Celebrating 10 years of global learning through MOOCs

Reading time: 4 minutes

To celebrate the University’s 10-year anniversary delivering Massive Open Online Courses, Bulletin speaks to Dr Benjamin Bateman, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and instructor on the How to Read a Novel course, to find out how the course has grown and evolved over the years, and what makes it so successful.

The success of the How to Read a Novel MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) has led to it becoming one of the biggest book groups in the world, with more than 60,000 learners taking part. The four-week course runs twice a year and explores four of the main building blocks of modern fiction, plot, characterisation, dialogue, and setting, using examples from a range of texts including the four novels shortlisted for the current year’s James Tait Black fiction prize.

Benjamin says: “The course is to help book lovers get the most out of their reading. It is for anyone who enjoys reading and no qualifications or experience are needed. The core content stays the same year after year, which is based on classical texts, whilst new content is added annually to reflect new novels or short story collections shortlisted for the prize.

“It’s very special that people across the globe who are passionate readers can come together via our discussion boards to share their thoughts on the novels and to recommend writers from their regions of the world.

“We have a Teaching Assistant who moderates and contributes to the course’s forums, and it’s a really interesting task. As an academic you’re responding to a lot; you’re commenting directly on material; sometimes your feedback will be instructional and other times affirmative. We see so many different perspectives being shared.”

Dr Benjamin Bateman

A prizewinning partnership

The James Tait Black Prizes began celebrating books in the early 20th century after Janet Tait Black, née Coats, made provision in her will for the creation of two book prizes – fiction and biography – to be awarded annually in memory of her husband, James. It is the UK’s longest-running literary award and the only major book prize judged by scholars and students.

Since the prizes’ inception, the list of winners forms a who’s who of literary distinction with Angela Carter, Graham Greene, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh among the winners.

Benjamin says: “We have a committed core group of learners who like to take the course each year. The connection with the Prize gives these learners new global, contemporary content each year. The MOOC is also a great publicity tool for the Prize and helps learners across the world discover the exciting mix of award-winning writers and emerging talent the Prize attracts.”

The James Tait Black Prizes | The University of Edinburgh 

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Improving diversity

How to Read a Novel has continued to evolve over the past few years. In 2023, the first translated works were shortlisted for the James Tait Fiction Prize. Bitter Orange Tree by Jokha Alharthi, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth, and Bolla by Pajtim Statovci, translated from Finnish by David Hackston, were added to the course.

Benjamin says: “The inclusion of books that have been translated from other languages increases the diversity of the course content and should hopefully appeal to a more diverse audience. Part of our mission with this course is around connecting people from across the globe – it needs to attract a wide audience.”

Global participation

MOOCs are one form of short online course that provide a fantastic vehicle for the University to achieve our strategic priorities. The University’s Strategy 2030 includes an objective to enable global participation in education – these free courses enable learners around the globe to study subjects from all three Colleges, from chicken welfare to philosophy and climate solutions to self-care and wellbeing.

“We want the course to be as accessible as possible for learners,” Benjamin says. “No prerequisites are required, all learning is done online and the course is free to take, all in the effort of being as accessible as possible to as many people who are passionate about reading, whoever and wherever they are.

“It’s important to recognise that universities have a commitment to reach beyond the university walls. As the world’s oldest English literature department, it is important that we engage people across the world and that they have access to a world-renowned institution. Promoting the love of reading to a global audience is a responsibility.”

A decade of MOOCs

The University recently celebrated its 10th anniversary developing MOOCS, clocking up more than 100 courses and reaching almost five million learners globally. As part of the celebrations, the Online Course production team welcomed a range of international partners to a formal event Celebrating the Global Impact of Short Online Courses in January. Attendees included the consulates of India and the US, two of the biggest international markets for MOOCs.

“Our global learners and international partners are key to the success of our programme of MOOCs and we are delighted that we were able to celebrate alongside representatives from the consulates,” explains Dr. Melissa Highton, Assistant Principal of Online and Open Learning.

Benjamin says the Covid pandemic has also led to changes in the MOOC sector: “Covid changed the way people look at online learning; it opened a lot of people up to new ways of studying. Our online offerings act as a showcase to the full programme of courses we offer in literature, languages and cultures and give people the appetite to explore further study with the University. We hope, going forward, that it might help us attract more home and international students to our Masters programmes.”

Find out more

If you are interested in creating a MOOC please get in touch with the Online course Production Team.

The Online Course Production Service | The University of Edinburgh 

If you are interested in joining the How to Read a Novel course and being part of the University’s global book club, please sign up on FutureLearn.

How to Read a Novel | FutureLearn