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Creating a free university course during a pandemic

Daniel Miller6 October 2020

While the figures may seem small compared to the one million downloads of our open-access ‘Why We Post’ books, the MOOC created for FutureLearn as part of the Why We Post project was taken by over 40,000 students. A Russian translation of the course was taken by another 9,000 students. Compared to 100 students in a typical lecture class, this certainly seems worthwhile. A MOOC can also reach people in countries and situations that are far more open than traditional university teaching, and it is free. So, we never doubted that we wanted to make another MOOC for the ASSA project. We expect to launch this next April on FutureLearn alongside the first three books. While Laura Haapio-Kirk bore the brunt of the work last time, this time it is Georgiana Murariu, currently working as a public dissemination officer on the project. The FutureLearn platform acts a bit like social media in that the students interact with each other and post loads about their own experiences. This should work well for a topic such as the smartphone, in which most people have personal experiences and observations. By the way, the Why We Post MOOC is still running at: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/anthropology-social-media.

We are making some changes. MOOCs typically have quite a tail off so we are making a three-week course, rather than five weeks. Currently, the main emphasis is on filmmaking since Ben Collier, our filmmaker, is only employed for a short period. The films are a little shorter than before, but the text is likely to be similar is scope. The first week is mainly devoted to the smartphone itself and our original insights and perspectives on what a smartphone is and will also summarise our comparative book ‘The Global Smartphone’, due to come out next year. The second week considers the smartphone in the context of ageing, which is the main concern of our new monograph series, also due to come out next year. The third week focuses more on an element of ASSA that did not exist for Why We Post – our efforts to make our work of direct benefit to people’s welfare through our radical alternative to conventional mHealth and the general use of smartphones in the field of health.

For the present effort in filmmaking, we are obviously constrained by the circumstances of Covid-19. We don’t have the group and round-table discussions found in the earlier MOOC. Instead, the concentration is more on using material that comes directly from our ethnographic engagements around the world.  Most of our films are pretty serious, but in this instance, it seemed okay to have a bit of fun with the whole issue of filmmaking during a pandemic. I play the role of Mr Grumpy, to Xinyuan Wang’s annoyance.

See the film here: