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MOOCing a change — using online courses to enhance your learning and reach a wider audience

Massive open online courses (MOOC) present learners with a new way to access information and interact with other participants. Setting up a MOOC can help you reach a diverse global audience.

Patient-centred care is a popular buzzword in today’s NHS, but how often are real patients’ perspectives incorporated into healthcare professionals’ training? Multidisciplinary training is equally in vogue, yet how much of your continuing professional development features any real-time views from doctors or the other members of the healthcare team?

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, may have the potential to change all this by allowing healthcare professionals, patients and carers to learn alongside one another in an easily accessible environment.

MOOCs do not typically offer any formal qualifications or accreditation; however, the acronym describes their selling points. They are massive — tens of thousands of people can be involved in each course; they are open in the widest sense. They are free to use, entry is unrestricted and the course is not explicitly time-limited. They are also online, which means they are easily accessible and integrate online discussion forums and other social media, including YouTube, Instagram and Facebook.

MOOCs arrived in the UK in 2012 when FutureLearn, a commercial subsidy of the Open University, became the first UK portal (access point) for them. Students in the UK can also access MOOCs provided by non-UK portals, including the US-based Coursera and the Australian MOOEC.

FutureLearn chief executive Simon Nelson says that, since launch, 350,000 learners in 190 countries have taken part in over 80 of its MOOCs, accessing courses produced by 35 universities, most of which are UK based. He adds that FutureLearn’s educational partners are selected from the top 35 UK universities and the top 200 institutions in the world. 

MOOCs available on FutureLearn are all in beta-testing stage and cover a wide range of topics, including pharmacy. King’s College London has run a course called ‘Medicines adherence: supporting patients with their treatment’ and, more recently, the University of East Anglia (UEA) school of pharmacy published a MOOC about difficulties in swallowing medicines.

Expanded audience

When the UEA was approached by FutureLearn to develop a MOOC, David Wright, deputy head at the UEA school of pharmacy, saw this as a way to disseminate good quality information about swallowing difficulties to a wide and hard-to-reach audience including carers. He also hoped it would promote pharmacists’ expertise and raise the global profile of the UEA and its pharmacy school. The UEA approached Rosemont Pharmaceuticals to co-finance the course development costs. The liquid medicines manufacturer had no input into the course content.

The course is designed to help a wide range of learners — from doctors to carers and patients — gain a better understanding of swallowing difficulties, as well as the technical, legal and practical issues around modifying medicines.

The MOOC on swallowing difficulties is a first for the UEA, and Wright and co-author Rina Begum describe the experience as “an education”.

“Don’t underestimate the work and the costs involved,” says MOOC lead Wright. “Topics need to be interesting to a wide number of people and should avoid time-sensitive content that requires frequent revision.”

He adds: “I particularly wanted to reach carers; in patients with Parkinson’s and following a stroke, aspiration is a main cause of death. Carers need to be able to identify patients who are at risk from the wrong medicine format or texture, and in this respect I felt the partnership with Rosemont, with their connections to care homes, would be helpful.”


Rigorous process

Wright describes FutureLearn’s quality assurance standards as “rigorous”, which has added to the challenge of delivering the course for a wide range of learners. Yet, when it comes to money, he says that once the course has been developed, the ongoing costs are minimal and relate mostly to resourcing the ongoing discussion forum moderation.

The UEA MOOC has been designed to run over eight weeks and recommends (but does not mandate) that learners all start and finish at the same time, completing one two-hour module a week. The course incorporates video and audio on most screens, and can be supplemented by a textbook[1].

According to Wright, the MOOC medium allows participants to learn not just from the UEA and other experts featured in the course but from each other, via the discussion forum that is moderated by the UEA. At the end of each module, there is a self assessment to check learning.

Learners can purchase an optional ‘statement of participation’, which provides a physical record of participation or access to an examination, if that is included in the course design. “You might find this useful,” Nelson suggests, “for providing evidence of informal continuing professional development, commitment to your career, or of your awareness of the issues in a particular subject.”  To be eligible to purchase this statement, learners must have completed at least half of the steps in the course and all the end-of-module tests.

As the MOOC platform provider, FutureLearn promotes and manages the learning — ensuring participants have access to the online material, logging progress and sending out learner surveys and reminder emails to support ongoing participation.  

Box 1: The GPhC, the RPS, and MOOCs

As the registrar for pharmacists, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) has looked at MOOCs and states that it has no particular position on them, in line with its general position on CPD learning media. “It is basically down to the individual registrant to determine his or her learning needs relevant to their scope of practice and also to decide what type of learning they need to undertake,” it says. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) is taking a more cautious position, stating that they have looked at the medium but that the RPS Faculty has not yet adopted MOOCs. “Accreditation Panel members felt they would benefit from further information on MOOCs and that, with continued work on the establishment of MOOCs, matters could be reviewed in the future,” it reasons.

By week four, halfway through the course, the UEA MOOC had attracted around 2,500 learners, including patients and carers as well as those with a professional interest, such as speech and language therapists. The UEA believes that the discussion board has attracted a good range of viewpoints and has presented an opportunity to answer queries and provide clarifications.

“During week one I was worried what people would think; the reputation of the profession, as well as that of the school of pharmacy and of me, personally, are at stake,” Wright says. “This is our first run at a MOOC and we accept that it is not perfect but we do feel it is proving its worth as a learning medium.”

Importantly, he says he would produce a MOOC again, next time on the more general subject of medicines: what they are, the role they play and how best to take them.

Box 2: FAQs for potential course providers

Is there a typical MOOC learner? According to FutureLearn, the majority of MOOC learners (60%) are women of an age range split equally between the over- and under-45s. FutureLearn wants its MOOC offering to appeal to a wide range of learners, so courses target the ‘learning for leisure’ market, as well as those seeking personal and professional development.

Is there a typical MOOC? MOOCs are all individually designed, although typically they run for around 6–8 weeks, with a study rate of 2–4 hours a week. Highly visual and interactive content, such as audiovisual content and integration with other online media, is common. The most popular topics currently — history, computer programming and forensic science — may attract around 10,000 participants, while for a more specialist MOOC, participant volumes may fall to 2,000–3,000.

What makes a good MOOC? Any topics may be presented via a MOOC but FutureLearn says the format is better suited to material that is enhanced by participants sharing views or practical tips. An example is a “start writing fiction” course, where participants submit original writing for peer review. Healthcare MOOCs (e.g. cancer care) allow patients and carers to give their own perspectives. According to Nelson, MOOCs are not ideally suited to fact-based learning, delivered through rote or repetition.

What is the attrition rate? Three-quarters of all participants complete the course at the recommended rate of one module per week. Currently, around one in five MOOC participants are said to be fully participating, which is defined as having completed at least half of the course material and all assessments.

What does it cost to produce a MOOC? FutureLearn states that total production costs may run to around £30,000 and that several months of authoring and film and audio production time should be allocated — but costs and time resources are all dependent on local circumstances and resource availability. FutureLearn provides MOOC development guidance and offers quality assurance. It does not charge providers to host their MOOCs but may share any revenue arising from chargeable add-ons such as the statement of participation or end-of-course examination entrance fees.

Citation: Clinical Pharmacist URI: 20066037

Readers' comments (1)

  • I did a MOOC on Pharmaceutical Bioinformatics with Upsala University and found that massively intriguing. Afterall, not all universities have such expertise.

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