Agincourt 1415: Myth and Reality MOOC


In this guest post from Dr. Stephanie Hathaway at the University of Oxford we get an insider’s perspective on the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) ‘Agincourt 1415: Myth and Reality’, timed to coincide with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. 

The 25th of October last week marked the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, when Henry V of England took his army across the channel to assert his claim, lay siege to Harfleur and march on Agincourt. Among the political gains and an effective end to the hundred Years War are the enduring stories of the longbowmen, chivalry and a shift that would ever after set the tone for relations between the two countries on opposite sides of the Channel.

I was fortunate enough to celebrate the occasion by visiting the exhibition of some pieces of armour at the Wallace Collection, see a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V and subsequent reading to mark the anniversary by a winning group of young actors from Cyphers, attend the commemoration service at Westminster Abbey, as well as participate in the two-week course on MOOC by Southampton University’s Professor Anne Curry and graduate researcher Dan Spencer.

MOOC, the free online learning programme, has come a long way in a short time. The Agincourt course demonstrated the ongoing development of disseminating information, teaching, and sharing interest and passion for projects with people from all over the world. Having taken part in several MOOCs from different universities in Europe, in different languages and various topics, I have seen how different subjects are treated, and how both the audiences and the presenters assume an equally-instrumental role.

The multimedia approach now encompasses much more than podcast-type videos and online quizzes; we now see entire teams of technical and production crews who help the presenters prepare engaging material for keen students of diverse topics, and this is exactly what Anne Curry and Dan Spencer have achieved in the Agincourt course, which, because of its success, will run again next year.

In a course that covers the history of Agincourt, many resources are required, and more can be used by a format like MOOC than would be possible in a conventional classroom. The videos, of course, form the centrepoint of the course, and were well-put-together, sound was clear, and visuals were interesting, consisting of more than lectures, but also of demonstrations and visits to key locations. This was particularly interesting when visiting the National Archives to view the rolls, and watching the firing of artillery as would have been used at Harfleur. Computer imaging and drawing in the videos, as well as effects such as slow-motion, allowed the audience to visualize the history related by the presenters. All of the lectures and interviews were spoken at a comfortable pace, and the conversations between presenters and interviewees were interesting and engaging, and especially so as each week was concluded with a “week-in-review” video conversation between presenters.

The addition of video transcripts, extra materials in pdf, maps, articles and lists of references gave the DIY aspect more substance. The articles were written by the presenters in an academic style, but not in a register that would discourage someone new to the field, so facts and background were not ignored, but introduced to allow a broad audience to gain interest in pursuing further study by way of the extra materials and bibliography provided.

A key part of the MOOC format is the interactivity of participants via discussions and comments, which were invited in the Agincourt course though subjective questions such as, “How justified was Henry V’s decision to go to war with France?” or “How significant were guns in determining the outcome of the siege?” The traditional learner might be put off by the need to weed through 900+ comments to find interesting contributions, or reluctant to add insignificant comments to a pool of discussion that would seem to be based little on research or extensive knowledge, but more on opinion. However, the comment and like/dislike format, including the “follow” buttons, no doubt appeal to the generations now used to social media. Perhaps striking this balance between scholarly research and teaching a broad audience is something that MOOC will be able to further develop in future.

As this course spanned the 600th anniversary commemorations of Agincourt in London and France, it was both timely and a great pleasure to participate and to see what has been a largely medievalist subject introduced to a broader audience in an exciting and informative way through multimedia, without sacrificing the integrity of the field. (And I do wish to note with extreme gratification, that the presenters never stooped to the ‘historic present’ tense in either their videos or their articles!) This is a certainly format from which we can expect to see great development.

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