Dr Anne Dolan, one of the teams involved, said it was aimed at the “interested punter” rather than the professional researcher, but would not compromise on quality.

Trinity partners on the FutureLearn project – a private company owned by the Open University in the UK – told them that “people stop watching online after eight minutes and that dictates what you can do in terms of introduction of a thoughtful approach. In the end, people will get what they put in.

His colleague Professor Ciaran Brady said taking the MOOC “should prepare you for taking a university course” but it was “no substitute”. One thing they were keen to do was show “how historians actually work” by presenting conflicting evidence and analyzing sources.

So, he said, “there will be less face-to-face with ‘talking heads’ and more ‘Here are the issues, and how do you deal with them?’ We want to avoid saying that we have all the answers.

“We have no intention of collapsing,” he added. “One thing we try to do at the university is to encourage more independent thinking and this type of project can help with that.”

Participants will be able to attend short lectures, using audio-visual material, directing them to other online resources. It will incorporate tests and quizzes and students will be encouraged to debate the material on social media.

With potentially thousands of people signing up, “it’s out of anyone’s reach to respond to each learner individually,” said Associate Dean of Online Education, Professor Tim Savage, who oversees the project, “but it is possible to monitor interactions and contribute to this.”

Describing the course as a learning process for Trinity, Professor Savage said: “My personal view is that if you want to be a globally significant university in a globalized education space, you need to have an online offering and also ensure that everything we learn in the online space feeds back into the traditional space.

“The pilot is there for us to learn our abilities. The challenge is to take a Trinity education experience and put it online.

Although the course is free, FutureLearn will offer participants the option of purchasing a “Certificate of Attendance” for approximately €30.

Such statements have proven popular on some MOOCs because they allow employees to “demonstrate commitment” to a particular field of study, Professor Savage noted. In the future, “it is possible that they will be used for people applying for courses”, but at the moment there is no formal recognition, he pointed out.

The number of universities in the United States offering MOOCs has grown rapidly since 2012, but innovation here has been much slower to materialize.

In its latest progress report, the National Forum for Improving Teaching and Learning in Higher Education called for a national digital capacity building roadmap that would be supported by investments in new technologies.

“It is not a question of whether or not digital technology will transform Irish higher education, but rather who will lead that transformation. The current approach to building digital capacity in the sector is not consistent, sustainable or sufficiently evidence-based,” he said.

One of its recommendations is to adopt open learning as a core element of higher education institutions. “At the heart of open access is the free availability of information – but the main challenge is managing that information…and facilitating its educational value.”

The Trinity MOOC has a particular focus on how ordinary Irish people experienced the events of the last century and was part of a larger online project planned for 2016 exploring “if we have truly gained independence”, said the Professor Brady.

I To register: Participants can discuss the content on Twitter using the hashtag #FLirishlives.