The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about feelings of distress and despair worldwide. The shocks associated with this invisible threat has created the most tumultuous times in living memory. And individually, people have faced many challenges, including isolation, job losses and grief over lost loved ones.
But even before any one of us knew what the coronavirus was, around one million Australian adults already experienced depression in any one year. And these individuals who were previously struggling with depression now find themselves in a triggering environment.
It’s never been more important to gain a deeper understanding of depression
Torrens University Australia has developed a new Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) that provides valuable insights into depression. The course was developed in partnership with Beyond Blue, an organisation which plays a critical role in promoting mental health.
Emma Donaldson is Senior Learning Facilitator in Education. She says the free course was initially created to respond to rates of depression within the community, but the launch date had to be delayed, factoring in the stressors of COVID-19.
“When the pandemic hit, we identified very early on that the strategies for depression weren't appropriate when the whole country was in lockdown. So, we went back to our partners Beyond Blue and developed more content that was COVID specific.”
Director of Product Innovation, Eoghan Hogan states that now more than ever people are feeling under pressure.
“People are telling us that they are feeling stressed, wondering when the world will get back to normal.”
Sharing perspectives that are left unheard
While there are many courses about depression, what sets this MOOC apart is the fact that it elevates the voices of people with lived experience.
“Our offering is really quite different to any other course because we're not taking a clinical or medical approach to understanding depression,” says Ms Donaldson.
“We’re trying to get an understanding of what depression can look like in the day-to-day.”
Mr Hogan explains that the entire course is shaped by a person first approach.
“You don't just hear from some of our wonderful academics, you hear from those living with, or caring for people who are experiencing depression.”
The course showcases community members from the Beyond Blue Speakers Bureau and covers four main topics. One area of focus is looking at what can lead to the experience of depression, such as your own values and beliefs.
The MOOC is peppered with authentic stories from 18 to 70-year-olds, each sharing their own individual struggles.
The voices you’ll hear are diverse. The course highlights the experience of depression in various contexts. There’s the account of the chap with the foggy brain who couldn’t recall why he went into the supermarket. The young woman who had to return from Europe due to COVID-19 and quickly needed to adopt coping strategies. And the gentleman from Perth who experienced a shift in his social anxiety due to the pandemic.
Mr Hogan says a big part of this storytelling approach is to remove the stigma around depression.
“It really is to open up the conversation and allow people to feel comfortable discussing depression. We also want to remove the myths, because depression doesn't look the same for everyone.”
Innovation in online education
This MOOC is designed for people with a personal and professional interest in depression. What that means is that the short course is targeted at family members, friends, allied health professionals and educators.
According to Ms Donaldson the MOOC is a perfect delivery model for a topic like depression because it has the potential to make a massive impact.
“We've got a huge community of practice where people are learning from other carers or allied health professionals or educators. If we were running a smaller version, our resourcing would mean we wouldn't reach as many people.”
While the course is designed to be delivered online, on demand and self-directed, Mr Hogan says a collaborative learning approach lies at the heart of it.
“Participants will be put into a group of about 40 other people and throughout the course there'll be learning activities where you'll build your network and discuss different topics in these groups.”
“Within Torrens University we’re huge advocates of the community of learners approach because people learn through conversation with others. That's really important because depression doesn't just impact the person struggling, it can impact those around them as well,” he adds.
A story of success in co-design
There’s a co-design team that sits behind the development of this MOOC who have been instrumental in determining the values, objectives and aims of the free short course.
Instead of being purely academically driven, this MOOC has been co-designed by those caring for and living with depression. Mr Hogan says that makes a big difference.
“You'll actually hear how people are going about their lives, like the things they do to make sure they access the correct services.”
Ms Donaldson says every decision around content and learning outcomes was determined through the lens of co-design.
“Whenever there's been a question around content, we've been able to go to the lived experience team and say, ‘is this representative of a diverse amount of experiences?’”.
Working in close collaboration with people with lived experience of depression, this MOOC takes a pedagogical approach that’s about transformative learning. Ms Donaldson says that means questioning what we generally think we know about depression.
“By presenting counter-stereotype videos we’re actually getting people to examine the content in a way which they would not have otherwise.”
The result is that people can actually sit, listen and learn new perspectives together.
Ms Donaldson says this mostly video-based MOOC allows individuals to grow their listening ears.
“What we can often do as carers or family members is we can jump into solution mode really quickly, but we may not be really listening to what's going on. This course encourages people to truly listen to what people living with depression may need.”
Driven by Altruism: fulfilling social responsibility
Unlike a lot of MOOCs, the Understanding Depression short course covers a specialist interest area. Mr Hogan says the content is steered by Torrens University’s commitment to Be Good, which is the belief in the power of education to change lives.
Mr Hogan says given the university’s B Corp status, it has set out to positively impact students, staff, communities and the environment.
“We want to be able to deliver courses that inspire others and equally can support others. We’re not just here for our students, but we’re here for our community.”
“This is not for financial purposes. We’re hearing what the public needs and we want this course to reach the masses. We want it to be a resource for people who are struggling at this time,” adds Mr Hogan.
As such, Mr Hogan says the course aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals to provide open access to education.
“We can use technology and innovation to give access to this course to those who wouldn't necessarily be able to access education like this – if they had to pay for it or if they had to travel.”
So, how is this MOOC likely to improve lives?
Ms Donaldson says, “If we've got a community of people talking about depression from a human level, instead of being clinical, that's going to have a huge public benefit.”
According to Mr Hogan it’s also likely to build empathy and understanding.
“If people felt comfortable to open up to their families and to their friends about how they are feeling, that would be a huge success for us.”
About Torrens University MOOCs
This Massive Online Open Course follows other successful MOOCs that have been open to the public such as Voices of Social Change.
Ms Donaldson says what makes the MOOCs so different at Torrens University is the realisation that a theoretical approach to the subject matter wouldn't have the same impact or level of engagement. This statement is backed by research and rates of people completing the course.
For instance, Voices of Autism, a five-week course co-designed by individuals across the Autism spectrum had a retention rate of over 40 per cent.
“MOOCs typically get between five to seven per cent and we had over 40 per cent that actually stayed all the way through the course. Because we had stories that were real and relatable, we had such a high retention rate.”
“We also had people that stopped us at conferences to say how much that MOOC made an impact on their understanding of autism. It reached 88 countries and we had over 13,000 people participate,” recalls Ms Donaldson.
“If there is one aspect of this which stands out, it is that with technology, distance is no challenge when there is shared humanity and a commitment to change the world through open education.”
What to expect from the Understanding Depression MOOC
This MOOC is designed to be completed over 4 weeks with a minimum of 2 hours commitment per week. On completion, you’ll be provided with a certificate. Like all Torrens University MOOCs this is a free online short course.