Smith Partners with edX to Offer Free Online Course This Spring

Photo by Carolyn Brown '16 | Smith's edX course about psychology and women activists will allow wider access to the Sophia Smith Archives.

Photo by Carolyn Brown ’16 | Smith’s edX course about psychology and women activists will allow wider access to the Sophia Smith Archives.


Rachel Farber ’16
Assistant News Editor

Smith will launch its first massive open online course (MOOC) in March through edX, a non-profit online learning organization created by Harvard and MIT. EdX has offered free university-level online courses since 2012.

The course, “Psychology of Political Activism: Women Changing the World,” is taught by Lauren Duncan, professor of psychology, who has taught the seminar at Smith for 17 years.

President Kathleen McCartney served on the edX Board of Directors at Harvard. Upon coming to Smith, she wondered if a liberal arts institution could contribute.

“This class will allow us to contribute to the democratization of knowledge by bringing Smith’s excellent teaching – and our remarkable archives of women’s history – to a worldwide audience through edX’s highly regarded platform,” McCartney said to Grécourt Gate.

“We are honored to welcome Smith College to edX and share their educational content, collection and perspective with our global community of learners,” Anat Agarwal, edX CEO, said to Grécourt Gate.

“[The course] allows us to contribute in a unique way to the online course environment,” said Duncan. “We’re dipping our toes in the water of the online course community.”

Duncan said she is excited to bring a Smith course to edX, not just because psychology is different than edX’s usual tech-oriented courses, but also because she feels it is important to provide a course that focuses on women’s lives and achievements. In addition, it will give more people access to the Sophia Smith Archives.

“Part of the goal of the class is to introduce people to archives,” said Duncan. “The Voices of Feminism Archive has 61 oral histories of women activists and a lot of them are women of color, and it’s the biggest archive of women activists, that we have in the world. It’s a great way to highlight women’s education and liberal arts education.”

Smith and Mount Holyoke students have collaborated with Duncan and Smith faculty to develop timelines of each activist’s life and apply psychological theories to understand their motivation for political activism.

The course will focus on a different activist from the Voices of Feminism collection each week. Featured activists include Ginny Apuzzo, Byllye Avery, Joan Biren, Katsi Cook, Luz Alvarez Martinez, Loretta Ross, Gloria Steinem, Nkenge Touré and Carmen Vazquez.

Duncan says the way she plans to teach the MOOC is different from many of the courses she sees on edX. “This is going to be much more interactive. It’ll highlight the great work of the Smith students who created the timelines … and there are some videos of the students too. And the fact that activists came back and talked about their lives – it’s really awesome.”

The activists included in the MOOC came back to Smith to film additional footage for the course, and give feedback about the psychological theories applied to their work to intersect academic research of activism and the activists’ everyday experience.

According to a recent study by Harvard and MIT, about 39 percent of the people who enroll in MOOCs are K-12 teachers.

“I think there are going to be people who are or who want to be politically active across the world who might be interested in this particular class,” said Duncan. “But I think the most interesting potential audience to me [is] these people around the world who may not have access to the resources we have at Smith but who might be interested in finding out about … seeing these nine women and their amazing and inspiring life stories … there might be people in countries who want to make change.”

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