Patrick Zylberman, Professor of Health History, was one of the first professors who taught a MOOC at the Centre Virchow-Villermé. The first session of the MOOC : « SRAS une « révolution »de la gouvernance mondiale des épidémies ? » was completed last May. We wanted to find out which elements surprised him and which ones raised questions in him. The involvement and the energy of participants were greatly appreciated by this professor of health history. Yet, he makes it not any less clear, that in order to use the term “teaching” when referring to MOOCs, one has to use quotation marks.
I remember different elements, actually. First, there is the collective work a MOOC requires: a team which assists the professor from production to dissemination. And, in the beginning I did not think I would get very involved in the forum, but the seriousness with which participants approached this MOOC, got me to pour a lot into it.
For the most part, the audience consisted of health care professionals (physicians, nurses). They participated in the course to reflect on their professional practices or to familiarize themselves with a not well known topic. About 30 people followed the MOOC to the end and were very involved and active in the forum. I believe the teacher should keep certain reservations when it comes to these places of discussion, which belong foremost to the participants. And it is they who started it and then animated and took charge of it. I did not intervene other than on an ad hoc basis to respond to questions and to correct mistakes. The teacher is not there to ask questions, but to initiate questions and discussions. To use a metaphor, I see the teacher as a reporter on television: he is certainly seen, but he is only there to start and restart the conversation. If, on the other hand, the professor were virtually absent, we would be moving towards a documentary.
Actually, the weakness of MOOCs is education, or, to be more specific, the educational relationship. When one is not facing the students, one is not in control of this relationship. For example, one knows nothing about the person behind the screen, and that poses a serious problem for the issuance of a certificate. Everything is still very artificial. The MOOC thus represents a challenge from an educational point of view. The teacher does not actually disappear, even if I am convinced that the MOOC will have implications for his profession, as well as for his role as professor.
Whatever the teaching content, a professor must possess a bit of what is called charisma! When I was a student, there were crowds in the courses where the professor was considered “good”. On the contrary, lecture halls were fairly empty when students were bored in a course. This human aspect can never be eliminated.
Yes, and it is something that surprised me. The ambience was favorable to the formation of a network, and that in a very short time. Two health care professionals, who were assiduous participants, were in Guinée-Conakry, the center of the Ebola crisis, during the MOOC. The discussion forum contributed, I hope, to supporting them psychologically. The MOOC enabled them to participate in a joint project during this difficult time period. Thus, we noted positive secondary effects coming from this online teaching; effects we do not control, however.
I would say two months in all. It took me one month to write the 100 pages which made up the text of this MOOC. For a classical course, one takes notes; one has a slide show prepared. Here, improvisation is impossible, given the necessity to time each section of the course during its realization. Thus, I had to write everything, from A to Z, just like a book. Then, it took me two weeks to work on my slides with the team from INRIA. During the MOOC, I devoted one day per week to the answering of questions asked in the discussion forum and to write the weekly summary.
We had no prior experience when we began working on this MOOC; we got started and lived all this in complete naivety. If I were to do it again, certain aspects would be quite different. I would like it if my slides were also disseminated in English. The majority of my colleagues in health history are English speakers. If the MOOC is launched again, it would be nice, in my opinion, if the subtitles in English were active.
I also had great ambitions regarding the exercises. I wanted to set up a kind of role play in the forum, by giving participants roles and interventions to carry out. One could reconsider this option at some moment and attempt to come up with something practical for the next MOOCs.
I would like to bring up one last point, the place of MOOCs in higher education. Right now, MOOCs seem to be going in all directions. Certain people think that they will replace lectures; others think that they will be more of a tool for lifelong learning. It seems to me one has to be more thorough and to think about the place of MOOCs in higher education. A MOOC does not replace a course; it will never replace a traditional course. What then is or could be its function?
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