Better together: MOOCs and the ancient world

‘Behind closed doors’ about to film in the reconstructed barracks room at Caerleon.

Helen King

Interested in the ancient world? Stimulated by a TV programme or film you’ve watched? Want to find out more? Your obvious destination is a MOOC: free, fun and informative.

In 2012 The Open University started FutureLearn, a MOOC platform which now has over 5,000,000 learners. The platform currently has very few MOOCs on ancient topics, and approached me with a very specific brief: a 6-week course on health in the ancient world. The first stage was a Learning Design meeting in which eight people around a table quizzed me. They made me write profiles of my imaginary learners – as FutureLearn MOOCs are available worldwide, and many learners are not native English speakers, it’s important to think about how the material will play out with them. I had to show how I would engage learners rather than just talking at them, because FutureLearn never follows the model of the Expert Expounding Their Wisdom. Watching or listening to lectures risks offering entertainment only, making the learner into a passive recipient.

Helen King and Jessica Hughes in the recording studio.

I’ve described the FutureLearn model elsewhere, but, in brief, it uses the community of learners working together with the educators. Material is structured in short ‘steps’: 5 minutes of audio or video, or a text of c.750 words. Every single step – typically around 15-20 in one week, or three hours, of study – has a section for learners to talk among themselves, ask questions and share their discoveries. ‘Liking’ a comment flags it up so that we can respond to the points which interest the most learners.


I was clear from the start that I couldn’t write this on my own. I approached my two ideal collaborators: Patty Baker and Laurence Totelin. We sent ideas back and forth, and gradually mapped out the steps for each of the six weeks. We wanted to see objects, not just talking heads, and to think about the whole context of health rather than focusing on medical texts. We found film locations which would offer learners something special: a very friendly museum at Caerleon, and the Museum of London, where Rebecca Redfern could show us what osteoarcheology can reveal. We also visited Ralph Jackson at the British Museum to talk about eye surgery.

Thinking about the Roman army’s diet at Caerleon.

In a team, the people you work with shape what you do. Patty knows about the Roman army, and the perfect complement for Greece was my former student Owen Rees, who helped us think about how well soldiers were prepared for war, both physically and mentally. Laurence’s interests include recipes and milk, both topics which took us to real people and their practices. I wanted to produce something which would interest those coming to the MOOC from a health background, so I needed an ‘ancient and modern’ video to open each week. I was very lucky to find Mathijs Lucassen, whose background is in occupational therapy and mental health and who can chat about anything related to health; he studied Classics earlier in his life.

Laurence Totelin making Roman remedies in the basement at the Roman Legionary Museum in Caerleon.

Because this isn’t about videoing lectures, a lot depended on working with creative people within the OU and outside who could help us think about our materials and our questions. Laurence was happy to make some ancient remedies for the camera. Doing this in costume not only looked right but, she said, made her more relaxed. Even without video, a lot can be done with imaginative use of still images. So we made ‘enhanced audios’ on topics such as amulets and votives, the latter with my colleague Jessica Hughes. Does it all work? You can find out if you take the course!


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