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MOOC shows promise to improve dementia knowledge globally

A massive open online course (MOOC) promises to improve understanding of dementia on a global scale.

In a paper published last month in Science of Learning, a partner journal of Nature, a research team from the University of Tasmania assessed the effectiveness of a nine-week Understanding Dementia MOOC (UDMOOC) across enrolled participants. The 42 per cent who completed the course showed “substantial improvements” in knowledge.

Improvement was found across participant groups too, regardless of differences in expertise through formal education, occupational experience, or experience relating to caring for a significant other. Significantly, completing the course minimised the degree of knowledge differences associated with these different levels of exposure.

While the MOOC was launched in 2013, the study took place over two years (2016–17). In the first year, 20,061 participants from 117 countries enrolled and in the second, 29,039 participants from 132 countries enrolled. Australians represented the majority of all enrolments (66.5 per cent), followed by the UK (9.8 per cent) and New Zealand (7 per cent).

With a growing number of informal carers in the international community, who are typically women with low levels of previous education, the course is designed to maximise accessibility for adult learners. Enrolment is free, with a varied pedagogy, encompassing a conversational framework, video discussions, summaries, games, quizzes and more. Modules focus on basic neurobiology, dementia pathophysiology, medical management and person-centred care.

Researchers scored participants’ knowledge levels through the Dementia Knowledge Assessment Scale, a validated measurement tool for dementia researchers. They found that while those who had experience in care tended to score highly, this experiential learning “rarely addresses all of the relevant domains of knowledge”. The MOOC was therefore able to supplement this base knowledge, providing a more comprehensive awareness around the set of conditions that characterise dementia, from onset through progression.

When they first emerged in 2008, MOOCs were hailed as a disruptive and democratising system of learning in the new ‘global classroom’. Since then, in part due to a catastrophic drop-out rate, their potential has been cast into doubt.

The Tasmanian research lends legitimacy to the form in its given context, with the authors describing the course as “an effective knowledge translation strategy to improve dementia knowledge for a diverse, international learner group”.

It has been so successful, in fact, that the research team developed a second MOOC called Preventing Dementia. Launched in 2016, the course explores the modifiable risk factors for dementia.

There is an urgent need for knowledge enhancement in this area, too – which is only going to ratchet up in the near future.

“There are nearly 50 million people with dementia worldwide, and this number is predicted to triple by 2050,” the paper’s co-author, Claire Eccleston, told Campus Review. “Yet two out of three people globally believe there is little to no understanding of dementia in their country.

“Stigma about dementia is common, and formal care workers and those who care for people with dementia at home often lack the knowledge required to provide quality care. Understanding dementia reduces stigma, and helps communities to become more inclusive of people living with cognitive impairment.

“It also supports the provision of informed, appropriate and compassionate care by health professionals and others caring for people with dementia.”

In Australia, with a population that is both rapidly expanding and ageing fast, the number of people being diagnosed with dementia is expected to increase to 318 people per day by 2025, and more than 650 people per day by 2056.

“The aged care workforce is inadequately resourced and prepared to meet the growing need for dementia care, and dependency on informal community care is increasing,” write the researchers.

They also point out that literacy of dementia is important in shaping national policies around the disease.

In Australia, the ongoing Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety has found a critical lack of awareness in areas of the Australian healthcare industry relating to dementia, including a dangerous over-reliance on physical and chemical mechanisms of restraint. This is expected to be further underlined in the next round of hearings beginning next week in Sydney, which will have a focus on residential care and those living with dementia.

Enrolment for the Preventing Dementia MOOC opens May 14, while enrolment for the Understanding Dementia MOOC opens July 9. Both run twice a year, and can be accessed for free here.

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