Psychology professor Lauren Duncan prepares to deliver a lecture to be recorded for a MOOC (massive open online course) that debuts in the spring. The course, Psychology of Women’s Activism, draws from the Sophia Smith Collection of women’s history. Photographed by Jessica Scranton in the Alumnae Gymnasium.

Psychology professor Lauren Duncan prepares to deliver a lecture to be recorded for a MOOC (massive open online course) that debuts in the spring. The course, Psychology of Women’s Activism, draws from the Sophia Smith Collection of women’s history. Photographed by Jessica Scranton in the Alumnae Gymnasium.

What makes one person change her life to remedy a social injustice while the rest of us shake our heads and move on? That’s the essential question behind an upper-level seminar—The Psychology of Political Activism—taught by Smith psychology professor Lauren Duncan. Soon, anyone with an Internet connection can take a similar course for free as Smith College enters the burgeoning world of MOOCs, or massive open online courses.

Duncan’s MOOC, The Psychology of Women’s Activism, will debut in March in partnership with edX, the online learning collaborative founded in 2012 by Harvard and MIT. More than 800 students from around the world have registered already for the seven-week pilot course.

The Smith course is unique in that some key content was created by students—under Duncan’s supervision—and uses case studies of feminist activists, whose oral histories were collected by the Sophia Smith Collection of women’s history as part of its Voices of Feminism project.

“This class will allow us to contribute to the democratization of knowledge by bringing Smith’s highly regarded teaching—and our remarkable archives of women’s history—to a worldwide audience through edX’s highly regarded platform,” said President Kathleen McCartney, a founding board member of edX. “The content will be available to English speakers across the globe, and the lessons of these activists will lead to needed social change.

Who exactly will take the course is not known, but edX metrics show that K–12 teachers are the biggest single group of students, Duncan said. Given its global reach, the new MOOC also might appeal to budding activists and organizers in developing countries. “It would bring academic knowledge and life stories of successful activists to people who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to them,” she said.

In the MOOC, Duncan will deliver lectures about psychological theories of activism—for instance, politicized racial identity development—and then use the real stories of activists to illustrate how each psychological theory played out.

In planning last spring how to create content for the MOOC, Duncan assigned students in her Psychology of Political Activism course to pick a feminist from the Voices of Feminism project and connect relevant theories to different stages of her life and development as an activist.

The activists—including Gloria Steinem ’56, Loretta Ross, Ginny Apuzzo, Katsi Cook and Byllye Avery—talk about key moments when they brushed up against an injustice or inequality that sparked their activism. “The life histories of these activists are incredibly inspiring,” Duncan said. “They’ve had difficult backgrounds, but they’ve succeeded in changing society.”

Duncan’s seminar students worked closely with project manager Jennifer Rajchel in the Sophia Smith Collection to create biographical timelines for each woman. Over the summer, intern Alicia Bowling ’17 fact-checked and edited each entry, which will be used as core course content. The activists then returned to Smith to be videotaped for a talk-back, in which they reflected on the theories being presented. For Bowling, the experience of studying, researching and then meeting the activists underscored that these influential women are real people with real experiences. “I hope students will understand there are many ways to reach a point for acting on change in society.

It’s not just one climactic moment,” she said. “Not everyone will go out and take collective action, but I hope students will reflect on their own activism.”

The MOOC will have a discussion component, and students will create a final project. But, as Duncan noted, it won’t be “heavy on evaluation,” and it does not carry college credit. The departments of educational technology services, media production and information technology offered critical assistance throughout the MOOC project.

Beyond the knowledge it imparts about the psychology and motivations of activists, the course will bring visibility to Smith, the Sophia Smith Collection and the work of influential women, Duncan said. “Plus, activism is such a Smith
topic.”

 

SAQ, Winter 2015–16