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 A Far Cry from School History

Massive Online Open Courses as a Generative Source for Historical Research

By Dr Silvia Gallagher and Dr Ciaran Wallace from Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin

One of the most interesting things we’ve learned from running MOOCs is not just how to teach in these huge online classrooms, but also, what we can learn from our learners. Working together on our Irish History course, Dr Ciaran Wallace and I found that many of our learners were posting personal historical stories; stories of experiences in a school room, of memories of Irish historical events, and of family experiences over generations. These stories, also known as personal narratives, brought our discussion sections to life.

Bringing together Ciaran’s expertise in History, and my own interest in online communication, we reflected that these personal narratives might be considered as a new type of oral history. Oral histories are often stories of groups outside of official records, or who may indeed be the victims of official erasure from the record. Usually recorded in interviews, videos or audio, we wondered whether MOOCs were a new place where oral histories were being created and recorded.

Are MOOCs a place where oral histories are being generated?

We decided to do some research into our thoughts, using anonymised learner comments from our Irish History course. First, we decided on a topic that we felt many learners were giving their personal narratives about; their experiences of learning at school. We explored 68,700 comments and 1,306 comments had words related to schooling. Of these comments, 485 were found to be personal narratives.

Why are learners sharing personal narratives on MOOCs?

Thinking about these personal narratives, we wanted to understand why learners were commenting in this way. In our analysis, we found that they were being generated directly through discussion questions, videos, articles, and links to external repositories, and indirectly through inter-learner interaction (i.e. by getting involved in discussions with other learners).

What’s interesting about this research?

We found that both the course content and being in a community of learners prompted learners to share personal narratives. We called this a “generative repository”, which means a place that helps people create oral narratives, and puts them all in the same location. In essence, and contradictory as the name might seem, some MOOCs could be thought of as an online collection of ‘written oral histories’.

The key point of this research was to show that MOOCs can often be thought of as a way of learning and teaching, but we can overlook their other benefits. Rather than MOOCs being just about learning, they can also be a way for learners to reflect on their history, and share personal historical narratives.

You can read the article published in the International Review of Open and Distance Learning here:

Dr Silvia Gallagher – Trinity Online Services, Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin (

Dr Ciaran Wallace – Department of History, Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin (

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