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Meet the Independent MOOC Whose Performance Rivals the Big Platforms

Written by Laurie Pickard
6 minute read
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Most of the courses on Class Central’s Top 50 Free Online Courses of All Time come from the larger MOOC platforms, such as Coursera and edX. One course on that list, Understanding Dementia, is independently hosted, meaning that the University of Tasmania (UTAS) offers the course through its own website. Naturally, an independent MOOC making it into the Top 50 caught our attention. It’s like when an independent film beats a Hollywood movie at the box office.

Despite not being on one of the major MOOC platforms, Understanding Dementia has had over 120,000 enrollments, with over 29,000 learners in the most recent run of the course alone. Not only does this MOOC receive an average review of five stars, many of the reviews are positively heartwarming, citing personal experience caring for patients with dementia. The course attracts a mix of professionals who work with dementia patients and people whose lives have been personally touched by dementia. Understanding Dementia may also be used as a pathway into UTAS’s Dementia Care Degree Program.

Class Central got the chance to interview the Dementia MOOC’s team at UTAS’s Wicking Dementia Centre. The team’s answers to our questions are below.

Understanding Dementia is currently open for enrollment for its next session. It starts February 20, 2018.

You’ve had over 120,000 students enroll in Understanding Dementia. How many certificates have you awarded for the course?

In the six iterations of the Understanding Dementia MOOC we have had 120,000 enrollments, with around 48,000 participants earning their completion certificate.

Understanding Dementia is a huge hit with Class Central learners, many of whom have left five star reviews for the course. What made you choose to release this course (and your other MOOC on dementia) independently, rather than through one of the major platforms?

The platform that hosts the Understanding Dementia MOOC is powered by the Desire2Learn (D2L) learning management system, which also hosts the award courses offered by the University of Tasmania. This has had a benefit for those MOOC participants that have then gone on to study towards the University of Tasmania’s award courses — such as the Bachelor, Associate Degree, and Diploma in Dementia Care — in that they are already familiar with the learning environment.

In addition, having our own platform gives us the flexibility to create a unique and dynamic learning environment that we can manipulate to include a range of activities and approaches. It has given us the opportunity to develop our own MOOC identity and flavor. Further, it allows us to undertake important research within the MOOC; we’ve published in areas including factors influencing successful participation in the course (Goldberg et al, 2015) and more specific knowledge of various dementia-related needs of UDMOOC participants (McInerney et al, 2017).[1] We have many other research projects planned and underway within the Understanding Dementia MOOC; having control of our own platform and access to data greatly enhances our research capacity.

Do you have a sense of what percentage of your learners take this course for personal reasons (e.g. they have a family member with dementia) vs. professional reasons (e.g. they are interested in working in the field of dementia care)?

The UDMOOC cohort comes from diverse backgrounds, reflecting both the growing awareness and wide impact of dementia. For example, in the 2017 Understanding Dementia MOOC, 30% of participants reported having a family member with dementia and 70% of participants reported that they work with people living with dementia as part of their professional role.

You’ve had a big uptick in enrollments in Understanding Dementia. How did you manage to get over 29,000 students enrolled in the course?

Word of mouth is a huge driver of enrollments in both of our dementia MOOCs. The feedback we receive from participants is overwhelmingly positive. We repeatedly hear how beneficial the knowledge gained from the Understanding Dementia MOOC has been in participants’ lives, and in the lives of those they are caring for. We also often hear feedback from participants wishing they had done the course sooner, and how they will tell everyone they know to enroll. Participants, and organizations where participants work, certainly do spread the word, which we really appreciate. To be named in Class Central’s top 50 MOOCs of all time, as well as currently being the no. 1 rated online course in Health and Medicine, has also helped raise the profile of the course.

How many of your MOOC students have gone on to enroll in the University of Tasmania for either a Bachelor in Dementia Care or a graduate degree program?

We currently have almost 1,000 students enrolled in the Bachelor in Dementia Care whose first contact with UTAS was the Understanding Dementia MOOC.

How similar or different are your online degree programs to the Understanding Dementia MOOC?

The Dementia Care Program (also offered by the Wicking Centre, University of Tasmania) is similar to the UDMOOC to the extent that it is also available internationally, and is fully online. The Diploma (8 units), Associate Degree (16 units), and Bachelor of Dementia Care (24 units) are accredited university qualifications that, as you would expect, have a much greater time commitment; more rigorous and graded assessment requirements such as essays, reports, and presentations; as well as cover a broader range of content in much greater depth. Completion of the Understanding Dementia MOOC can count towards a unit in the Dementia Care Program with the completion of additional formal assessments.

Has anything you’ve learned from the MOOCs translated into on-campus teaching?

As our Dementia Care Program is delivered fully online, Wicking Centre academics do not do a lot of on-campus teaching. Our MOOC participants have given us greater insight into the motivations and needs of people seeking education to improve their understanding of dementia, which has translated into improvements to the Dementia Care Degree Program. For example, knowing more about the challenges people face in dementia care helps us design relevant and practical learning activities. The MOOCs provide an opportunity to engage with thousands of people and understand what they want to learn about dementia and how they like to learn it. This does inform our teaching in other courses.

The UDMOOC also highlights the power of connecting with people’s experience and valuing that, while in the Dementia Care Degree Program we also move more strongly to other levels of evidence that further enhance individuals’ learning. Something too about the MOOC shows us the value of delivering content in a variety of ways to meet various learning styles and to connect with a large cohort.

What has been most personally or professionally rewarding about teaching this MOOC?

The UDMOOC has allowed us as educators to reach out to people engaging with one of the greatest global health and care issues of this century. People experiencing the challenges associated with dementia tell us that it can be a very isolating experience, and that it is very difficult to find support and information. The UDMOOC brings together a community of learners who can access quality information delivered in an engaging style, and by connecting virtually with thousands of others can learn that they are not alone. That we can bring about that sort of impact is a rare and humbling experience.

[1]Goldberg, L., Bell, E., and King, C., O’Mara, C., McInerney, F., Robinson, AL., Vickers, J. 2015. Relationship between participants’ level of education and engagement in their completion of the Understanding Dementia Massive Open Online Course. BMC Medical Education. 15:60. Doi http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6920/15/60

McInerney, F., Doherty, K., Bindoff, A., Robinson, A., Vickers, J. 2017. How is palliative care understood in the context of dementia: results from a massive open online course. Palliative Medicine (in press).