From Student to Teacher: Making MOOCs

By Daneen Cowling

What’s a MOOC?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) are becoming a widely used method to up-skill and educate. Free courses ranging in all sorts of subjects and skills are produced by universities and companies, all over the world. With the courses, interactive activities and alternative learning methods are used to educate it’s learners. Some courses also have facilitators/mentors, which help guide discussions and questions – sometimes being the experts doing the teaching. The biggest draw to these courses in my opinion, is the ability to have a global learning experience, unlike anything else. The platforms are available to global learners, which means you can have interesting discussions with completely unique ideas and views you would have never before been exposed to. This global learning network, in combination with interactive and varied learning methods, make MOOCs and incredibly useful and insightful means of education and CPD.

My Experience with MOOCs

I was motivated to write this blog as I have had such a positive experience with MOOCs, specifically the climate science ones from the University of Exeter, I wanted to share how they have helped my education/academic and professional development journey.

LEARNER

My journey started in Sixth Form (Havant Sixth Form College) where, as a keen geographer preparing to write a UCAS application to study BSc Geography at the University of Exeter (2015). I wanted to see if there was anything else I could do to help my current learning and something additional to discuss on my personal statement. I can’t remember how I came across the course – potentially from a blog of things you can do additional at sixth form or something …

I came across FutureLearn which is one of the main platforms for MOOCs. The website is super accessible and gives lots of options to find courses that suit you e.g. the subject/the duration/the course creator. By filtering by environmental courses, by chance I was able to find the brand new course launched by the University of Exeter; “Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions”. The course was amazing, nothing like anything I’d experienced before. The course was made up of mostly videos with some articles and interactive activities. Straight off the bat, you introduce yourself and why you’re joining etc., which is amazing to see all these fellow learners state their jobs and countries they live in, ranging in ages, it was very exciting to start learning with this community.

The video material was mostly of Dr Damien Mansell (who later became my first-year tutor and uni) and Professor Tim Lenton (who is an absolute legend and became my dissertation and masters supervisor .. soon to carry on working with him for my PhD!). Along with other scientists from Exeter and other institutions, the material was communicated so effectively because they were all enthusiastic leaders in their fields. Tim is especially good at communicating all sorts of science – which for the case of the course ran through Earth’s climate history to future solutions. The experience was so interactive, even with all the videos and articles that were included. What I was learning was so exciting and interesting in the way it was communicated, I always found myself researching more and continuing interesting discussions in the comments.

This was such a useful resource to have at A level, not only for the high level of teaching consistent throughout but how the introduction to new resources (e.g. research papers), the language and the collaborative environment enhanced my learning experience in Sixth Form. Not only this, but the course also set me up incredibly well for university. From this course, I was able to see the benefit of having the confidence to discuss ideas with fellow learners, which meant this transition to a similar environment at University came fairly effortlessly. The material on the course also crossed-over to a lot of the Geography course material in my first year and whet my appetite for things I could see myself specialising in my second and third years. Moreover, from being taught by Tim and Damien via an online course to then have close academic relationships with them and be taught by them in a lecture hall was pretty surreal!

I don’t want to be bold a say this course single-handedly got me into Exeter on the course I love, but I definitely believe it helped my case by demonstrating I was keen on the subject and be initiative to learn more. It really helped with my UCAS application and has been a useful example for other applications since. I think MOOCs are effective tools for A-Level students – all for the reasons I have explained. They are even useful for uni students, incredibly accessible methods of learning with no ‘age bound’ tie to the material covered. I’ve made suggestions for other students to use it at my old sixth form, and hope to keep encouraging more to use MOOCs as a form of learning and skills development.

 I loved the course so much I paid for a certificate of participation after (~£30)

FACILITATOR/MENTOR

In my second year of university, I also got the opportunity to become a facilitator/mentor on the climate change MOOC. Of course, participating in the course during sixth form was a massive benefit in the interview and definitely contributed to getting the role. The job was great to meet new like-minded people on the facilitator team, earn money flexibly around my studies, and stay current with the science – which helped my learning alongside. Being a facilitator on the course consisted of answering any questions the learners had beyond the course material, and directing them to any additional resources that would be useful to help understand some of the new concepts. As a facilitator, I was also responsible for maintaining healthy discussions between learners. This could be via asking a question in the comments for others to respond and discuss amongst themselves or monitoring some responses/flagging issues where needed in case some dialogue turned negative and inappropriate. Each week, a team of myself and the other facilitators (UG and post-grad students), and Tim and Damien, sat on live video Q&A sessions. These were really interesting and a great challenge to think on the spot with the pressure of being recorded. These sessions were well received by learners – so very satisfying to know we were helping with their learning journey!

