Sunday, 22 February 2015

The 2015 Election MOOC

Victoria Honeyman from the Univeristy of Leeds discusses the MOOC and the 2015 general election.

Universities are increasingly keen to appeal to new audiences, in particularly allowing members of the public to experience the academic environment so many of us take for granted. Academics are increasingly being urged to write and appear in Massive Open On-line Courses or MOOCs. These can be single lectures, filmed and released on the internet, or can be much larger projects, taking place over several weeks.

Anticipating a closely fought general election in the UK, this seemed a perfect opportunity to create a MOOC, and that is exactly what we have done at the University of Leeds. My colleague, Professor Jocelyn Evans and I have written and presented a three-week course focusing on the key issues at this general election. While we hope this will be of great interest to many people, it is perhaps high school students majoring in Politics and Government who have most to gain from this type of resource for the election. We set out to help these students on the AS Level Politics and Government programme to apply what they learn in their classrooms to real-world electoral politics,encouraging their critical thinking and adding greater depth to their knowledge. By focusing on the curriculum of the three main examination boards, we were able to tailor an online course which would suit the needs of these students, while also being of interest to the wider public.

We begin by focusing on the state of the system in the UK, considering the case for British democracy being broken, where power now lies in our systems of governance, and how helpful the electoral system is in renewing the actors within these. In week two we move onto the parties and their leaders. We explore how parties try to reach out to the public and sell their message to the electorate and the key qualities which a leader needs to be successful. In week three we focus on the electoral campaign, the key issues, who will be the winners and losers, and some of the possible outcomes of a close election.

In addition to the lead educators, we have made sure to include contributions from a range of experts to help us explain the key issues. From the University of Leeds, we have spoken to, Professor Kevin Theakston on the importance of leadership, Dr David Seawright on political campaigning and Dr Stuart McAnulla about likely outcomes of the 2015 election. Outside of the University of Leeds we have been joined by a host of other academics, think-tankers and opinion pollsters. Professor John Curtice (Strathclyde) talks to us about the electoral system, Professor Jon Tonge (Liverpool) focuses on the political situation in Northern Ireland and Dr Rob Ford (Manchester) considers the impact of opinion polls on voting. Louise Martin from the BBC gives her views on the importance of UKIP and how well the main parties are likely to perform. Laurence Janta-Lipinski from YouGov explains how opinion polls are compiled and the impact they can have, while Jamie Bartlett from Demos focuses on social media and how parties are increasingly using it to connect with their electorate.

To keep the content accessible for a younger audience, the programme is split by week into several sections. Beginning with a short introductory section acting as a revision tool, we then move onto a short interactive quiz. For example, in week two viewers will be able to view several infamous campaign posters and, having decided whether the poster would have been a success or not, the poster and its impact are assessed by a campaign expert to show their strengths and weaknesses. After a series of multiple-choice questions to review learning, the viewer watches a short documentary-style piece from the lead educators, explaining in greater detail the issue, before watching two academics debate a key question within each topic.

The aim of the MOOC is not to simply parrot the existing AS syllabus. The aim is to create a course which is relevant and interesting to both AS level students and the general public. Rather than focusing purely on the theoretical basis of British politics, or the practicalities of our system, we have synthesised these two elements to create an interesting and exciting MOOC suitable for everyone. Bringing together a range of experts, who might otherwise only be accessible to a very limited audience in their home university or perhaps on specific media, has allowed us to create a unique set of programmes.  By insisting on an element of rigour in focusing on an election already beset by punditry, we go beyond the guesswork and cant to unpack the influential factors which are so often ignored by the public in general elections, the structural factors which ensure some stability even in a potentially watershed election such as this, and the unseen media tricks used to sell a party message to the public.

Launching on March 9, 2015 on the FutureLearn platform, those signed up for the MOOC will be able to take part in on-line discussions with other participants, and University of Leeds academics will be on-hand to guide and contribute to that discussion. In addition, each week there will be a live Q and A session with Jocelyn and I where we will attempt to answer students’ questions in the run-up to the General Election.

The MOOC is free to access and available to everyone, whether you are a UK AS Student, an academic or a member of the public anywhere in the world. Please join us as we explore the 2015 General Election and the parties’ push towards the electoral finish line.

Victoria Honeyman is a lecturer in British Politics at the University of Leeds where she researches British foreign policy. She is also the author of Richard Crossman: A Reforming Radical of the Labour Party and the forthcoming Conservative Party Foreign Policy from Major to Cameron (Palgrave).


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