From Big to Massive: the story behind the Big History MOOC

It’s an exciting moment for the team behind the just-launched Big History MOOC, a showcase not only for Big History but also for trans-disciplinary learning and teaching expertise across Macquarie University. Two of the key team members, Dr Yvonne Breyer and Michael Rampe, look back on their journey.

What’s special about the Big History MOOC?

Dr Yvonne Breyer
Dr Yvonne Breyer

Yvonne: “By its very nature, Big History is ‘big’! It covers everything from the Big Bang until today. In order to tell this amazing story, Professor David Christian created a concept that is built on academics speaking about key ideas from their respective disciplines. These segments then interweave with David’s narrations from a Big History perspective in so-called “framework” lectures. Students learn from 19 Macquarie academics from disciplines as diverse as physics, ancient history, astronomy and philosophy as they are exploring one massive, big story of our universe and our planet in particular. It is the contribution of all of these individuals that is one of the main attractions of the Big History MOOC. Students can discover that while these disciplines at first sight seem unrelated, and hugely different in methodology and subject area, they are indeed deeply connected and form parts of one big story.”

“It is also the first MOOC that Macquarie University has produced entirely in-house. We had a small dedicated team, including Michael Rampe who was in charge of the video production team, and myself, tasked with managing the project.”

With all those academics from different disciplines working on this MOOC, how did the team ensure a coherent learning experience?

Yvonne: “David Christian did a great job coming up with the initial concept for how the different parts of Big History fit together. There were no scripts, and the academics that we invited to participate were free to come up with their own approach to tackling their segment. Except for one segment that was shot on location, all academics were filmed in front of a green screen. This gave Michael and his team maximum flexibility in the post-production process. Michael did a fantastic job in creating a unique look for all the segments and at the same time enough common elements were included to provide a coherent learning experience to students.”

Changes to the Coursera platform mean the MOOC will be run on a more flexible basis. What impact did that have on the learning design?

Yvonne: “From the beginning, we designed the MOOC to be platform-independent. David was really keen for learners to have the opportunity to experience the MOOC at their own pace. The changes to the Coursera platform worked well for that aspect. Coursera’s new platform allows learners to set their own timeframes and learning targets. The design of the Big History MOOC is very flexible and allows for all of that.”

There’s a perception that MOOCs often consist largely of ‘talking head’ videos.  Is that the pattern the Big History MOOC followed?

“In a way, yes. All of our videos include heads and they are talking. What we did that was different was to focus on well formed animations and motion graphics carefully designed to add to the overall communication of our videos. From the beginning, we were aiming for a high-end broadcast documentary look, and I think we achieved that.”

“Michael Rampe” by Tony Dwyer ©2013 Macquarie University
“Michael Rampe” by Tony Dwyer ©2013 Macquarie University

“More than that though, we tried to give each different video with a different speaker its own flavour and to showcase the individual disciplines and personalities of a great bunch of Macquarie academics. Although each is different and customised to the content, the overall flow of the lectures was retained thematically to tell the amazing story of the history of everything. All in all, we produced over five and a half hours of tightly polished video segments.”

Stills from the Big History MOOC
Stills from the Big History MOOC

Macquarie students were involved in the video production process. How did that work and what did the students gain from the experience?

Michael: “Due to our commitment to a high end product, we recognised early on that there was an enormous task before us. Basically the equivalent to 3-4 feature length documentaries. We could think of no better way to achieve this than by employing current students – we saw it as an opportunity to get a fresh and relevant point of view from them whilst also offering them in effect a paid internship that utilised their talents.”

“It was an amazing experience working with and mentoring Kevin and Gareth. They showed enthusiasm, creativity and an incredible sense of dedication for pre or early career people. As I know from my early career experience 20 years ago, having a real project to work on allowed them to accelerate their skills and push themselves to the limit in a way only a real world project could. By the end, they were teaching me things about motion graphics and animation and their skills and incredible effort is clearly evident in the finished products.”

What’s your favourite bit of the MOOC?

Yvonne: “I’ve got two favourite parts, one is in Week 4 when Dr Susanne Binder from the Department of Ancient History talks about hieroglyphics. I’ve actually watched this bit with my two kids and they love it – who would have thought that a 6 and and 8 year old who are into Minecraft could be interested in studying hieroglyphics!  My other favourite is in Week 2 when Dr Ian Jamie talks about the periodic table. Chemistry and I were always somewhat ‘incompatible’ in school, but now I have a much better understanding how the chemical elements fit into life all around us.  I have lots of other favourite bits, but to see how cool they are, you should enrol and experience it for yourself!”

Big History: Connecting Knowledge is available for enrolment now on Coursera.