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Robert Burns Lives!
Teaching Robert Burns Online by Ronnie Young BA (Hons), MA, PhD, Glasgow University

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA

One of the most exciting teaching events ever to occur in association with Robert Burns recently took place at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies. This is our third article on the project and shows the importance of such an undertaking. Dr. Ronnie Young agreed to write an article about his efforts, and we are happy to provide it to you, our readers. There is something magical about the number 7,500 but it became more so when that number actually signed up for the Burns course. My undergraduate school, Furman University, has 2,800 students and has been in the business of educating our young adults since 1826. Within only a few weeks of online notice, the university leaders organizing the course revealed not only the power of the internet but the power of Robert Burns in the world today.

As mentioned above, there are two articles on Robert Burns Lives! explaining this phenomenon for those who might have missed them. You can find these in Chapters 229 (“A Free Online Course on Burns”) and 233, an article written by Professor Gerard Carruthers entitled “The Centre for Robert Burns Studies” which is a follow-up to the first article. I cannot begin to thank the staff at the Burns Centre enough for all the hard work they have put in bringing Robert Burns to the people around the globe who signed up for the course. What fun! (FRS: 6.8.16)

Teaching Robert Burns Online
Ronnie Young BA (Hons), MA, PhD. Glasgow University

Ronnie Young, University of Glasgow, with his favourite Burns mug

The first online course dedicated to the study of Robert Burns was launched this year, on January 25 2016, the anniversary of the bard’s birth. The course ‘Robert Burns: Poems, Songs and Legacy’ attracted over 7,500 learners worldwide, ranging from long-time Burns fans to those who were relatively new to the poet. Over the course of three weeks, learners were introduced to key aspects of the life, work, and posthumous reputation of Burns, investigating Burns as patriot, lover, and man of the people, as poet and songwriter, and as international celebrity and ‘icon’.

This course represents a new development in the teaching of Burns, hitherto confined as that teaching was to the lecture hall and classroom (when taught at all). Online distance learning has made considerable progress in recent years, and this decade in particular has seen the rise of the ‘Massive Open Online Course’, or ‘MOOC’ for short. As the name suggests, this type of course is open to a large number of learners (think in the thousands rather than the tens). In a typical MOOC, content is free and learning self-directed. The large numbers of learners involved renders traditional forms of learning such as graded assessment and contact between teacher and student impractical, but it gives educators the opportunity to engage with a vast number of learners online, conversing with them via online discussion and comments threads.

‘Robert Burns: Poems, Songs and Legacy’ was launched by the University of Glasgow, home to the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, on Futurelearn, one of the leading MOOC-providers. Scottish Literature staff with the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, including director Professor Gerard Carruthers and Lecturer in Burns Studies Dr Pauline Mackay, were responsible for developing the course along with colleague Dr Catriona Macdonald from Scottish History and myself.

In simple terms, the MOOC format allowed us to take themes in current Burns scholarship and distil that information to a general audience. Rather than present another ‘version’ of Burns, we instead started by asking learners to think about the various ways in which Burns himself can be viewed (perhaps best summarised by Edwin Muir in his assertion that Burns is ‘to the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious’). By looking at different aspects of Burns (as patriot, lover, ‘socialist’, songwriter, and so forth) in relation to key poems (‘Scots Wha Hae’, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, ‘A Man’s a Man’, and ‘The Vision’, for example), we showed that one can help illuminate the other.

Beyond such approaches, the course looked again at some old favourites, sometimes from angles that learners might find surprising. Although ‘To a Mouse’, for instance, can be read as Burns’s act of sympathy with animal creation, it is as much about men as about mice, concerned as it is with the very real threat of dispossession for the eighteenth-century farmer. Of course, most learners already know the song ‘Auld Lang Syne’. But how many knew that Burns had updated an older lyric for the modern age of travel and diaspora and that older versions existed by such earlier poets as Allan Ramsay? Or that the tune for ‘Auld Lang Syne’ with which we are so familiar is only one possible melody and that the tune chosen by editor George Thomson also became the Korean national anthem for a time and a graduation song in Japan? We also introduced learners to the international dimensions of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and an association with New Year driven not by Scottish Hogmanay but by American popular culture: a signature piece in the Guy Lombardo Orchestra’s New Year repertoire giving rise to a succession of festive cover versions by artists as diverse as Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, and Mariah Carey.