The experience I had in this role was great, I learnt a lot more about the subject from hearing new ideas and perspective, and also learnt new discussion facilitation skills. Further, I developed my appreciation and enthusiasm for science communication. So much so – I applied for the role again in my final year! This time with a year’s experience in the role, I was more senior to the new applicants and so I was a useful contact to have if they ever had issues with setting up/dealing with difficult people on the platform/useful resources. With my experience, I was also invited to sit on a panel – with facilitator and content corrector colleague Liam Taylor, to talk about our experiences with the MOOC and facilitation as a useful learning tool. Our audience were academics from other disciplines, keen to get going on their own MOOC plans, but wanted to see how the facilitation element works and benefits the learner experience. I was also able to contribute to video material to promote the MOOC’s, talking of my own experiences as a learner and a facilitator.

I’m happier than I look I promise …

CONTENT CREATOR

During my final year, I also got to create some new content for the new split to two separate courses; The Science and one for The Solutions. During the summer I had an internship with Artecology; an ecological engineering company creating better places for biodiversity. One of their signature designs is a vertipool – an artificial rock pool imprinted with shapes and textures that testing has shown to enhance the species diversity and richness on what would have previously been a textureless and mostly lifeless seawall. They are specifically tackling the climate change and construction driven problem of “coastal squeeze” – whereby space for species to live is fighting a losing battle against rising sea levels and rigid coastal protection structures. This innovative and urgently needed solution seemed like it would fit nicely on the course, to communicate more localised issues of climate change and what current solutions are in place to tackle them. I enjoyed creating this content, and from the discussions with learners, it seemed to be a good addition. It was also advantageous to cooperate with industry on the course, to bring home this isn’t just a university-led response, real companies are making changes – and others should follow. Artecology has since gone on to promote the course and the MOOC method of learning, so this addition has been a great positive for Exeter course promotion and industry involvement, and for Artecology.

I was also able to continue this creator role during my MSc (2019). This time, to work as part of a collaborative team with Tim and Liam, alongside the Eden Project, to create a new MOOC called Invisible Worlds. This was an incredible opportunity to really use all my experiences with MOOCs over the past 4 years. I was able to craft the content and the narrative the Eden Project wanted for their course, into something that was accessible and interactive for learners. The project was a creative challenge to strike a good balance and consensus between the University and the Eden Project – but the course was largely a success and complimented Edens new expedition. It was interesting to do the ‘behind the scenes’ work on Future Learn too – making the right tweaks so the information is portrayed the best it can be.

Courses I’ve been involved with as a learner, facilitator and creator

If it’s not already been made obvious – I think MOOC’s are amazing. These Exeter MOOCs have continued to contribute to my academic and professional development, and I have no doubt their contributions are yet to end. It’s been great to watch and be a part of the growth in the content available and demand for more courses, especially how useful they have been during the current COVID crisis. Hopefully, schools, colleges and universities can become more aware of all the free educational resources that are available at such a high standard of quality. More significantly, these MOOCs should also be more accessible to those outside an academic bubble – those in industry or just those curious and keen to learn! Education and the experience that comes with MOOC learning is incredibly special and something to be continually shared. I look forward to trying more MOOCs myself and explore more creative contributions to make to the University of Exeter growing catalogue of courses.

Australian Wildlife Adventures amidst COVID-19

By Jen McWhorter, PhD Candidate, University of Exeter and University of Queensland (QUEX Institute)

Nature provides a silver lining from the noisy COVID-19 news here in Australia. In comparison to the UK, we have had many freedoms including the ability to travel for exercise up to 50km’s from our homes. As of Friday, the 15th of May, we will be allowed to travel up to 150km’s. Making lemonade from lemons, I decided to venture more into local parks in search of Australian wildlife that I may have overlooked in the surrounding area. After given a credible lead, I began with a 4:30 am wake-up to look for a platypus in a local stream. I had no luck but, it was still an exciting morning. Shortly after this mission, I was informed of koalas in a nearby forest. Success at last! I spotted three koalas in a small forest reserve just a few miles from the busy city of Brisbane. The weather is changing here, a numbing 10 degrees C in the mornings has Aussies wearing down jackets, beanies, and Ugg boots. With the change in weather, echidna’s, commonly known as ‘spiny anteaters’, are about moving locations. Perhaps these little critters will be my next reason for forest bathing?

Photo: Jen McWhorter
Caption: White Hill Reserve offers local walking trails with frequent koalas spottings.

Perspectives on the GSI Masters residential

By Rebecca Robinson and Ema Saltone, MSc Global Sustainability Solutions students

“Visualising new and complex ideas in ways we haven’t before” by Ema Saltone

When the group of us entered the Kaleider studios on a Monday morning, having barely covered the welcome lectures and just about able to remember everyone’s faces, we had little idea of what to expect from the residential. It was all still new, still somewhat daunting, but also exciting.

