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A MOOC for Planet Earth

Climate change expert Richard Alley, who aimed his passion for teaching about energy sustainability at thousands of students as he taught his first MOOC, takes a look back at the experience.
Climate change expert Richard Alley, who aimed his passion for teaching about energy sustainability at thousands of students as he taught his first MOOC, takes a look back at the experience. Image: Penn State
June 2, 2014

"An institution like Penn State exists to discover what nobody knows yet, and to share that new knowledge with the public. A MOOC gives us another chance to do just that." —Professor Richard Alley

Richard Alley considered “Energy, the Environment, and our Future,” a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) he taught for the first time during spring semester 2014, to be a great laboratory for new teaching ideas. Although it took a lot of effort from the course designers and the overall team, switching from one big stand-alone lecture, typical of some online courses, to dozens of short lectures with multimedia aspects made the course much more interesting to students, he said.

Who enrolled

The free course, which expanded on a book that Dr. Alley, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, wrote and a PBS television series that he hosted called “Earth: The Operator’s Manual,” had to be interesting enough to catch the attention of more than 45,000 enrolled students, of whom more than 22,000 accessed the course site during the eight-week session. The enrolled students were from every continent except Antarctica, and more than 81 percent were born outside the United States. The average student age was 35.5 years old; about 62 percent were men, 38 percent women; about 45 percent were employed full time, with a mix of unemployed, part-time, self-employed, and retired making up rest.

The diversity in background, age, language, etc., was both a strength and a challenge, Dr. Alley said, adding that the discussions among and contributions from the students were fascinating. “Having them tell us something about energy use in their family, for example, gained a broader range of feedback than would occur in a typical class for resident students.”

“But, more than the differences, I was impressed with the similarities—they are students, they want to learn, we want to teach, we can make this work,” he said.

“This class had wonderful diversity of people and it was a sign to me that people care about our planet all over the world. It will take us all to make big changes.”—Student

Richard Alley in the Antartica

How it was taught

Lecturer and Learning Designer April Millet, part of the John A. Dutton e-Learning Institute team for this MOOC, pointed out that delivery of the content isn’t much different from any other type of online course. The difference is the scale that MOOC platforms allow in reaching a huge number of students at one time.  

“Providing any instruction online can be challenging, but providing it to potentially over 100,000 people can seem impossible,” Millet said. “The MOOC platform developers have figured out how to make it happen with few issues that the student is aware.”

Many of the MOOCs connected with Coursera (the education platform that Penn State is working with) use long lecture videos, she said. But, “We decided to go with predominantly text to transmit our message with short videos to supplement the instruction. Students seemed to enjoy this a lot, and we received feedback to that effect.”

Making sure that students were engaged in the subject matter was a team effort. Dr. Seth Blumsack, associate professor of energy policy and economics at Penn State, also was an instructor in the course, preparing information to ensure that it was appealing and relevant, including chapters he wrote about solar and wind energy. 

Dr. Alley felt it was important to mix the ways the information was being presented in order to keep students tuned into the content: “Rather than me standing in front of a camera for an hour doing a lecture and then being done, we did a mix of short films and ‘animated graphs.’” 

As an example, Dr. Alley described a course content sequence that involved a field trip for him and his “dear wife, Cindy.” At a local lake where a recent water-level drawdown had revealed sediments deposited under the water, the Alleys kayaked, stirring up mud along the way to illustrate the release of methane, discussing the ways sediment and dead plant material can lead to fossil fuels.

“Then we went to the rocks beneath (and exposed in the bank) to talk about the same sorts of things in older rocks. A few minutes from this, and then back to text, and then to a clip from the PBS TV series I helped make. Then we’d come to a graph, and clicking on it would get me talking, with notations appearing as I wrote them, to explain the graph,” he said. “More work, but as it turns out, a great way to get information to students, who seem to like short, concise presentations. I intend to bring this back to Penn State courses.”

“Thank you for taking the time to educate people on a subject you clearly have a lot of passion for. We need the passion to spread. I cannot express my gratitude enough for what you do to help our future.” —Student

MOOC Course

The course

The problem of energy demand increasing as reserves of fossil fuels decrease served as an underlying theme of the course. The lessons covered proposed solutions by explaining the science behind alternatives to fossil fuel energy sources, such as wind and solar power.

Alley described the way the course began as a long history of converging threads. “Penn State committed to doing some MOOCs, and put out a call,” he said. “Ann Taylor, director of the Dutton e-Education Institute, realized the power of combining their strengths with our joint experience in online education in the past, and with the PBS TV miniseries ‘Earth: The Operators’ Manual’ (Geoff Haines-Stiles and Erna Akuginow, director and producer, NSF-funded), based on the book of the same name I wrote.”

 “We had three hours of TV by great people on this key subject, enough background to make a textbook (or several), and a team to put it together. So, as Ann put it together, it was a great idea.” 

Each week the students were assigned an activity, a discussion question and a quiz. Coursera's Discussion Forums were used for both the submission of activities and discussion question responses.

Millet summed up some of the day-to-day details of the course. “Our course mantra was that the course was as much about the discussion as it was about the science, so we decided this would encourage discussion. Because there were potentially several tens of thousands of responses, we knew we would not be able to provide feedback to every student. So we decided to make sure that the quizzes all covered the most important information and had detailed feedback.”

For the activities and the discussions, she said, the team made sure that the students were focused on the science and not personal, political, or religious opinion. The students in the course provided a lot of valuable feedback to each other, she added.

“This is what is so different about MOOCs. A majority of the students in our MOOC had college degrees, many of them master’s level or higher,” Millet said. “Our teaching assistants would step in if someone was not adhering to the standards that we set for our discussion forums or if someone was providing misinformation.”  

The main avenue for two-way communication was the Discussion Forums, she said. A Facebook page was created for students to interact socially. Two emails were sent out each week to keep students informed and motivated. These were turned into “Announcements” automatically, so the information was always available, Millet said.  

“I want to thank everyone involved in organizing this course, and especially Professor Alley for a brilliant and fun introduction into our energy needs and potential, and views on environmental sustainability.”—Student

Summing up

Dr. Alley and the entire MOOC team count the course as a success, a chance to reach an international audience of students, interact and exchange knowledge, explain concepts in way that might not otherwise be possible without technology, and an opportunity to convey the passion that Dr. Alley feels about the urgency of protecting planet Earth.

Considering an online delivery system, Dr. Alley said that all is well as long as the team is watchful, as this one was. Working out new problems that occur during a MOOC, unique to a huge, international enrollment, can help inform and improve courses that students pay tuition to take, he said. “Teaching a MOOC provides opportunities to learn how to teach better for tuition-paying Penn Staters,” Dr. Alley said. “This is especially true in understanding international issues, because more and more international students are attending Penn State in person or online. Both technical details (Does YouTube work in your country?) and issues of background, language, etc., can be explored in a MOOC.”

Alley credits the entire team for making the successful MOOC possible. “This was especially April, and Sing [Wong, Dutton Institute lecturer/learning designer], and Ann … Seth Blumsack; plus head TA Mike, volunteer TAs; my wife, Cindy, for filming and other help; and a few more.”

“We went in with a workable plan that especially came from April,” Dr. Alley said, “and with a division of responsibility that made it work.”

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