Archive for the ‘Higher education’ Category

BSc Environmental Sciences at Brunel University – a new course for September 2017

August 14, 2016

I’ve been busy over the last year!

We decided that the time was right for Brunel University to develop a new degree in Environmental Sciences and I put myself forward to lead it – I’d refreshed a few of our MSc degrees recently so thought the time was right to take on a bigger challenge.

And it was hard work… but a lot of fun too.

The team that developed the degree took a fresh look at how to structure an undergraduate programme and we came up with the idea of a story that develops throughout the 3 years.

In the first year we’ll work on a theme of “Dynamics of Natural Environments”. The students, who could come from a wide range of backgrounds, will spend this year learning about the interdisciplinary principles and processes that govern the environment. This will include the physical, chemical and biological knowledge required to develop a holistic Earth system perspective.

In the second year the degree moves on to focus on “Environmental Change and the Anthropocene”. Here, students will examine how Earth systems have changed over time, with a particular focus on human influences. This includes a lot on the “grand challenges” of environmental science such as climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, land-use change and sustainability. We’ll also look at the effect of these changes on environmental and human health will be investigated.

In the final year, we’ll start to look at “Environmental Solutions”. Students will analyse and evaluate potential solutions to environmental problems. This will involve a lot of creativity and application of the knowledge from the previous years. (We have an MSci as well where the 4th year look at “Environmental Practice”.)

There’ll also be all the other things you’d expect – UK and overseas field trips, work placements, lab work, computing sessions, embedded professional development, problem based learning, optional modules – but I really like this idea of developing a narrative through the degree.

I’ll write more about these other aspects as we finalise them and when we run them for the first time over the coming years.

MOOCtual Assured Destruction

July 15, 2013

Similar to MAD, where every state feels they need nuclear weapons simply because every other state does, perhaps every university needs a MOOC simply because their competitors do.

So the question “How do we make money from MOOCs?” becomes moot. The MOOC (nuke) is of no real use to the university (state) but not having it is a disadvantage.

Some thoughts on MOOCs

July 3, 2013

Coursera-LogoI’ve recently finished a Coursera Massive Online Open Course, or MOOC, called Introduction to Sustainability, which was run by the University of Illinois.

I completed it as a student, that is; as far as I can tell, Coursera MOOCs, whilst being “open” from the student side of things, appear quite elitist from the delivery end. So Brunel University might not meet their requirements as a provider, although I think they say that they consider providers outside their preferred group on a case-by-case basis. So maybe, what with my department – the Institute for the Environment – winning the Queen’s Anniversary Prize recently, we could be seen on Coursera one day! (And other platforms are out there: EdX; FutureLearn.)

Anyway, I’m very proud of myself for getting through the course as it involved quite a bit of work over an 8 week period when I was, amongst other things, delivering two MSc modules as a lecturer, going to China for 10 days and doing all the usual lecturer-type research and admin things. Phew!

I then foolishly started another 2 MOOCs as a student, including Climate Literacy. One of these I completed and the other I dropped out of (that was Climate Literacy – it was good but I had too much other stuff on to be able to complete it).

So the point of this post is to share some thoughts on the course, provide some signposts to other interesting looking climate related MOOCs that I might have a go at and perhaps think about how MOOCs might fit into the future of Higher Education.

Money

One of the key issues with MOOCs is how to make money from them and there’s a list of “Eight Possible Coursera Monetization Strategies” that I’ve seen in a few places. These seem to be direct monetisation techniques where I would have thought that the most obvious route would be via increasing awareness of your university’s courses and increasing recruitment that way. Indeed, the first message I received from the Sustainability MOOC organiser following completion was an invitation to another course that had a fee.

And why not? It clearly takes a lot of time and effort to put these courses together and if you have a group of potential students who are interested in what you’re teaching then perhaps I’m surprised that paid-for courses weren’t mentioned earlier and/or more often. (In fact, one of the other MOOCs I’ve started since completing the Sustainability one [not Climate Literacy, I might add] were much more aggressive with promotion for their paid-for courses. Unfortunately, their MOOC was a lot less slick than Sustainability [e.g. quiz questions incorrect, delay in starting] so I can’t imagine it’s a great advert for them.)

Sus_stateStill on the money theme, I almost stumped up the $39 for the “Signature Track” which is offered with the Climate Literacy MOOC – this requires you to jump through some hoops every time you do an assessment to prove that it’s you taking the tests. I’m not quite sure of the advantage of this. I suppose the current “Statements of Accomplishment” would be pretty easy to copy if you really wanted to – see mine to the right – and if the Signature Track gives you something that can be more rigorously linked to your profile then that would be nice. But then this could be solved by making user profiles public with grades of the MOOCs you’ve completed, which I don’t think they do right now. Either way, I’m glad I kept my $39 as I didn’t finish that particular course anyway!