We were welcomed with free coffee – a smart trick to get at least the caffeine addicts in a good mood from the start.

With a group of blinking, wide-eyed students entering our habitat for the next three days, we began with introductions, as well as presentations from companies who were keen to work with us. Which was reassuring – it may be quite nice to be potentially employable.

With lifted spirits about our future careers, we got on with lectures and tasks that made up the residential. The parts I enjoyed most were interactive practical activities, which helped us to visualise new and complex ideas in ways we haven’t before – it was quite inspiring to feel your old understanding of the world tear apart as you learn to see the world in new ways. These tasks have planted seeds of new ideas which will probably influence the way I think for a long time.

I appreciated having been able to get to know others on the course throughout the residential. We worked in teams or pairs on most tasks, and so it was nearly impossible not to have spoken to mostly everyone. Not only spoken, we were pushed into a circle and forced to shake hands with everyone – quite literally. It’s not a scary as it sounds though, even the most introverted of us seemed a lot livelier afterwards. And – we knew everyone’s names by the end – something that I have not experienced during undergraduate studies (when 300 people in a lecture hall meant only speaking to the two people you met on the first day. So, this was a nice change).

Perhaps it was the amount of information that was blasted through our minds, or maybe just a summer without assignments having crippled our educational fitness, but the three days at the Kaleider studios were shattering. However, we have witnessed the excitement of the faculty and the external partners about our course, which made it hard not to get infected with the excitement. We were also given useful information to be ready for the course ahead. So, if not for anything else, the residential was useful as a memorable introduction to what awaits us, providing us with a frame of mind that I believe will benefit us throughout our studies.

“We had the opportunity to learn from people with a diverse range of backgrounds and saw how we could fit into the bigger picture of global sustainability” by Rebecca Robinson

Our week started as all good weeks should, with strong coffee. We were welcomed into the Kaleider Studio and settled in straight away to our jam-packed week of workshops, lectures and networking.

The residential covered a broad range of topics from how to define the Technosphere to looking at the implications of a new geological epoch. The studio was an excellent working environment and gave us the opportunity to branch out away from campus.

Our first afternoon was the chance to meet potential companies to complete our internship with. A unique aspect of the MSc Global Sustainability Solutions programme is the dissertation. Instead of completing an academic dissertation we are given the option of turning this into an internship with an external partner. During the afternoon we heard pitches from companies about their current sustainability issues and research options we could collaborate with them on.

For example, the Devon County Council representative was keen to find out what the barriers are to recycling and potential options for how they could be improved. The scope of the company’s pitches were wide ranging and offered a broad selection of topics from construction to sailing. We were then let loose to network with the partners and discuss potential internships for the Summer.

Day two’s focus was on ways we can discuss and teach climate change. We were introduced to the dialogic approach and the bicycle model for climate change education at school. We were shown the importance of co-production and how the effect on everyone needs to be incorporated into the method used. The afternoon was an introduction to systems thinking, showcased through a series of games and practical activities. The day concluded with a session on how to make changes by choosing the appropriate entry point. We were shown the importance of language, humour and conveying a positive message.

The final day gave us the opportunity to build on our understanding so far and start thinking about our group work to come. The morning’s topic was prosocial behaviour followed by an exercise looking at how we wanted the future to look vs how to get there.

These three days were the perfect opportunity to delve into the course content in an engaging but relaxed format. We had the opportunity to learn from people with a diverse range of backgrounds and saw how we could fit into the bigger picture of global sustainability.

Deep Time Walk: Sidmouth Science Festival

By Daneen Cowling and Tom Powell

Discussing Snowball Earth overlooking Sidmouth

A week in advance of Earth Science week, Devon saw the arrival of the annual celebration for science in the seaside town of Sidmouth. The event hosts various engagement and educational activities across the spectrum of science, utilising the Sidmouth landscape as creative learning spaces. The Sidmouth Science Festival ran between 4th-13th October 2019.

This year scientists from the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter had the opportunity to lead a Deep Time Walk through the wooded paths across Sidmouth’s red cliffs. Dr Tom Powell, who specialises in how humanity interacts with the Earth system and Research Masters student Daneen Cowling specialising in deep time coastal carbonate weathering, together led a bespoke Sidmouth Deep Time Walk. Content was inspired by experiences on Deep Time Walks led by Dr Stephan Harding, and interactive storytelling on the Deep Time Walk App. Tom and Daneen were also able to inject their own knowledge into the conversations along the walk, as well as incorporating Sidmouth and Devon natural history to the walk.

