Women activists subject of Smith College Massive Open Online Course

Last modified: Monday, December 07, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — Long touting its small, seminar-style classes, Smith College is making a foray into the opposite extreme, creating a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC.

The course, “Psychology of Political Activism: Women Changing the World,” will be available in March through the platform edX, run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. Smith Professor Lauren Duncan, 50, who developed the class, believes it is not normally taught in a MOOC setting.

“Most are ‘how to program’ or ‘calculus’ and have talking heads lecturing,” she said. “We don’t teach that way at Smith normally.”

In designing the course, Duncan relied on Smith students who enrolled in her class on the same topic in the spring semester. The students each picked an activist featured in the Sophia Smith Collection in the Smith College archives.

In the archives are transcripts from long interviews with notable female activists. The interview with Atlanta-based Loretta Ross, who was a pioneer of women’s rape crisis centers in the 1970s, lasted for more than 27 hours.

Ross, who is in the Pioneer Valley with a fellowship at the Five Colleges Women’s Studies Research Center, is one of the featured activists in the course.

“I had no idea what a MOOC was when they approached me this year,” Ross, 62, said in a recent interview. “I’m pretty excited about it.”

At the same time, Ross said she hopes that MOOCs do not undermine face-to-face teaching, which she considers to be of great value.

Prina Patel, 22, who graduated from Smith in May with a degree in neuroscience, was the student who selected Ross to research. Taking the class had a big impact on her thinking, and she is now working as a paralegal putting applications together for law school.

“I don’t think any of us in the class had any idea of what we were going to do exactly,” Patel said. “We just expected it to be a typical seminar at Smith.”

Instead, Patel spent the semester working in the Sophia Smith Collection, poring over Ross’s 500-page interview transcript and the accompanying photos and other documents Ross donated.

“I really like the idea that this is going to be available not only all over the country but all over the world,” Patel said.

The major lesson for her in the class was that activism starts small before it grows into bigger movements. Ross began as a pregnant high school teen who had to fight to remain in school.

“We’re studying why people become politically active, what life experiences shaped their activism,” she said.

Alicia Bowling, 20, and a junior at Smith, was also a member of Duncan’s spring class.

“I really love the idea of having MOOC courses,” she said. “I don’t think it can fully replicate the experience I have in my Smith classes because people aren’t sitting around a table talking with each other in real life, but it helps make education more accessible.”

Bowling said she hopes the course has an effect on future activists, who learn from the women featured in the class about how they began their activism. In addition to Ross, there are eight other activists featured in the course, including Gloria Steinem, Ginny Apuzzo and Katsi Cook, all of them still alive.

Duncan has taught the course for 17 years, and said the topic interested her because usually there is little overlap between activism and psychology.

“Activists never have time to think about psychological theory,” she said.

As a MOOC, the class will be interactive. While it will feature some lecture videos of Duncan, it will also have interviews with the activists talking about current events, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

Thomas Laughner, 50, director of educational technology services at Smith, explained how the seven-week MOOC will work.

“When students start this course, they choose an activist during the length of the course,” he said. “Based on the activist they chose, they participate in discussion forums. As Lauren is talking about psychological theories, they will apply what she’s saying to the activist they are interested in.”

Jen Rajchel, 27, archival project manager at Smith, said the MOOC is an opportunity for people all over the world to take advantage of the Sophia Smith Collection housed at Smith College.

It also is a way to feature women, she said. “It’s definitely taking the stories and making them more highly visible,” she said of the course.

For more information on the course, or to sign up for free, visit www.edx.org/school/smithx.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.


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