Early Quakers course on FutureLearn: study diary week one

FutureLearn, set up by Open University and the BBC, offers what they call MOOCs: massive open online courses.

I’d always been intrigued by FutureLearn since hearing about it from a friend who worked there. I still cling to the “techno-optimist” idea that billions of screens connected via the Internet offer the potential for human progress, more than just disinformation and dog videos.

A Bath Friend pointed out the FutureLearn course on the Early Quakers, which started this week, led by Ben Pink Dandelion and others. I’m Quaker by convincement and I’ve not studied the early history of the Society of Friends. Since we’re all stuck at home spending lots of time on screens it seemed a good idea to try it out.

Course students register for free and are join up in advance to introduce themselves. Of the hundreds registered many are Quakers or with Quaker connections, others were Christian, Buddhist, or humanist. There was a sense of uncertainty about how this proceeded: was there a fixed time, was it a lecture?

In the event it’s very straightforward. There’s an unfolding exposition in text or video you can follow at your own pace. You can react with questions or comment. You’re encouraged to use #hashtags.

As well as Prof Dandelion course tutors include Betty Hagglund and Stuart Masters from Woodbrooke College and the historians Angus Winchester and Sarah Barber. They join the conversations and discussions. This is extremely helpful. The course moves seamlessly from exposition of the underlying facts of the Civil War political and religious context and George Fox’s spiritual struggle and physical journey to deep discussion, for example about what George Fox means when he writes of “that of God in everyone”.

Lancaster University has compiled learning resources into a Journeys of George Fox web site.

The course introduces a range of rich sources of information or further study including Lancaster University’s Journeys of George Fox web site. You “Mark as complete” the stages you have done. It’s about a dozen in the first week, representing about three hours’ work. You can go back and review any stage at any time.

It’s well designed and easy to use. Students seem generally positive about the MOOC as a way to learn (perhaps those who don’t like it simply dropped out). The expositions are confident and helpful, and the dialogue via comments and replies pretty much entirely serious, courteous and constructive. The benefit of using #hashtags becomes apparent during the course as they become a way to visualise the overall debate and to search for specific themes across this course and all previous iterations.

In short, it works. I’d recommend the course to any Friends or anyone interested in Quakerism, history or religion. At time of writing you can still join this one, for free.

There is more to be said about the finer theological discussions among students and teachers. These feel really enlightening and this is where the real value lies.

In the meantime I and my fellow students look forward to next week.

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