Archive for the ‘Lecturing’ Category

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.


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!


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).


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!]


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.


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.


…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.


Some other interesting looking environmentally themed MOOCs on Coursera:

Book review: Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston

March 27, 2012

Click to find it on Amazon

Short version

Brilliant, even if you know what you’re talking about. Loads of ideas for making university teaching and learning far more enjoyable for everyone.

Long version

So, the first module that I’ve had to coordinate on my own turned out to be something that only overlaps slightly with my research area – I got the Sustainable Development module. In this respect, the title of TWYDK jumped out at me as a potentially useful resource. UPDATE (28/03/2012): when I first posted this I didn’t mention that the book is based on American universities – I am assuming that analysis and ideas equally applicable elsewhere.

I suppose I could’ve just shown the brilliant xkcd comic on this topic (see below) and called it a day but I’m not sure that the students would have appreciated that.

Joking aside, the prevalence of academics teaching at university level on subjects that they have little or no expertise is something that Huston discusses at length from the perspective of the teacher and the student. The argument that I most associated with was that for “survey courses” or “cutting edge courses” (which I hope my SD module was) the experts are many different people for different topics and these topics develop very fast. In that respect, having a module led by someone with only limited experience in the area is not much of a problem.


I decided quite early on to go down the Problem Based Learning route for my module as I’d helped teach on a module at the University of Manchester that used the PBL model and I’d seen many of the students really engage with it. Huston also recommends this as a useful method of delivery for “content novices” as the key is defining interesting and relevant questions rather than compiling hours of lecture material.

As I’m now approaching the end of my module for the first year I’ve run it, I’m glad I did it this way and definitely feel that TWYDK gave me a bit more confidence to try something beyond a standard “Module = 12 x lectures + 1 coursework + 1 exam” model. I think that most of the students have taken to it as well and I’ve jotted down more ideas from TWYDK to improve the module again next year.

More than just TWYDK

Whilst going through the book, however, I started to pick up ideas for other lectures I give on topics that I do know well. In some cases these were very simple ideas but maybe being a “content expert” means that you ignore the little tricks to try to get the students to actually “learn” in favour of just delivering all your hard-earned wisdom.

I suspect that I engaged with this book because it tackled a specific problem but, in the process of reading it, made me think about more general teaching points. This is probably where TWYDK is such a success where more textbook-like higher education manuals barely get opened (you know, like that one with the blue stripe across the middle of the cover and pristine spine 😉 that you see in most lecturers’ offices, mine included).

Things I wasn’t so keen on…

Well, most of the book is based on a series of interviews with university teachers, I think Huston says that it’s around 20 interviews, I could be wrong. Whilst this set off my anecdote vs. data alarm bells I suppose a good teaching idea is still a good teaching idea so I’m willing to let it go! And other parts of the book are based on more robust stats so that made me happy.

My only other point of concern is that the book just kind of ends. In the introduction Huston suggests dipping in and out of chapters as you need to know stuff but I found that it flowed quite well and read it cover-to-cover. The only disappointment with this is that there isn’t a chapter bringing it all together. (In fact, the final chapter is advice for administrators, which I still read and found useful as it gave me a different perspective on my contribution to the department teaching load.) Still, who am I to talk? I couldn’t be bothered to think up a decent end to this blog post.


Pages: 330
Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN-10: 0674035801