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Animal welfare education – can MOOCs contribute?
  1. Jill MacKay,
  2. Fritha Langford and
  3. Natalie Waran

Abstract

Jill MacKay, Fritha Langford and Natalie Waran were three of the lecturers on the University of Edinburgh's massive open online course (MOOC) on animal welfare and behaviour that began in July. Here, they assess its global appeal and judge its success

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TO effectively improve animal welfare worldwide, we believe there is a need to use a range of educational tools, including free online courses, to provide credible and accessible education resources to present the case for an evidence-based approach to improving welfare standards. The ‘Animal behaviour and welfare’ MOOC (www.coursera.org/course/animal) was developed through the University of Edinburgh's Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education in partnership with animal welfare researchers at Scotland's Rural College.

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The course was advertised as a five-week university entry-level course with no background reading required. Apart from providing good-quality educational material, one of the main objectives was to develop an understanding of how effective this form of education is for transferring information and promoting discussion as well as for challenging viewpoints positively in relation to science and animal welfare. A number of articles have been written discussing the limitations of free education, and there was concern about the efficacy of MOOCs for achieving our objectives. This is because while MOOCs will regularly accrue many tens of thousands of signed-up students, not all of these ‘attend’ the courses and, if they do, they don't necessarily maintain a high level of engagement, with student retention rate to the end of the course typically ranging from 5 to 10 per cent. This has been attributed to learners using the course differently depending upon their motivation, perhaps not wishing to sit examinations, or looking for some entertainment rather than education, or even a perceived high student workload. In order to determine how effective MOOCs are for continuing professional development, and, indeed, how well the animal behaviour and welfare MOOC has done in relation to our educational aims, we have been interrogating the Coursera analytics throughout the course's presentation to provide an interpretation for judging MOOC success.

Course structure

Each of the five weeks covered a different, but integrated, topic, as follows: what is animal welfare?; measurements and assessment of animal welfare; companion animal welfare; production animal welfare; and captive wild animal welfare. The course was delivered in English with approximately one to three hours of contact/teaching time per week, delivered via short, documentary-style video lectures and interactive flash-based presentations created via the e-learning and training software Articulate, supported by supplementary reading, website links and expert interviews.

Each weekly topic began on a Monday and all materials for that topic were released simultaneously. A quiz was available for self-testing, and students were given three attempts to achieve a specified percentage pass rate of 65 per cent. A weekly ‘Google hangout’ session occurred each Friday, where the week's tutor would answer questions that had been commonly raised during the week on the student discussion forum, as well as discuss matters raised by the live audience. This was then recorded and archived for viewers.

Course demographics and engagement

Demographics

The aim of recruitment for the animal behaviour and welfare MOOC was to target international audiences, and this was driven through an introductory video and course outline available to all viewers.

The course demographics suggest that we achieved this, with 20 per cent of total users coming from emerging economies. Students signed up from 167 different countries, with Europe representing 40 per cent of the total, North America 36 per cent, Asia 13 per cent, Oceania 6 per cent, South America 5 per cent and Africa 2 per cent. Interestingly, the majority of learners did not class themselves as students (67 per cent); however, 65 per cent of learners already possessed a bachelor's degree or higher.

From a continuing professional development perspective there did seem to be good engagement from professionals with 43 per cent of learners stating they were employed full time, 20 per cent employed part time, and 14 per cent of learners currently looking for work.

We could broadly categorise many of our learners as seeking continuing professional development. This was particularly true of the professional veterinarians who engaged with the MOOC and participated actively in the discussion forum threads. It is also important to recognise the relevance of the MOOC to younger and retired people; 3 per cent of users were in the 13- to 19-year-old age bracket and 10 per cent of users were in the 60+ age bracket. There was good evidence of the MOOC's relevance for people like Jac, from a non-science background who said:

‘Really enjoyed the course, and coming from a non-animal related college background, found it very informative, and a great introduction to the complexities of the subject. I've been volunteering at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home for eight months as a kennel support volunteer with the dogs. I recently decided to apply for a full-time role there as a rehoming and welfare assistant… and found out this week that I got the job. I made sure that I mentioned my taking this course in both my application and interview, to show my dedication in learning more about animal behaviour and welfare, and have found it a great alternative way to learning, rather than just ploughing through a book.’

The diversity of users was also reflected in the 32 per cent of users who responded to the pre-course survey whose native language was not English. Over 60 languages were reported in the survey, with Spanish (8 per cent) and Portuguese (3 per cent) being the most prevalent after English.This is mirrored by the many different study groups that have formed within the community. At present there are 25 study groups active on the forums, some for specific languages, regions, and professional groups such as veterinary staff and TTouch (Tellington touch) practitioners.

Engagement

The average score for the end-of-week quiz over the five week course was 90 per cent (± 3.6 percentage points) with the average number of users taking each quiz being 5311 learners (± 1791.7). Retention rate of students is often considered to be the best measure of success for a course, but bearing in mind that, in our case, 52 per cent of engaged learners did not sign up with the intention of completing the final certificate, what might be a more informative indicator of reach?

At the end of the course, 16 per cent of our total students had received a certificate (29 per cent of engaged learners), 17 per cent of total learners were still using the materials at the end of the final week (28 per cent of engaged learners), and 21 per cent of total learners were visiting the course in the final week (36 per cent of engaged learners). In all measures, this MOOC met or surpassed the 10 per cent target for retaining learners.

Course size and growth

At the beginning of the course, on July 14, 2014, Coursera recorded 25,398 students, which reached 33,501 by the end of the course; 849 (3 per cent of total) learners had signed up for Coursera's signature track programme.

While all learners who complete the assessments receive a statement of accomplishment, the signature track ties the user's identity to their own learning, for a fee of US$49, and is what Coursera recommends for users who intend to use the course for professional development. Signing up for a MOOC appears to be easy, with relatively low investment, and many users appear to ‘window-shop’ a number of related courses before committing to a specific one.

Of the total users of the animal welfare MOOC, 58 per cent of those who had signed up actually visited and engaged with the course pages (engaged learners). Of engaged learners, 48 per cent stated that their intention was to complete the course, 34 per cent wanted to view the course materials, and 17 per cent did not want to commit and were ‘just browsing’.

Evaluating success

Our post-course survey found that 98.4 per cent of the post-course respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the course was enjoyable and 97.9 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that the course was a valuable use of their time. Our aims were to bring cutting edge animal behaviour and welfare research in reach of an international audience. Our demographics indicate that the MOOC clearly achieved this objective. One of the stand-out successes of the course has been its engagement with veterinary staff, animal charity workers, government and business advisers and animal volunteers internationally to help foster their professional development and develop their theoretical skills in relation to animal welfare.

In the post-course survey 69 per cent of students agreed or strongly agreed that the information they learned in the course would help them in their professional life.

At this juncture we would conclude that the real success of MOOCs lies in their ability to provide relevant and credible knowledge to audiences who want the opportunity to learn but are unable to take a traditional education route. It may be that, as well as general audience MOOCS, this is a format that will respond well to providing high quality CPD for targeted audiences. In combination with the community building that MOOCs generate among interested learners through well-managed discussion forums and live interactive chat sessions, they appear to be an excellent tool for providing large numbers of committed learners with a novel and valuable (free) educational experience.

The course will be run again in February 2015.

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