MOOCS and online courses for heritage

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Helen Ward

Guest post by Katherine Biggs, Multichannel Producer at Historic Royal Palaces

There has been growing interest in MOOCs (massive open online courses) over the past few years, and the ways in which the heritage sector can tap into their potential. Many of you will have followed the #DLNETChat dedicated to MOOCs back in March, and at Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), we wanted to see whether these courses could provide a platform to take our stories to a new, global audience.

Filming for course

Filming for course

 ‘A History of Royal Food and Feasting’, HRP’s first course, launched in June 2016 on the FutureLearn platform. Produced by HRP’s Learning & Engagement team in collaboration with the University of Reading and colleagues from across the palaces, we were particularly interested in how the free online course model could allow us to reach new audiences. Over five weeks the course examined the changing face of royal food from Henry VIII to Queen Victoria, focusing on five monarchs across four of our palaces.

 We are not the first heritage organisation to be embracing the power of these online courses. The British Library now has two courses running on FutureLearn, Tate has collaborated with Khan Academy, while American museums have long been advocates of this model, especially MoMA’s large presence on Coursera. With so many platforms available for hosting these courses, where does one start in selecting the correct one? At HRP we knew we wanted a narrative structure for our course, taking learners on a journey over a number of weeks rather than a ‘how-to’ model. Being new to the world of MOOCs we were also keen to work with a newer platform (FutureLearn launched in September 2013 but already has over 4 million users), feeling that we would receive more support from a slightly smaller organisation. And almost more importantly, we loved the FutureLearn social learning ethos , and have continued to be impressed by the sheer quantity and quality of discussion between learners on the platform: 35,366 comments were posted in our course across the five weeks.

I’ve really enjoyed this course, especially the contributions from the non-UK learners regarding their own cuisine and history. All of the personal recollections have been lovely too, I think it’s really important to hear stories of grandparents and relatives that lived through previous ages whilst we still can! Thank you to all who contributed!” (Feedback from a course participant)

Activity steps

Activity steps

Courses are made up of a range of activity steps, including videos, animations, quizzes, articles and discussions: lots of variety and opportunities for active participation. This was brought to life through historical recipes for learners to try at home (see some of the learners’ shared Tudor cookery attempts here), videos of experts from HRP and the University of Reading, costumed characters filmed within the palaces, animations showing where foods came from…

“I love the combination of reading, watching videos, trying out recipes, taking quizzes, reading comments from fellow students, etc. Technology has greatly expanded what can be done both online and face to face in a classroom. It’s so exciting!” (Feedback from a course participant)

As you might imagine, with this amount of content to produce, it was a huge undertaking. It was brilliant to partner with the University of Reading online casino on the course as they brought a huge amount of knowledge and experience of building courses for FutureLearn. However, much of the content came from HRP, which also meant that our organisational tone and feel had to be incorporated, as well as some of our ‘eccentricities’ like using the less-popular spelling of Sir Walter Ralegh’s name. We also had to manage the content in such a way that it supplemented, rather than replicated, the onsite experience. We wanted to encourage a new audience to visit, to add to the experience of existing visitors but also provide an enjoyable course for those who were unable to visit our sites.    

The course exceeded our expectations in terms of reach. We had nearly 13,000 sign-ups for the course, and 57% of these were converted into learners (the average for FutureLearn course is 50%). But what was most exciting for us was that these learners came from 153 different countries (only 31% of participants were from the UK) and that they represented a new audience for HRP: of these, 35% said that they had never visited one of HRP’s sites before, and 25% had never heard of HRP before. One of our ambitions for the course was to reach out to these participants who had never visited the palaces and to convert them from online to onsite visitors: of those surveyed at the end of the course, 46% of people said they planned to visit one of our palaces.

“I have loved this course – thank you so very much. We have decided to extend a planned visit to London in September in order to incorporate a visit to Hampton Court Palace” (Feedback from a participant)

Proud course completer!

Proud course completer!

We’ve learnt so much during this process, and we’re still digging through the reams of data and comments to plan our next run of this course, and to embark on planning for a new course topic. But we’ve put our heads together and collated some of our top tips for others planning similar courses:

Choose the right platform for your course, and trust their ways of working – using the combined expertise of University of Reading and FutureLearn was amazing for getting an insight into what learners want from the content.

Have a clear course objective in place from the start – the course narrative and tone follows much more easily when you know who it is aimed at, and what you want it to achieve.

Proof, proof and proof again! – with so many people reading your content, they spot everything.

Know what your story is – a strong narrative agreed early on makes the content creation much easier. We learnt the hard way and built our narrative around the content.

But make sure you have the content to back up the narrative!  – with so many steps, you need much more content than you would have thought. And during the course new questions and avenues emerge so great to have additional content up your sleeve.

Sit back and enjoy your learners’ sharing their varied knowledge and interests – watching the interactions during the course was a real joy.


Let us know what you think; either post in the comments below, email info@digitallearningnetwork.net, or get in touch with us on Twitter or Facebook.

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