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WW1 Aviation Comes of Age. A MOOC about British aviation 1911-1951

World War 1: Aviation Comes of Age: University of Birmingham [Three Weeks]

Both more, and less than advertised. Far from sticking to the First World War the course flew away on a gust of enthusiasm in various directions that stretched beyond the Second World War … without really taking off.

From Jack Wilson MM

Fig.1 My late grandfather – the period I thought we’d cover was his experience of flight. 1911-1919

100% Coming out of the MA in British Military History with a Postgraduate Certificate and 60 credits after one year shows that I am still passionate about the subject of the First World War, but not how it is taught in a traditional ‘Saturday School’ format: I felt that I was back in the ‘C’ set of my lower-sixth History A’ level. The course tried hard to understand the affordances of learning online in a MOOC and will surely make many changes before it is presented again in the New Year. It rather failed to understand who its audience were: more niche, specialists and some extraordinarily well informed. The WW1 tag drifted rapidly into events between the wars, into WW2 and beyond with very little of the development of aviation offered or explored, except by us students, often in great depth. Its saving grace. It was too much an effort at shoehorning a lacklustre campus-based course of lectures, talks and books with long lists of qualifying but unreadable lists of references attached. The quizzes in particular were awful. Put in with no understand of their purpose or the considerable level expertise required to get these right.


The primary role of the British Fleet – as Sir Walter Raleigh

I learn, watching ‘The Great War’ BBC TV series that the British Fleet harked back 350 years. Produced in 1964 it would have looked dated in 1989 and the 75th anniversary of 1914.

And music to suggest that something terrible, in operatic terms, is taking place.

Describing the size of guns to an audience that might know what these sizes mean.

‘Colonial possessions’ around the world … a quaint and difficult term for 2013.

A coleman from a merchant ship dressed like a bank manager is ‘interviewed’.

Everything stated as fact without alternative POVs – as if any were invited or expected. As if this is ‘the voice of god’ or at least the Voice of the BBC.

Adding to the lands of the British Empire … at the cost of six dead.

Ha-ha – the Japanese shot a Brit as they couldn’t tell the Europeans apart.

All this portrayed while wonderfully, empire building, regal music trumpets.

German East Africa – an objective narrative?






Script using terms like ‘weak’ or ‘brave’ to describe the Belgian army where neither term is apt.

Gemany. All were required to attend and all were delighted to do so … really

The ‘swelling cities …’

Mostly were peasants ‘sturdy brave …’

The urlands. ‘The kaisers favourites’ …


Talk about weaponry as if the only audience are male and mechanically minded.

The cross cutting to voiced words ‘from veterans’ is cruder in a world of drama and drama reconstruction.

The Pity of War: Mindmap for a Book Review


Fig.1 SimpleMind Mindmap based on Niall Ferguson’s ‘The Pity of War’

I’ve now read ‘The Pity of War’ twice in a row. As I’ve gone through it I’ve highlighted passages and added notes
and tabs in Kindle. I also grabbed a few highlighted passages and put them into the iPad App ‘Studio’ to annotate and took slides from a
presentation on how to prepare a book review by Dr Pete Gray of the University of Birmingham and annotated these too.

On the second reading I created the SimpleMinds mindmap above.

This ought to be my starting point for a solid 1,000 word book review.

Further reading in the from of Books and papers of interest have been picked up along the way too.

Those to find in a university library, those acquired secondhand through Amazon or uploaded as eBooks in Kindle and papers I can find as a postgraduate student online, either through the Open University or the University of Birmingham (I am a postgraduate student at both). There are various ways I can offer the above, though the best is to download the FREE version of SimpleMinds and read it that way.

Offered with a view to sharing the views of others.

I can export it into a word file and develop the categories I already have as separate themes:

Insightful (in yellow) has some 52 notes, most referenced by Kindle Link (KL).

Do I buy the print version or go to the library and cross-reference?