MCQs

MOOCs naturally rely heavily on Multiple Choice Questions for assessment as they can be marked with no human effort. However, I quite often found the questions to be ambiguous – especially when I knew quite a lot about the topic of the question; this was true for both the Sustainability and Climate Literacy MOOCs. Naturally, the instructors want to set questions that require some thinking. For example, one of these question and answers sets is better than the other:

Who is the current Secretary General of the UN?

a) Kofi Annan
b) Ban Ki-moon
c) Tony Blair
d) Surakiart Sathirathai

Who is the current Secretary General of the UN?

a) Banana
b) Ban Ki-moon
c) Sponge Bob Squarepants
d) 42

The next level of question would be where there isn’t one indisputably “right” answer but where the question requires some thinking and is open to some interpretation. This requires even more thinking on the part of a student (and instructor) as an answer that the instructor deems as wrong could be right in certain circumstances (or vice versa). There then becomes an element of second guessing the instructor to put answer that you think they would say was “right” rather than the answer you think/know to be “more right”.

I hope that this isn’t to confusing a point or taken as a specific criticism of the Sustainability MOOC; it is a general point that setting good MCQs is very hard (and fundamental to the success of the MOOC structure).

Instructions

I’d like to think that I’m quite good at reading instructions and following them. Despite this, I managed to incorrectly do one type of assessment (the “Forum Achievement”) 2 weeks in a row in the Sustainability MOOC. By the time I’d worked out exactly how to do it (it was a little complicated!) I’d been given too many penalties to make it likely I’d pass the MOOC via that route (there were 2 other routes, fortunately). So, my point is, that instructions need to be really clear or else people will drop out/fail through little fault of their own. Maybe this feeds in to…

Low completion rate

The Times Higher recently reported that MOOC completion rates are below 7%. I’m not really sure why you’d expect completion rates to be high: it’s free to sign up and there is no consequence of dropping out. And “drop outs” may just be people who found out what they wanted to know and then didn’t complete the assessments. Although, one MOOC they reported on had a 0.8% completion out of 83,000 starters, perhaps that’s a bit worrying. [A point as an aside: are there many stats on MOOCs made available yet? I’d like to have a look if there are but haven’t stumbled across any yet. UPDATE (5/7/2013): Katy Jordan’s analysis on this is really good!]

Massive!

Maybe I hadn’t appreciated how big these beasts are: following Week 1 of Climate Literacy I had a quick count and there were over 4,000 posts in the Discussion Forums. That is big.

“Inspiration”

I got the feeling that I was not the only lecturer/academic sitting the MOOC. A lot of the buzz around MOOCs is probably within the Higher Education sector so I’d suspect that many of us are seeing what they involve. And I was inspired by what I saw. I added a session to one of my modules that was based on some of the reading I did during the MOOC and I may even record some supplementary lectures for my modules in our Virtual Learning Environment. I think that the MOOC has given me confidence to push more of the “information transfer” sessions online and use contact time for more interactive/problem based learning. This latter area is something that I think MOOCs will always struggle with, despite…

Peer Review

As well as MCQs, a lot of MOOCs use peer review to mark work (e.g. you write a short essay and another student on the MOOC marks it). They tend to take an average of a group of peers but you’re still a little at the mercy of the random selection of peers. And with such large groups it must be very hard for moderators to deal with abusive/bad peer reviewers – there could be 10,000s of peer reviewer comments in the early weeks of a MOOC.

Overall…

…I’m quite impressed by how much the MOOCs made me think and learn and I’ll be keeping an eye on how they develop. I’d certainly be happy to see applicants to our MSc courses taking MOOCs in preparation and as evidence that they are motivated to study.

Finally…

Some other interesting looking environmentally themed MOOCs on Coursera:

How will the increase in undergraduate fees affect taught postgraduate fees?

April 28, 2011

Undergraduate tuition fees in England are set to rise in 2012 with most universities aiming to charge the maximum possible £9000.

This is a topic that many people are thinking about, particularly how it might affect the future of the higher education sector.

What I haven’t heard many people talk about, though, is how the fee rise might affect the fees for taught postgraduate courses, such as an MSc or MA. In my field, the fees seem to be around £4000-6000 for a 1-year, full-time postgraduate course. I don’t really know how these fees are calculated.

So, back to undergraduates.

In science and engineering, it has become very common to take a 4-year undergraduate degree, often called something like MSci, MPhys, MChem or MEng. After 2012, though, the fees for all years of courses like these will be over £6000, most likely £9000.

I’m guessing that more people will be happy with a 3-year BSc than pay another £9000 to get an MSci, MPhys, MChem, MEng etc instead of the BSc.

Alternatively, they might choose to graduate with a BSc and then enrol on an MSc course and (assuming MSc fees don’t increase substantially in the next few years) they could get two degrees (BSc and MSc) for less than the price of one (MSci).

Of course the assumption that MSc fees don’t increase substantially in the next few years was meant to be the focus of this post. So what might happen?

Will universities that run 4-year undergraduate courses increase their MSc fees to protect their undergraduate income?

Maybe some universities could use lower MSc fees to “poach” students from other universities or other courses within their university.

Or, perhaps most likely, taught postgraduate fees will increase to come in to line with undergraduate fees. I’d expect that this would decrease the number of students staying at university for a 4th year in any form, which might even affect the numbers that go on to PhD level and beyond.

I don’t really know. I’d like to hear what others think though.

(Update: I forgot to mention that MSc fees are paid upfront whereas as UG fees are paid via government loan. So the MSc route only applies if you have cash or a bank loan. H/T @WilliamCB and @fLiP_uk)