Tuesday, October 27, 2015


 By Aidan O'Shea  © 2015   A new type of distance learning.

For many adults, the late summer is a time to plan for new learning opportunities. Schools, colleges, voluntary organisations and cultural institutions compete to engage our interest. We all enjoy the challenge of something new, the chance to improve our knowledge or to gain a life skill. When comparing ideas with a friend, she asked me if I had tried a MOOC. In response to my puzzled expression, she explained that a MOOC stands for a Massive Open Online Course. Massive, in that there may be thousands of students, Open in that anyone may join free of charge and Online in that the course is delivered via the Internet. It struck me that the comfort and flexibility of studying at home was preferable to heading out to college on dark winter nights.
Then I found an index of MOOC courses (www.futurelearn.com) offering an array of themes from 72 colleges worldwide. Futurelearn is a subsidiary of The Open University, which has been a pioneer of distance learning. Courses are listed under broad categories such as Languages, Politics, Arts, Literature, Health, History and many others. Chapters are delivered online weekly and courses last from three to eight weeks. Three hours per week is the minimum commitment to keep up with the topic. Course material includes video lectures, relevant articles, a reading list for further study and a forum in which all students can partake. 

British Empire.

I chose a six-week course entitled Empire: the controversies of British Imperialism from The University of Exeter. I have an exclusively Irish view of British colonial power and I wanted to gain a wider perspective. Ireland's case is unique; not quite a colony but more a forceful annexation, bound to England/Britain more or less from the Norman arrivals at Bannow, Co. Wexford in 1169 , through the Act of Union in 1800 which subsumed Ireland into Britain, to partial independence in 1922. I had a very sketchy knowledge about the colonisation of America, Asia, the Middle East or Africa. 

Here is a summary of the main learning points for me:
In the 12th century, Norman expansion took place into Wales, the Isle of Man, The Channel Isles and Ireland. This was territorial expansion to subdue local chiefs and lords. 
Britain did not emerge until the union of the crowns of England and Scotland in 1707.

Britain exercised different structures of empire, including Company Rule under licence from the Crown, for example The East India Company, which had its own fleet and army. A Colony was ruled by a governor and reported to The Colonial Office in London. Examples include Gold Coast and Kenya. A Protectorate retained local rulers but defence and foreign affairs were ruled by Britain. Examples include Egypt, Matabeleland (later Rhodesia) and British Cameroons.  Many of these later became colonies. A Dominion was a mainly white settler colony which later became an independent state under the Statute of Westminster (1931). Examples are South Africa, Australia and Canada. The Irish Free State had Dominion status. League of Nations Mandates were created after the defeat of the Germany and the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Britain acquired control of Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq. 
As Britain's empire expanded, she developed a huge navy and merchant fleet, which in turn needed provisioning stations such as Gibraltar and Singapore.  
Slavery was a particular feature of colonies in North America and the Caribbean, and this was a brutal form of forced labour practised by Britain, France and Spain in their overseas territories. Forces driving the expansion of the British Empire include rivalry with France, Portugal, Spain and Netherlands, the use of early colonies such as America and Australia as a destination for religious and political dissidents and the lure of treasure such as spices, minerals, and the seizure of territory. 

The MOOC Process.

As soon as we received the first instalment of the course, a lively discussion grew around the margins of the course materials. We have had personal recollections of students from India, Malta, The West Indies, Australia, Canada and other former territories of Empire. Sometimes we students disagreed, but by and large the diverse opinions became an additional resource within the course structure. One can argue that our shared knowledge of English is a benign legacy of the British Empire. In a course such as this many will join out of idle curiosity, but only the hardy minority will persist to the end. A Most adult education courses start in a blaze of glory to be followed by a steady decline in numbers. A further advantage of the internet has been the chance to watch documentary films about the pomp of empire and the struggle for freedom from its control. 

We might ask what benefit is there for the course provider. Well, such courses will attract students to fee-paying distance learning courses, or indeed to take up postgraduate study in that particular discipline. For my part, I have gained a wider understanding of the topic and I have begun to select books from the extensive reading list. I doubt that I shall be waving the Union Flag to the chorus of Land of hope and glory, mother of the free… any time soon! 

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