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Gendering the MOOC – Helen King

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Helen King, Professor Emerita of Classical Studies at the Open University, spoke at our 2017 AGM on Gendering the MOOC; this blog post is based on her talk there. You can also find Prof. King on Twitter.

Gendering the MOOC

I’ve discussed elsewhere the origins and the experience of the MOOC on ‘Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World’ and both my collaborator Laurence Totelin and I have also reflected on the process of writing it; here’s me and here’s Laurence. But I’d like to add some thoughts specifically on gender.

The learners

Learners (FutureLearn terminology for those taking the course) are invited to complete a beginning-of-course survey: 75% identified as female. Only a small fraction – around 7% – completed this survey, a response rate consistent with other comparable FutureLearn MOOCs, so perhaps women are more likely to ‘conform’ by responding to the invitation. However, from the indicator to which I had most access – the identities of those responding to the ‘Comments’ thread in each step of the MOOC – I also found that the majority were female. Perhaps this is because the MOOC not only attracts people in Classical Studies, but is designed to appeal to those in health care, who are more likely to be women.

The syllabus

We made sure both men’s and women’s experiences were covered, and in addition Week 5 (of 6) was on ‘Conception, Generation and Sexuality’. Within this, we ranged from myths involving birth to theories of conception, positions for giving birth, and the process of puberty in girls. This week also included the presence of men at births, and infertility; we made it clear that men as well as women could be held responsible for this.

As someone who was at university when women’s lives and experiences played a very small part in the curriculum, I was pleased to have this entire week when – although men were definitely present in the materials – women were foregrounded. However, not all learners shared my enthusiasm. Most learners on FutureLearn are not native English speakers, and I had selected contributors to the audio and video to get away from the Oxbridge accent (!), including northern English voices and people with Belgian, American and Australasian backgrounds. But those who commented on each step were largely white, UK or US nationals, aged in the 50+ bracket (information on this can be gleaned from their profiles, which can be accessed by any learner by clicking on their name when they post a comment). The majority – both men and women – said they loved Week 5, although from the women there was repeated surprise at what they perceived as the sexism of ancient thought. Following from this, it was women who thought they’d had enough on the topic and wanted to move on; I got the impression that they thought it was only in this area of life that ‘sexism’ existed. A man did ask why there was nothing on men growing up and I pointed out there were a lot of soldiers in week 6, which was focused on mobility.

The approach to learning

We wanted to avoid the model of ‘the expert faces the camera and tells you the facts’, and to create an awareness that knowledge is open to debate, so our model was an interview in which the interviewer was trying to find out more. Each week began with a brief discussion of the ancient and modern aspects of the topic, with me and Mathijs Lucassen, whose PhD is in psychiatry but whose background includes both Classics and occupational therapy. Some learners were disturbed that I needed to ask questions – I was expected to have all the answers already! A key learning point was that neither material culture nor texts contain all the answers, and that sometimes they clash. Another was that we need to know who is telling us this; cherry-picking ‘quotes’ from ancient authors isn’t enough.

By avoiding the position of ‘expert’, however, I think we helped learners to share their own expertise in the Comments sections – and they had a huge range of knowledge of both classical studies and medicine. Learners commented that certain sections made them question their assumptions (e.g. on how votive offerings worked). There was far more ‘personal sharing’ of experiences than I’d anticipated. Some debates, particularly on herbal medicine and on homeopathy, were intense but polite, and it was a female learner who became the ‘voice of science’ and who was called this by other learners.

And finally, an interesting case of ‘everyday sexism’. Each week’s opening interview took place in an OU recording studio, a room full of ancient computers. Several learners (mostly male) were baffled as to ‘why Mathijs has so many old computers in his office’!

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