Daniel Webster has been studying gun violence for three decades. He’s read about more mass shootings than he can count. He’s watched homicide rates surge and fall and surge again.
After all those years immersed in the issue, Webster said he’s never witnessed anything like he did March 24, when he joined hundreds of thousands of people — many of them teenagers — who converged on Washington to honor those killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre and call for tighter gun control.
“This is a really unique time and a unique coalescence of committed people,” Webster said. “You can tell we’re not going to do this for a year and then move on to other things. I believe the March for Our Lives movement is really setting a course that will be felt for many years.
“Being an educator,” he said, “I wanted to play a role in helping to facilitate that.”
In the months since, Webster and his colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research have worked to craft an Internet-based class aimed at providing high school and college students access to gun violence research and training on how to interpret it.
They are developing a massive open online course — a freely available online class, designed to accommodate as many people as possible and known as an MOOC — that will help students understand legal issues and use data to inform policy debates about gun violence. The class will launch in 2019 and be offered at least twice a year.
Previous MOOCs, which are tuition-free and are run out of Hopkins’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, have attracted millions of registrants from across the globe, according to the university. Hopkins offers more than 70 of these accessible online classes.
The Center for Gun Policy and Research, which Webster directs, will tap into its wide-ranging body of research to educate students who enroll in the MOOC about what interventions make the biggest difference when it comes to stemming gun violence.
“We want to make the available data accessible to a wide audience,” Webster said. “People talk about how we need common-sense gun legislation. Well, what does common sense mean?”
Hopkins has the research to show which interventions actually work. The center’s studies have concluded that domestic-violence restraining orders that include gun restrictions work to reduce intimate-partner homicides. The researchers know that child-access prevention laws — like safe gun storage laws — reduce suicides. They’ve determined that increased accountability for gun dealers reduces the flow of illegal guns.
“We feel that youth have proven they know how to be good advocates,” Webster said. “But now we want to, in essence, arm them with the best available data so they know what to advocate for.”
Many universities that embraced MOOCs have struggled to secure strong completion rates. A Hopkins spokesperson said its MOOCs attracted 6.6 million enrollments but roughly 775,800 completions.
Gayle Christensen, assistant vice provost for global affairs at the University of Washington, has researched these kinds of courses.
“The hard thing we have with MOOCs is there is a funnel effect,” she said. “A lot of people sign up, but less engage with the material. The real question is: This is such an important topic, will people engage?”
Christensen said one of the keys is providing the course’s critical information in the first lecture, when the most people are likely to be participating. Students will taper off after that.
Webster said his course will blend PowerPoint presentations, lectures, interviews and videos.
“We’ll try to mix it up to keep it interesting,” he said.
The course will start by providing students with baseline knowledge about the scope and nature of gun violence in America. They’ll talk not just about school shootings, which catalyzed the March for Our Lives movement, but also other kinds of mass shootings, suicides, domestic gun violence and urban gun violence.
Webster is quick to point out that this isn’t an advocacy class. But he knows that because so many young people are rallying around this issue, they ought to be offered Hopkins’s trove of related research. He worries that too much of the conversation around gun control is not truly evidence-driven, and he wants to help change that.
“We hope to give direction to that passion, so it will translate into things that will save lives and reduce violence,” he said.
The program has a second component more tailored to training students specifically for advocacy. Webster and his team will offer scholarships for about 50 students to come to a summer program at Hopkins’s Baltimore campus. Students will be recruited from across the country, with special attention given to those involved in communities heavily affected by gun violence.
“Someone might come to us and say, ‘I want to testify about assault weapons,’ ” Webster said. “At the end of their days with us, they’ll have a set of materials based on good evidence that they can use in testimony.”
The project is supported by a $750,000 grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
The first MOOC course probably won’t be available for college credit, but that might change, Webster said. While it’s directed toward young people, anyone will be able to sign up for the class.
More information will be shared on the center’s website.