Descriptors: meticulous, original, weighty, highly referenced, all sides, high brow, thoroughly researched, well read … often
intricate, taking us to detail researched by others? NOT, as he says in the introduction, a textbook or a narrative of the war.

No Trivia – nor the chronology if the war, nor countless aggregated memories of veterans, though there is a bit of poetry and some
mention of movies and TV films from ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ to ‘Birdsong’, ‘Gallipoli’, ‘Blackadder goes forth’ and
‘Ghost Road’ Bias – I wonder about this in relation to where Niall Ferguson – that he relishes a dig on the landed gentry and public
school system, their types, behaviours and hobbies, from leadership to country sports.

Debunking myths: the desire for war, the Germans to blame, the Russians to blame, militarism, German economic efficiency, not donkeys, the AEF didn’t win the war and blundered in making the mistakes of 1914, naval supremacy and ambivalence to war.

The Press – censorship, Buchanan, DORA. Finance – givernments
and bankers.

A dilletante, too thorough, comprehensive: penny dreadfuls, invasion stories, art history and drama, from Karl Kraus to Oh What a Lovely War.

Errors or mistaken emphasis: Fashoda, conjecture that Grey et al. exaggerated the threat of Germany despite intelligence, attempting to interpret stats on fatalities, wounded and prisoners, the Entente were better at killing, maiming and taking prisoners, Tommy gets angry with a Jerry prisoner, All
Quiet on the Western Front is not biography though Ferguson quotes from it as if it is. Remarque wasn’t a front line soldier. The Oxford Union as any kind of representative body for comment. That Belgium neutrality would have been breached by GB. That skilled workers lost to the war impacted our economy when women very effectively stepped in. That the EU in its current form might have emerged has GB stayed out of it. That waving Tommies are from a photo archive when they are grabs from the Battle of Somme footage.

Kinds of historian: cultural, military, diplomatic, economic.

Why was recruitment successful? Recruitment campaign, female pressure, peer and employer pressure, impulse, economic motives, and more?

Other historians and commentators:

Alan Clarke, Lidell Hart, John Terraine, Correlli Barret, Michael Howard, Norman Stone, Lafell, Bidwell, Graham, Travers, Holmes, Martin van Creveld, Dominic Graham, JMBourne, Michael Geyer, Martin Samuels, Gudmannskn, Paddy Griffith, Theo Balderston, Knaus and Hew Strachan.

With distinct sections on:

Finance and JMKeynes Writers

With a bit on poets, and rather less on films and art.

What did he leave out then?

  • Women
  • The Home Front
  • Technological developments, especially in the air


Fig.2. A brief response to the ten questions Ferguson poses at the start of the book and attempts to answer by the end – I’m not wholly convinced.



Fig.1 Underdtanding the Great War

As an MA student on the Bham First World War studies programme we are reading and then writing a book review on Niall Ferguson’s ‘The Pity of War’. The consequence for me is a significant growth in my library of First World War books, and eBooks such as this one. Meanwhile, with this contrasting worlds of real and virtual playing out in parallel workds I am doing the Open University MA in Open and Distance Education module H818: The Networked Practitioner. I’ve done three MOOCs. Is this how a campus based taught course at Bham lauches itself into 21st century education?


Posted on Wednesday 16th October 2013

The University of Birmingham is linking up with the BBC to create an academic first – a unique distance learning course marking the centenary of the First World War next year.

The ‘Wings of Modernity’ course, developed by the University’s Centre for War Studies in conjunction with the BBC, was announced during a press conference outlining the BBC’s forthcoming World War One Centenary coverage today (Wednesday 16 October). It will be a pilot Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) looking at the evolution of airborne conflict, published on the FutureLearn platform.

Controller of Learning Saul Nassé says: ‘The BBC continues to be excited about the development of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses that will enable mass participation in learning online. We are keen to explore opportunities with a number of University partners as part of our WW1 coverage. The first one to be developed will be with the University of Birmingham, the short course will cover the deployment of air power during the First World War and attitudes to the use of new technology.’