That said, what is perhaps ‘new’ about taking Burns online is the kind of content one can use to teach the bard. Alongside traditional articles, the MOOC platform enables teaching using a wide range of media. Learners can watch short videos of mini-lectures (a short example of Gerry Carruthers talking about Burns’s worldwide appeal can be viewed on YouTube < ). The course also uses audio as a learning tool, offering audio readings of every poem featured on the course as well as musical examples at key points. We also took advantage of external services such as YouTube and Spotify to compile a ‘playlist’ of Burns’s songs, allowing the learner to listen to different songs by Burns in sometimes very different styles, from the traditional to the contemporary. This serves to make a basic point: that many of the works of Burns - a consummate songwriter from his first lyric to his later work with editors James Johnson and George Thomson - were written to be sung, something which may not be apparent to the initiate when first encountering the lyrics on the printed page.

The advent of the digital image and digitisation also allows us to examine the artefacts related to Burns from manuscripts to material culture. In one exercise from the MOOC, learners try their hand at transcribing a digitised version of the handwritten manuscript of ‘The Vision’ sent by Burns to Mrs Alexander Stewart of Stair (now held by the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway). When looking at the posthumous reputation of Burns, one of the best ways to illustrate his remarkable celebrity is by looking at ‘material culture’, or the manifold objects produced to commemorate and celebrate the poet, from Mauchline Ware through to statues and monuments across the globe.

The ability to re-purpose existing material and make it part of the learning experience shows that teaching Burns online becomes as much a process of ‘curating’ as creating content. Of course, Burns has long had a significant online presence through sites such as Robert Burns Lives, the Robert Burns World Federation, and Robert Burns Country. Teaching Burns online allowed us to direct learners to some of the excellent resources that already exist online, from the BBC’s extensive collection of poems and songs through to the many versions of Burns’s work hosted on YouTube.

To the creation and curation of content, I would just add one important - and perhaps surprising - element in our approach to teaching Burns online, what we might call ‘crowdsourcing’. By ‘crowdsourcing’ here I mean the process by which one ‘sources’ content from a large group, in our case asking the thousands of learners who take the course to contribute to the learning material with their own examples. It may seem like a somewhat odd approach as it effectively asks the student to make part of their own lessons, but we found that one of the best ways to discuss Burns reputation and legacy was to simply ask people for their input. After all, here we had an international community of like-minded Burns enthusiasts, a number of whom were very knowledgeable indeed: what better a resource to draw from? Accordingly, for the first run of the course, we asked learners to describe Burns in one word and to post their result on AnswerGarden The range of answers shows that while ‘Scottish’, ‘Bard’, ‘Poet’, ‘Genius’, and other common epithets ranked high, there are myriad other ways in which the poet is viewed by readers. We later asked learners to trace Burns’s international spread by finding something related to the commemoration of Burns in their part of the world, from Burns Suppers through to Statues, and then posting a photo with description on our Padlet wall and pinning the location on our interactive map As can be seen from the links, the results are inspiring and do much to illustrate the global spread of the Ayrshire Bard.

With ‘Robert Burns: Poems, Songs and Legacy’, we already got the online teaching of Burns off to a good healthy start. As mentioned earlier, nearly 8000 people signed up for the first run of the course in January, and this number looks set to rise as the MOOC is repeated twice a year, with the next run starting this summer, 18 July 2016. This will be followed by our next venture into online learning, an extended ten-week course, complete with credit from the University of Glasgow, that aims to build upon the success of the MOOC by offering, for a relatively small fee, a select group of students expert tuition on Burns along with access to many of the University’s services.

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