Science was not the only input, creativity and engagement with science and the natural environment was also culminated from consultations with Anne-Marie Culhane. Using her experiences from her own innovations for Earth Walking and other events, we were able to cultivate an immersive activity educational and engaging.

Walking Deep Time

Meeting outside the Sidmouth Museum, we were greeted by a large group of enthusiastic walkers. Introducing the GSI and ourselves, we then explained the creative and scientific thought journey behind the walk story and route. Setting off towards the cliff we paused moments later to discuss the formation of the solar system. Starting from the absolute beginning, 4.5 billion years ago. Pushing on towards the coast we immersed in the chaotic birth and building of the foundation of our planet and its orbiting moon.

Wet and windy, fitting as we talk about the chaotic start to Earth’s existence

We then transgress the molten rock world to a chemically interesting and active planet. One by which the environment controls how life can soon arrive, adapt and evolve. As we gained elevation we also gained in the exciting stories and revolutions that Earth has witnessed through its history. From the arrival of life, the creation and crusting Earth surface, and the many episodes of climate extremes such as the several episodes of Snowball Earth – an ice enclosed Earth onset by runaway feedbacks, escaped by CO2 buildup from volcanism.

Further into the woodland trails, sheltered by the wealth of vegetation blanketing the floor and sheltering us from the encroaching rain, we entered the geological periods controlled by the rapid evolutions and diversifications of life on Earth. Exploring the extensive arrivals of new species in the seas, soils and skies as we walked, punctuated by shorter walks with no stories as we symbolise the scale of rapidity these changes took force. Reaching the Triassic period we were conveniently paused on top of High Peak cliff overlooking the red desert sandstones, aiding the visualisation of how the landscape would have looked at the time, as well as the different dominant species.

Descending back to the coast we whizzed through the relatively rapid geological periods that followed the Triassic, soon to arrive at the Holocene and the arrival of man. To contribute to the understanding of speed at which humans took the reins of planetary-scale environmental influence, we gave out Deep Time Line that represent human history (20,000 years) along the scale of a 10cm ruler. From the first evidence left by humans, it was not long until we were in the thick of the industrial revolution. From species extinction, global chemistry changes, ecosystem reductions and management to the uncontrolled emittance of CO2 triggering a human-made climate change acceleration, in such a short period of Earths history we have had geological scale influence, so much so we’ve created our own epoch; The Anthropocene.

Returning back to the coast we paused to panoramically view the landscape ahead of us; rolling hills with geometric hedges and patches of woodland, punctuated by clusters of houses. With this view we asked the group to spot an area that has not, in some way, been influenced by humans. Unsurprisingly, we came to the realisation we were looking at a very “unnatural natural” landscape. Shrinking down from the global scale of humans on the environment, it was clear to even be evident locally, which raises one of the many questions: Is anything natural anymore? Land management right down to the species of trees we want to grow for timber has varying impacts, in some cases able to introduce new species and ecosystems, but at the expense of the previous and the species that once thrived.

Overlooking human influence and management on the Sidmouth landscape

To finish the walk, Tom ​demonstrated ​a ‘​complex systems’ game ​introduced to us by Robin de Carteret. ​With all members of the group standing in a circle, we impose one simple rule; each person has to choose two other members of the group and remain equidistant to them at all times. This produces chaos as everyone moves to positions themselves with respect to their two chosen people, but gradually settles down as a stable arrangement emerges from the system. This brilliantly demonstrates the kinds of dynamic systems we study, in which stability can emerge as a result of dynamic interactions. We used the idea to demonstrate some of the characteristics of the Earth system by assigning a role to each member (e.g. rainforests, CO2, ice), and experimented with what happened when one or more parts of the system was perturbed by asking the people representing CO2 and rainforests to move slightly. At first this caused small ripples through the system, causing everyone to slightly adjust their position before stability was found again, but with a larger perturbation chaos ensued again, and the whole system broke down before eventually finding a new stable state. Finding this state does not happen on the same timescales for each “experiment”, as this depends on the resilience of the system and its efficiency to bounce back from perturbation, which captured the sensitivity scientists must account for in models.

The Sidmouth Science Festival was another success for engagement and educating, definitely with added enjoyment while doing so! Sidmouth will also be hosting a Clean Growth Event next February with more collaboration with the University of Exeter, so keep your eyes peeled.

To learn more about engagement and outreach opportunities with the University of Exeter Global Systems Institute, please contact:

Tom Powell t.powell@exeter.ac.uk | Daneen Cowling dc456@exeter.ac.uk

To find out more about the organisations mentioned, please follow the links below:
Anne-Marie Culhane: Creative environmental and art projects

Stephan Harding: Deep Time Walk

Robin de Carteret: Interactive activities to connect with the natural world

Sidmouth Science Festival