Petya Eckler previews a new free online course in journalism

Breaking news of power outages across Scotland interrupts regular programming. The next day, chaos erupts in London as its transport signalling system goes into "what can only be described as a meltdown," warns a foreboding male voice from the TV screen.

Fighting and looting are reported from Madrid as power outages there hit businesses and food shortages take their toll. The scenes from Spain are frantic, with riot police containing the crowds with water cannons.

Local, national and international authorities are at a loss as to what may be causing these seemingly random but widespread power outages. Twitter is ablaze with the hashtag #whoistoblame.

The media soon nickname these events The Blackout. But they are no closer to any answers.

The above events are part of the scenario playing out in the latest Massive Open Online Course - or Mooc - to come out of the University of Strathclyde, Introduction to Journalism.

The course has already attracted more than 10,000 participants globally and begins on Monday September 29.

Moocs are delivered freely to anyone with an internet connection and a willingness to learn. Instruction occurs through pre-recorded video lectures; students complete exercises and quizzes, and discussion of the material with one another facilitates learning. Feedback from the instructors is to the whole group but individual feedback is available from participating peers.

Moocs have been around for several years already, but really took off in 2012. That year, elite American universities such as Stanford, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology led the way and found large numbers of students and insatiable appetite for knowledge.

MIT had 370,000 sign-ups for its first official course, while the American website Coursera had more than 1.7 million people. Its founder boasted that it was growing "faster than Facebook" to The New York Times.

In 2013, the British website FutureLearn appeared, launched by the Open University, and it now hosts dozens of courses, offered by 40 universities from Scotland, the UK and beyond.

Strathclyde launched its first Mooc in January 2014 with Introduction to Forensic Science. Several reasons were behind this move.

"We want to know what this thing is, being able to teach massive numbers. And it's hard to know it until you've done it," said Howard Ramsay, learning enhancement manager at the university.

Another reason for involvement was to expand on the internal ability of distance learning for academic and professional staff. "The university is already doing this for 20 years. But this takes it to another level," he said.

The third is more strategic: "It's better to be involved on the inside than looking from the outside," said Mr Ramsay. "It strengthens the Strathclyde brand. It's allowing people to try our courses and see what we can do."

Strathclyde's first involvement attracted 27,000 people initially, of whom 16,000 started the course. "That's very high for a Mooc," said Mr Ramsay.

Often people sign up but never show up on the first day of class. And of those who did show up, 28% were still learning in the final week six of the course, he said. The average percentage of people who finish a course is around 7%.

"The forensic science one was a big success," said Mr Ramsay. "We picked a subject that we knew would be popular and reflected one of Strathclyde's distinct strengths. But success was partly down to the story-telling aspect and emphasis on fun...the case study was fun and exciting. It was a murder mystery on the banks of Loch Lomond."

The story-telling element is also what drives the Introduction to Journalism course. The Blackout scenario begins in week one and develops through each of the six weeks, ending with an investigation by Strathclyde's investigative journalist and lecturer Dr Eamonn O'Neill which reveals those culpable for the events.

As participants follow the scenario, they learn about research and interviewing; how to write news stories, features, and editorials; the link between journalism and politics; and what investigative journalism is all about.

"The Mooc is certainly not intended to train journalists, but it is intended to give people an informed understanding of what journalism is about in a way that makes them more informed and critical readers of news," said Dr Michael Higgins, lead educator of the course.

"We're in the business of trying to foster a greater degree of citizenship. Because one of the principle ways we get important information about the things going on around us is through journalism," he said.

Who is this course aimed at? Anyone with an interest in journalism. "There are no prior qualifications needed," said Dr Higgins. "All you need is an interest in news and a curiosity."

"We expect to attract people who've never been to university, as well as people who have been to university and who have degrees and postgraduate degrees, and we've been very careful to design the Mooc to appeal to all those constituencies and to make sure they all get something from it," he said.

One person who expects to get something out of it is Dr Murray Lough, a GP in Airdrie. This will be his 12th Mooc...a bit of an obsession, he admits.

"I think it's an absolutely wonderful way of learning," he said. "The sheer range of choices … there are literary hundreds of topics. Second, it's flexibility of time. You can come back to it, come and go as your time allows. Flexibility of place is third. You can do it anywhere anytime. I think that's enormously important now."

Dr Lough's choice of courses is as diverse as the online catalogue itself. He started with The Discovery of the Higgs Boson by the University of Edinburgh, went through courses on the French Revolution, the moons in the Solar System, Spain, and is now finishing a course on the Scottish Referendum, among others.

"There's such a diversity. They [instructors] take the subject seriously. So the level of interactivity between them and the Mooc is pretty high," said Dr Lough.

With thousands of people from around the world taking each course, participants' stories are countless. There is the retired woman from Argyle, who was very ill but took the Introduction to Forensic Science course to prove to her grandchildren that learning was worthwhile. She had never used a computer before. But her family got her an iPad and she got started. She ended up driving along the shores of Loch Lomond with her husband, trying to recreate the murder scene.

And then there are the many international participants in the Forensic Science course who heard the lectures by Professor Niamh Nic Daeid and shared that they had never been taught by a woman before and found it inspirational.

"I'll never stop. Never. Never. I am absolutely hooked on this," admits Dr Lough as we discuss his plans for the future.

To become a participant in the Introduction to Journalism Mooc, sign up here

Petya Eckler is a lecturer in journalism at the University of Strathclyde