How learners on an English Literature MOOC prompted academics to engage in social media in a way they never had before

Next week, on 18 December, Sheffield Hallam University will host its inaugural ‘Social Media in Higher Education Conference. Ahead of that event, Layla Croll and the University of Sheffield’s Digital Learning Team have taken over the School of English blog for a very special one-off post to discuss the surprising role that Social Media played in the delivery of our Literature of the English Country House MOOC. 


For this post, the University’s Digital Learning team joins academics from the School of English to reflect on how social media enabled a rich exchange between educators and learners on a Massive Open Online Course, not only engaging them with research but also enhancing the teaching and learning experience in a bespoke and reactive way.

The course was entitled ‘Literature of the English Country House and took learners on a free, online learning journey through english literature, analysing and close reading texts by studying and reflecting on their historical and cultural contexts.

This blog post has been written in lieu of a face-to-face session during the conference, as seemed appropriate given our subject matter. The digital learning team encourages the design and use of digital content across our institution as an accessible and dynamic platform for discussion and the sharing of views and learning materials so hopefully we’d like to recreate some of that atmosphere here.

The blog will take approximately 10 minutes to read and the embedded links and videos will take a minimum of 10 minutes to engage with. In this post, we hope to convey how we reacted to an unprecedented amount of additional requests from learners, posted via discussion boards, for more and more material during the course. So, with this in mind, should you wish to look deeper into the subject, there are plenty of resources and links to engage with further.

Below, Dr Adam James Smith, Co-lead Educator on the MOOC, Honorary Research Fellow for the University’s interdisciplinary Centre for Archival Practices and Teaching Associate School of English recounts his surprising experiences of how social media came to play such a significant part in the course’s delivery, and the experience of Learners and Educators alike.

If you have questions or comments for the Digital Learning team or for Adam, you can post them within the blog and we will respond to as many as we can during the conference.

Case-Study: The use of social media to support the Literature of the English Country House Massive Open Online Course, University of Sheffield

In its third week Literature of the English Country House required learners to consider the relationship between rural country houses and urban sociability, primarily represented on the course by the figure of the coffee house. Learners were encouraged to trace the transmission of ideas, manner and fashions in and out of country house environments by close reading literature written in both the country and the city, identifying influences, challenges and dialogues across a carefully selected range of texts.

For the literature of the coffee house we used a collection of essays from Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s influential periodical The Spectator, prompting both Lead-Educator Professor Susan Fitzmaurice and myself to reflect on our own previous work on Joseph Addison and think about the best ways to translate this research in such a way as to support the MOOC’s vast, international audience of participants with varying levels of familiarity with both the eighteenth century more generally and Joseph Addison in particular.

One of the most active steps during this week of the course was one which featured a short, abstract video (below) based on research, designed to encourage viewers to reflect on the remarkable similarities between representations of the coffee house in eighteenth-century print culture and the way that it is still marketed today on the urban high street.

The film, which was a collaboration with local film-maker Gemma Thorpe, had previously been developed and released on Youtube. By incorporating it into the course we not only opened it up to a new audience, but an audience happy to provide vast amounts of feedback; asking new and extraordinary questions. [Due to data protection, we can’t show learner comments. On Adam’s ‘Coffee House’ video step, we had 544 comments from learners some of which Adam highlights below.]

These questions often seemed obvious to learners. However, in approaching the topic from a radically different angle learners were being struck by question that had never occurred to me, such as: why exactly was Addison’s private club known as the Kit-Kat Club? This process prompted new lines of inquiry generated by the same kind of lateral thinking commonly stimulated by the crowdsourcing of information. The feedback has had a direct effect on the composition of a book proposal that I am writing, and will inform subsequent public engagement activities that I organise on the subject of Addison and eighteenth-century print culture.

The discussion-based nature of the activities featured on the MOOC also meant that conversations could evolve in ways not predicted by the teaching team. Learners could pursue their own lines of inquiry. One such pursuit saw learners troubling the arbitrary and fluid meaning of the word ‘polite’ across the eighteenth century, prompting Professor Susan Fitzmaurice to write a post for the course’s companion blog mapping this semantic evolution, before posting the link to learners. The post was based on a published article that Susan had written several years previously (a link to which was provided in the post). The blog enabled Susan to answer questions occurring on the platform more fully than she ever could in a comment, whilst also preparing something for an audience that actually went beyond the platform itself. Again, this also meant that Susan could quickly amass vast amounts of feedback from learners as they commented on it. Significantly, this was also the first time Susan had ever even considered writing a blog post.

Finally Susan and I delivered a live 50 minute ‘Google Hangout’ [when you follow this link click on the square icons in the top right of the video to navigate through the different questions asked] in which we answered learner’s questions in real time. The broadcast captures real free-flowing discussion, replicating the perfect conditions of a university seminar.

Though the broadcast was about country houses, coffee houses and politeness in the eighteenth century, I was especially pleased when learners began asking questions about Addison’s other publications, enabling a discussion of a lesser known periodical, The Freeholder: the primary subject of my doctoral research. The Freeholder was last published in a critical edition in 1979, a sign of its neglect by publishers and academics alike. As a result, it is rare that I get the opportunity to discuss The Freeholder at such length, let alone with such a broad and interested audience. Though the activity was designed to teach learners, I gained much from their fresh respective and once again lines of enquiry raised by learners have had a direct influence on the book proposal I am currently drafting.

Like Susan’s post on politeness, the recording of the hangout was published on the companion blog and went onto be circulated on Twitter, transcending its initial audience on the MOOC to get almost 1000 additional views. The video itself has prompted online discussion, and we were both valued the response and feedback that it has received across the platform, the blog and on Twitter.


Adam’s experience highlights some of the surprising ways in which social media and social learning enriches the kind of online learning that we can create with MOOCs.

It’s important to note, too, that as well as academics creating online spaces to provide more materials, learners also formed separate online communities of their own in order to discuss the topics and to share their knowledge and passion for the subjects. These formed as separate blogs, on twitter and within the FutureLearn platform itself. A group of heavily engaged learners formed their own community, the self-titled ‘Coach Party’. These learners would camp out within a chosen step of the course (such as a video they particularly enjoyed) and have their own discussions. They share opinions and links, discuss aspects of the courses they are taking together and choose which MOOCs to take next. The Coach party continues to travel together through various courses on the FutureLearn platform.

The way that this particular course embraced crowd-sourced-information-sharing now influences our course design and is an integral part of how we engage with our learners and how we prompt them to engage with each other. It also gives us a chance to respond to common questions raised and to help where learners are having difficulty. By following the twitter conversations and reading through comments to find common themes, we were able to record an ‘end of week’ video each week in which we answered some common questions that were cropping up amongst the learning communities. These videos were often described by the learners as being like the chat you might have with the lecturer after the lecture has finished.

Layla Croll, Digital Learning Team, The University of Sheffield.

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