How a MOOC can be your horse’s friend

Dr Jo-Anne Murray during the second part of the final week's lecture on clinical nutrition.
Dr Jo-Anne Murray during the second part of the final week’s lecture on clinical nutrition.

Earlier this year I had my first MOOC equine experience.

We horse folks live in a world of acronyms, so it’s only fair to let you in on the secret that MOOC means Massive Open Online Course. In short, an online course, open to all, with participation via the web.

The five-week course on Equine Nutrition put on by the University of Edinburgh was, other than a two-day officials course in late January, the closest I’d been to “formal education” for some time.

The course, earlier this year, was the second time an equine nutrition course has been offered by the university, led by Dr Jo-Anne Murray,  a senior lecturer in animal nutrition at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, part of the University of Edinburgh.

With an online course,  all of your study materials are provided online. The university uses the Coursera platform, which works with universities and organizations worldwide to offer free courses.

One of the course slides on carbohydrates.
One of the course slides on carbohydrates.

Equine Nutrition was a free course, but if participants paid $US49 for Signature Track and subsequently pass, a certificate is awarded. I went for this option, which proved quite stringent. Using my webcam, I had to send images of my passport, and my picture (horror!) to start, and a keystroke profile. Upon taking each test, a webcam picture had to taken and sent again, and a declaration written out each time to verify identity.

This course ran for five weeks, and is undertaken by watching video lectures and following PDF presentations. It’s estimated there is about three to four hours of work a week (however, I didn’t keep track of this). There’s also a transcript available to download. The videos can be watched as you go, or downloaded to be viewed when you’re offline.

The weekly schedule is not rigid, which is fortunate for those with other calls on their time. I fell behind almost instantly because of horse and work commitments, but caught up in the subsequent weeks.

There is also a discussion forum for participants to discuss what they’ve learned and talk between themselves. Staff will step in to clarify points if needed, but any recurring questions are addressed in the weekly round-up video.

After each week’s course, there is an unmarked refresher quiz to take, followed by a formal, marked quiz, which can be taken three times (the questions varying each time), with your highest score counting. After fluffing a couple of answers from not reading the question properly, or misinterpreting how to answer, I made sure to be careful on the next attempt.

Overall I enjoyed the course and learned a lot about the secret workings of the equine digestive tract and other inside information. There was much valuable information I picked up, even having fed and ridden horses for many years. I kept notes from each lecture as a learning aid, and also kept the PDF documents. Both will prove useful when needing to refresh or reinforce what I’ve learnt.

The first time the course was offered last year, some 24,000 participants signed up. This time, 16,000 signed up for the course. Dr Murray said there were 10,000 active users this time, with an 18 percent completion rate, compared with last year’s 30 percent.

This speaks more of the commitment of the participants than of the quality of the course; when there is little investment there is less incentive, perhaps?

Achieved! Verified certificate using Signature Track.
Achieved! Verified certificate using Signature Track.

Just 460 signed up for Signature Track. I was pleased to be able to do this, in order to support the concept and also to have a tangible record of course completion. However, it would have been nice to have the certificate posted out, rather than downloading it and printing it out myself.

Viewing videos of up to 20 minutes long means that users will chew through bandwidth, but you can pace your work and downloads to suit any monthly limits. Just keep an eye on it.

Dr Murray said it took three months of work by herself, three teaching assistants and a production team, to prepare the course material. The latest course material was similar to the first course.

There is also an additional video on donkey nutrition: the differences are eye-opening.

She says: “The course has been well received and the participants really engaged with the learning.  It is a pleasure to deliver this course as the learners on it are so enthusiastic.”

From a first-timer’s perspective, I see great potential for MOOC, particularly for those who do not have access, financial resources, or time to commit to further education. The Coursera system would also work well for corporate training and other such courses.

I’m certainly keen to do this again, and have registered for more MOOCs relating to horses.

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