How we wrote the Forensic Psychology MOOC - Part 2

When the going gets tough, the tough get creative

Professor Graham Pike

Professor of Forensic Cognition

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[Cue the theme from Mission Impossible] You’ve been asked to write a course on forensic psychology that should be accessible to anyone, regardless of educational background, but should use existing material written for 2nd year undergraduate students. No one knows how many weeks long it will be, how many study hours each week will have, what platform the course will be hosted on or when it will start. In addition, you are the only academic on the production team. Oh, and your idea of using an existing OU/BBC series has been scuppered because of copyright issues. What do you do?

One answer is to fall back on tried and trusted distance learning approaches. But the problem with those is that although they can work very well on a formal course with students working towards a degree, I’m not sure how well they will work for people with no prior experience of higher education and no commitment to keep studying beyond how interesting they find the material right in front of them.

Reading a book or watching a film or series is a similar situation, so we began to think of the course in terms of a story and to plan a structure around narrative devices to keep people wanting to find out what happened next. Follow this link for more on using crime fiction.

From there two elements emerged that were to transform the design of the course. The first was that we should use a fictional crime being investigated by fictional detectives throughout the course as a means of demonstrating the psychology behind being an eyewitness. The second was to see the teaching of psychological theory almost as DVD extras, with the director’s commentary taking the form of activities and articles explaining why a witness’s memory worked the way it did, or why it was a problem for the detective to take that particular approach.

Another way of putting this is that you rethink everything you’ve learned about distance education and re-plan the whole course. On standard, formal OU module production this would be problematic for many, sound, reasons, but it would also be hard to do because of the iterative nature of module planning and the involvement of media and production staff. One of the truly liberating aspects of creating the MOOC was the way the production team worked, particularly that it truly worked together, and worked in fairly intensive periods of collaboration that made innovation and creativity not only possible, but actually desirable.

Looking at the statistics from the review of the course, I think this approach really worked well. Everyone will tell you that the problem with MOOCs is retention. That sure, 250 million people might start a MOOC, but only 3 will actually finish it. Look at the stats on the first MOOCs from providers such as Coursera and EdX and there is a very worrying slope to the graph of number of students over time. Our stats are better – much better – and I think not taking retention for granted but instead planning the course around mechanisms designed to make the learner want to turn the page to find out what happens next is a large part of the reason why.

(To be continued)