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Why a diverse group of people are discovering dentistry on FutureLearn

The University of Sheffield’s free online course, Discover Dentistry, is about to start its third run on FutureLearn. Here, lead educator, Christopher Stokes, discusses the diverse group of people who have taken the course so far and what he has learnt from it.

Designed as a course for aspiring dentists to learn more about the profession, Discover Dentistry has become a unique opportunity for students considering working in the field to explore their intended career. This has happened because the course has attracted a wide variety of learners from many different backgrounds.

You can hear more about my own, non-traditional journey into the dental profession – from not knowing anyone who had studied at university, let alone been a dentist, through my BTEC studies to university and beyond, in the video below:

Diverse motivations for learning about dentistry

The first cohort of students on Discover Dentistry were split quite evenly between potential students; older learners (those taking the course to learn about the subject); and dental professionals, who were taking part to either engage with the public on their subject, recommend it knowledgeably to others (for example, dental work experience students), or learn more about clinical dentistry (already being a dental technician or practice manager, for example).

This balance meant that many questions presented in the discussions were answered by other learners with the right expertise. In addition, some of the international learners made it clear within the course that they were completing it to improve their English skills and learn the terminology specifically related to dentistry.

Learning from professionals and patients

A quick analysis of the discussion throughout the course showed that the potential dental students were able to learn from the dental professionals, who enriched the learning materials within the course with their own experiences and provided more detail where required.

The students were also able to call upon the increased dental “experience” of the engaged public, who had experiences of their own dental care they were willing to share.

This combined to make an extremely rich learning experience for a student wishing to explore their intended career, which was further enhanced by the international nature of the learners. As the lead educator, I only had to gently facilitate these discussions, and mostly thanked the learners for their input.

Patients anxious about dental treatment

It is worth mentioning an unexpected group discovered on the course: patients anxious about dental treatment, using the experience to increase their understanding of dentistry in a friendly and safe environment.

Conversations on the closing steps of the course did seem to indicate that some learners in this group had found benefit in completing the course, despite the grisly history discussions in Week 1!

The transformative power of the MOOC

Outside of teenagers visiting their local dentist to watch them work, this level of communication between potential dental students and dental professionals is very rare. When you add in the international element, it is unique, showing the potentially transformative power of the MOOC (or massive open online course) format.

We have now also begun to see the evidence of Discover Dentistry being used.

For example, we know from UCAS data that people are using it as evidence that they have been learning about dentistry when applying for courses – just under 10% of applicants to Sheffield this year mentioned it in their personal statements, for example.

It is also being used by people whose first language is not English, to get some practice in using dental jargon or to learn what their dentist is saying during a check up. We are getting more of these stories all the time, which shows the appeal and engagement people are having with this course.

Are you interested in learning more about dentistry? You can join the third run of Discover Dentistry now – it starts on 22 June – or join the conversation using #FLteeth.

The course is part of FutureLearn Choices – a collection of free online courses to help 16 to 19 year olds choose the right degree, uni or career. Find out more in our blog post.

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