Dr Jonathan Boff, lecturer in war studies at Birmingham, commented: ‘This exciting initiative will give us a chance to share our passion for First World War history with the widest possible audience. It also enables us to continue our pioneering use of digital technology both to support existing students and to attract new ones. Students stimulated by the MOOC can easily pursue their interest by exploring our wide range of full-time and part-time undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, online and face-to-face, in war studies and the history of warfare.’

Director of the Centre for War Studies Dr Peter Gray added: ‘The University of Birmingham has, in the Centre for War Studies, the largest and longest-established centre for specialist research and teaching of the First World War anywhere in the world. It is also internationally renowned for excellence in the study of Air Power.

‘The ‘Wings of Modernity’ MOOC will bring together our strengths in both areas to allow students to explore, not only the Great War in the air, but also the impact the war had on aviation more generally, and more broadly still to examine developing attitudes to technology in a time of revolutionary change. Although we often take aeroplanes for granted today, the story of how we got to this point is a fascinating one whose roots lie in 1914-18.’

In a separate but related development, the Centre for War Studies is one of the Universities providing academic advice and support to the BBC’s digital content for the First World War centenary.

This will cover a range of material designed for audiences from as young as five years up to those as old as the war itself and is evidence of the commitment of both organisations to explaining the history of the Great War to the widest possible audience.

Notes to editors

Dr Jonathan Boff is Lecturer in War Studies at the University of Birmingham, where he leads the MA in British First World War Studies and an online-only MA in Military History by Distance Learning.

Dr Peter Gray is the Royal Aeronautical Society Senior Research fellow in Air Power Studies at the University of Birmingham and Director of the Centre for War Studies. He has published widely on a range of air power subjects from historical issues through to contributing to current debates on remote warfare such as the employment of drones. He has extensive practical experience from his time in the Royal Air Force and is in demand worldwide for his knowledge of air power history, theory and practice.

The Centre for War Studies at the University of Birmingham is one of the leading institutions of its kind in the United Kingdom. It brings together academics from around the globe to research and teach military history. With particular strengths in the study of the two world wars and the history and theory of air power, it offers a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses and maintains a unique network of alumni and associates active in the field of military history and war studies.

For media enquiries please contact Jenni Ameghino, University of Birmingham Press Office, +44(0)121 415 8134 / +44 (0)7768924156

Online vs. Face to face Learning

I’ll add notes here as the differences between the online and ‘traditional’ learning experience dawn on me as I do the two in parallel. Actually there’s a third comparison I can make – that of L&D which the other week included something neither of the above formats offer – ‘learning over a good lunch!’

Time Management

The ‘traditional’ seminar or lecture forces your hand somewhat – you have to be there. Many these days are recorded, though mine will not be. I’m inclined therefore to take either a digital or audio recorder along to record these things. I have, just a couple of times over three years, got behind with the online course as I kept putting it off.

Travel … and the associated cost

It’ll be around four hours door to door once a month. This means getting up at 4.30 am. Not of course something someone in full time tertiary education needs to do. Off peak, unless booked well in advance it’ll cost £74 return … £24 if I stick to exact trains. The last train home was heaving. I could and did ‘work’ the entire journey whereas home is a constant distraction.

Eating on campus

Lunch I may have to take with me as the campus only had premade Spar sandwiches at every outlet. A jacket potato or pasta would have been better.

Nodding off

After lunch I did something I last did in double Geography on a Friday afternoon. I sat at the back, cupped my hands over my eyes as if in deep thought … and fell asleep.

When to put in the hours

Something, however common to many people on any part-time distance learning course is ‘the early morning shift’ – putting in 90 minutes or so before breakfast.

Library Services

While this and other support services are offered to us on our VLE it was invaluable to to have a person run through it as a presentation in person. This kind of stuff should be given a linear expression … a mini-module for newcomers and as a refresher. All I’ve done, two years after the event, was a webinar.

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