In the ‘trailer’ (see video below) for the University of Cape Town’s very first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare, Medical Anthropologist, Associate Professor Susan Levine emphasises the interdisciplinary underpinnings of the course. The anatomy lecture theatre in which she sits, and the cream-coloured corridors which the camera goes on to explore, should be recognisable to those familiar with the home of the Centre for Curating the Archive, The Old Medical School Building located on UCT’s historic Hiddingh Campus. As Levine states, it is a significant site; “A century ago, it was built to house this University’s first medical school. Now, it is at the heart of the University’s Fine Art campus, and it gestures towards the interdisciplinary nature of the themes of this course.”

Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare began on Monday 16 March, with thousands of diverse participants enrolling from around the world. Filmed on location in Cape Town, the course travels through multiple spaces, including the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, the Heart of Cape Town Museum, Irma Stern Museum and the Pathology Learning Centre. Freely available to anyone who has internet access and an interest in medicine, the arts or social sciences, the course considers what it is that makes us human, through the field of medical humanities. Recognized in 2013 as a NRF research field, this growing field of enquiry is an attempt to blur the binaries of humanities and medicine.

Levine and Co-Lead Educator, Director of Family Healthcare, Professor Steve Reid, facilitate an impressive line-up, comprising of fifteen Guest Educators with positions as varying as a heart surgeon, pathologist, sociologist, psychologist, poet and forensic artist. The interdisciplinarity of the course is structured on the ‘triangulation’ of knowledge by three professionals, commonly an artist, a social scientist, and a medical practitioner. The three speakers focus their discussions on one of the six, core themes: The Heart of the Matter: A Matter of the Heart, Children’s Voices and Healing, Art and the Brain, Reproduction and Innovation, Tracing Origins, Death and the Corpse. During the six weeks of the course, participants watch videos presented by the educators, read recommended course material, partake in assignments and, perhaps most importantly, participate in discussions with one another.

So far, it is these two elements, of interactive discussion and transdisciplinarity, which have been the most apparent. In the first ‘assignment’, participants were invited to introduce themselves and ‘to share their perspective’. Only four days in, there are 1018 comments and counting, not including the multiple conversations which begin on individual comments. These reflections are absorbing (the reason this post is out on Friday, instead of Monday as originally planned), and underline the participant’s backgrounds and reasons for joining as incredibly varied.

Three years have passed since the “Year of the MOOC”, as declared by The New York Times, with a steady increase in cynicism towards the still-evolving educational platform. Whilst UCT’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) acknowledges this growing body of research, they still consider MOOCs to hold potential for redressing imbalances in knowledge production. As the director of CILT, Associate Professor Laura Czerniewicz, states “The vast majority of MOOCs being produced in the world are being offered by universities in the global north while their students are from every corner of the world, including some very remote. This has the effect of rendering invisible local knowledge and curricula. It is really important for universities in Africa and other countries in the global south to produce MOOCs based on local knowledge, experiences and curricula to counter this dominance and to ensure heterogeneous participation and contribution to knowledge creation and education.”

The second of UCT’s planned MOOCs, ‘What is a Mind?’ led by Professor Mark Solms, Chair of Neuropsychology, begins on 11 May. The six week course discusses significant philosophical and scientific concepts “to explore four specific aspects of the mind- subjectivity, intentionality, consciousness and agency. Together, these will help us think about the fundamental questions: what it is to be a mind, why we have a mind and what it feels like to have a mind.” Coincidentally, the ‘trailer’ (see video below) for this course centres on Professor Solms’ discussion of Professor Pippa Skotnes’ mural, Breath, in the UCT’s Psychology Department.

To access the MOOCs, or find out more, click here