How online courses can bring the world into Africa's classrooms

19 August 2016 | Story by Newsroom

I am an anthropologist with a special interest in establishing the field of the medical humanities. This emerging field is wide open for producing new knowledge about the history and culture of medical practices. It focuses, for instance, on representations of patients and medical landscapes in art, literature, philosophy, bioethics, and other disciplines in the arts and humanities.

Usually, our interdisciplinary masters course in this field at South Africa's University of Cape Town (UCT) attracted fewer than 40 students.

Then a colleague and I were asked to consider creating a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. These online courses have become incredibly popular globally, but remain rare in Africa. Ours would be the first of its kind in South Africa.

I was initially sceptical. I'm an associate professor with years of classroom training and individual supervision experience. I had won a Distinguished Teacher's Award two years earlier and didn't want to be seen by my peers as somehow betraying that lofty calling of university lecturing.

But after consulting widely I decided to go for it. This is the story of how we opened the doors of our classroom to the world – and why I believe MOOCs have a great future in Africa.


Many of my colleagues across the university disliked the idea of a MOOC. They argued that this would be little more than a branding exercise for the institution. Others complained MOOCs were a form of labour exploitation, since we weren't paid extra for the hours of preparation nor credited for having taught the course, since MOOCs are non-credit bearing.

I was warned MOOCs “dumb down” the classroom environment. Some scholars felt their arguments were too complex to communicate in the truncated space offered by a MOOC. They feared their intellect would be compromised by teaching such a course – heaven forbid we should try to communicate our genius with a general public by making it legible.

Some argued we should focus our energy on South African students rather than diluting it by offering time to thousands of nameless, stateless people. I agreed with this point.

These discussions left me feeling despondent. But after intensive dialogue with UCT's Centre for Innovation and Learning – whose staff developed what would become our first MOOC – professor Steve Reid and I agreed to enter this strange new world.

This MOOC was an opportunity for us to build networks with a wide range of people interested in the intersections between social science, the arts, and the medical and health sciences.

It also turned out to be an amazing chance to teach our face-to-face students very differently.

A totally new experience

The MOOC, Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare, kicked off in March 2015. It attracted more than 8000 students from more than 100 countries and seven continents (sadly no-one registered from Antarctica). The MOOC featured seminars by medical doctors, artists and social scientists.

We also drew our face-to-face students into the MOOC process, creating what's known as a “flipped classroom” – the exchange of content between online and offline learning.

A flipped classroom is one in which students registered with a university have the chance to connect online with a virtual class. At the same time, for a classroom to be truly flipped, online students must engage with fee paying students and their lecturers.

Our face-to-face students were able to watch seminars online before the seminar presenters came to lectures in person. Our course evaluations produced surprising comments: several face-to-face students described how they found value in using the virtual classroom as a “rehearsal” opportunity for regular classroom sessions.

Operating in the open online classroom allowed students to formulate their ideas in a non-threatening environment. They didn't have to deal with the anxiety of being academically judged and assessed.

One student, a second-language English speaker, expressed relief that the online space allowed for “learning in the moment” – to bring ideas into a conversation, “to see what others think, then think about my own views and the best ways to express them”.

Our UCT students also benefited from engaging with the MOOC participants: thousands of people from around the world. Several students agreed to be mentors on the MOOC site, developing supportive relationships with their MOOC peers. Our MOOC students, many of whom were already well versed in the growing field of the medical humanities, shared reading material and films related to arts in medicine.

One UCT student mentor commented that, while initially daunted, she found interacting with the diverse participants created an extraordinary space to learn new ideas about medicine and the creative arts.


One of the criticisms of MOOCs is that they don't democratise access to education. Their detractors argue that the digital, online nature of these courses means they're more likely to be taken by people living in the global North who have access to reliable, fast, cheap internet connections. But even developing countries are becoming more connected and access to the internet is opening up.

In the first run of the course, 26% of the around 8000 participants were from Africa. That's compared to an average of 4% for other courses on the FutureLearn platform, which hosted the MOOC. Our success is partly linked to improved internet connectivity on the continent.

But I'd suggest that our MOOC was particularly interesting to people from Africa because it tackled issues of structural violence and inequality that underpin the uneven distribution of infectious and non infectious disease on the continent.

The speakers on this MOOC offered creative platforms for addressing illness and human resilience in Africa. They also presented innovative ideas for health intervention in the context of poverty and state negligence. The course also offered African perspectives on science and the arts. Clearly, there's an appetite on the continent for homegrown content.

There were shortcomings. Copyright laws were a challenge. We couldn't post artworks without paying enormous fees. Peer-reviewed books required publishers' permissions. Academic journals that weren't open source couldn't be used.

This meant that our face-to-face students benefitted from a more rigorous curriculum than their MOOC peers. But those copyright issues also forced us to think creatively: we had to source literature, novels, films, articles and artworks that spoke alongside the prescribed readings and which we could post on the FutureLearn site.

Our students' feedback suggests we overcame these challenges.

A growing movement

The next run of the Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare MOOC, the fourth time it's happening, starts in late August 2016. In the past year, other South African universitieshave launched MOOCs.

Our experiences suggest that MOOCs have a real role to play in Africa. They offer a powerful means to bring intellectual and political projects across the continent together. They also tap into a student body that's increasingly enthusiastic about learning more about the continent by way of interpersonal relationships.

Universities that are prepared to truly flip their classrooms, bringing offline and online together, are in for an exciting ride.

Story Associate Professor Susan Levine, School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics, University of Cape Town.

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