Domestic violence is a global health issue that can take many forms and affect anyone. Health and social care professionals play an important role in recognising and helping victims of violent and abusive relationships. Aiming to improve knowledge of gender-based violence and the forms of domestic abuse, The University of Sheffield produced the course Supporting Victims of Domestic Violence on FutureLearn.com. We spoke to Laura Giles, part of the University of Sheffield’s Digital Learning Team, to discuss tackling sensitive subjects through online learning, and why she believes this course has had such an impact of learners.
Can you tell us a bit about this course, who it’s aimed at and what it aims to achieve?
The effects of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) lead victims to make extensive use of healthcare resources. This means professionals from across the sector; GPs, health visitors, midwives, and sexual health clinic staff are frequently the first point of contact for people suffering from abuse.
However, research conducted by Dr Parveen Ali here at The University of Sheffield reveals that many professionals do not feel comfortable talking to their patients about DVA. They might not feel adequately trained to identify victims and some don’t see supporting victims as part of their role.
Our aim with this course is to help healthcare professionals appreciate the opportunity they provide victims to disclose their abuse and help them feel confident in facilitating that opportunity.
What has been your experience of running this course online?
Although we designed the course with a professional audience in mind, the course discussions have enabled us to observe the wide ranging impacts the course has had.
We’ve heard from people who finally felt able to talk to friends and family members who they had suspected of experiencing abuse. There have been comments from victims and survivors thanking us for validating their experiences. One learner in their sixties was prompted by our section on gender to share their recent acceptance of being non-binary. We’re really proud of how open, caring and respectful the learning community on this course has been. The ability to get instant feedback from learners makes running courses on FutureLearn a really rewarding experience.
This course was recently voted one of Class Central’s Best Online Courses of 2019, as well as receiving considerably high feedback from learners. What factors would you say have contributed to the success of this course?
As the course was aimed at healthcare professionals, we wanted to make sure it contained lots of practical advice that people could immediately apply.
To help us put the learning into context, we interviewed a range of professionals who are all involved in supporting victims, from doctors and social workers to members of the police and independent advocates. We also made use of the course discussions to encourage learners to share their own advice. We designed a number of scenario based quizzes where learners could test out the skills that they were learning in a safe environment.
The feedback from learners about these interviews has been really positive and the results of the post course survey show that 50% of learners have already been able to apply what they have learned.
This course tackles a delicate subject that can be very emotive for learners, did this affect how you designed and built content for the course?
We were mindful that we didn’t want to be sensational or gratuitous. We knew that the course was likely to attract people who had suffered abuse and wanted to be respectful of their experiences.
There was one aspect of the course that we suspected could be controversial. Parveen’s research focuses on the gendered nature of DVA and we wanted to communicate this to learners in a way that didn’t ostracise or blame men. We designed some activities early on in the course that would help learners to reflect on the impact that gender has on our behaviour and help them to connect this to the issue of DVA.
There are two videos in particular that proved to be quite effective. Around the time we started to plan the course, a civil rights activist on Twitter asked women what they would do if all men had a 9pm curfew. This viral tweet gave us the idea of filming a man and woman (me and my colleague Tom!) leaving the pub at the same time after a night out and showing the different decisions they make to keep safe on their journey home. The video provided a ‘light bulb’ moment for a lot of learners and it was a great, non-confrontational way to introduce this topic.
But we also wanted to highlight that gender expectation is not something exclusively experienced by women. We sent an email out to all staff at the university asking if they’d ever been treated in a certain way because of their gender. We had an amazing response and managed to persuade a few people to share their stories on camera. Through their contributions, we were able to show learners how gender expectations and stereotypes affect people of all genders.
What have been some of your key learnings from running this course?
I think a key lesson has been that you can never be too open about flagging sensitive or controversial content. It’s important to warn learners about content that they may find distressing so that they can decide whether or not to engage with it. Similarly, if you suspect something might be controversial – say so – it can really help to neutralise any negative responses.
And some messages, like “please be respectful and supportive” can never be repeated too often!