Guest Post from MOOC Instructor Dr. Jonathan Tomkin

Below is a post I solicited from Professor Jonathan Tomkin, who taught the MOOC I just completed, Introduction to Sustainability, offered through Coursera and the University of Illinois:

I’d like to thank John for the chance to talk to his readers about what it’s like to teach a Massive Open Online Course. Over the course of 8 weeks 37,000 people enrolled in the class “Introduction to Sustainability” – many of these joining in the last few weeks, so hopefully they’ll be able take the full class when it’s offered next (January 14th, 2013). The numbers involved in the course are staggering: over 600 thousand videos were streamed, more than one hundred thousand contributions to the forums, and over a million page views. The free online textbook associated with the course recorded over 150 thousand downloads and visits. We crashed the NASA climate change site when we required it for an assignment.

As an educator, how do I feel about this? Excited! For so long, improvements in higher learning have been slow and halting. Here is a dramatic new approach to sharing knowledge to literally millions of people who haven’t had access before. Over half of the students were from countries outside of the United States – with significant numbers of students from India, Africa and South America. It’s a new experience for me as a university professor in the US to get an email from a single mother in the Philippines thanking me for making her feel like a schoolgirl again. This technology – and this open access – means that there will be opportunities for so many that didn’t have it before. I’ve never got so much personal fulfillment from a class before, despite the great physical distances between us.

But this is a different way to teach. I had a cast of twenty-three people help me put this together. I needed people to make my slides look good, clear my material for copyright, proofread the test questions, even design the technology that let students in the class peer review final projects. Sending out a class email is hair raising when there will be tens of thousands of recipients! I couldn’t afford too many typos. But this new format also means that there are more possibilities. One of the links to the textbook broke in the first few minutes of the course starting – but participants in the course figured out, and communicated, a work-around within 8 hours – before I had even got in to work. We were able to offer the option that the final project submission to be in Portuguese and Spanish, as well as English, despite the fact that I don’t speak the first two languages and only barely the last.

These sorts of courses will transform the landscape. It strikes me that the (near!) future of education will become very different very quickly. Education is going to be much more efficient – and more sustainable – no need for giant lecture halls and huge piles of paper. Lifelong learning has become the new normal, and open courses are an incredibly democratic way for all of us to stay current.

As a final word, I’d like to thank John and all of his fellow students for being such a great source of knowledge – these courses bring together expertise from all over the world. I’d invite you to take an open course and see what you think – and see if you have something to contribute.

Jonathan Tomkin

November 11, 2012 at 7:12 pm Leave a comment

The Last Textbook


Several months ago, I was approached by a textbook editor at Cambridge University Press to consider a revision of a textbook I’ve co-authored. The text is currently in it’s 3rd edition and I, alas, am the sole surviving co-author.  I both love and hate textbook writing. It’s fairly rewarding to make that kind of contribution to the educational process and it’s gratifying to see that a large number of students learn from your work.  But it’s also a long and tedious process that requires an attention to detail that is on the very edge of my capacity.

That said, I’ve been considering the revision for some time, but I keep coming back to the same problem. I don’t want to be the author of the last textbook!

OK, maybe I’m overstating the case a bit, but I don’t think anyone in higher education thinks that the textbook market is about to change in a big way.  I remember the semester I took Organic Chemistry and Engineering Mechanics at the same time. Those were formidable textbooks and I would have paid a king’s ransom for an iPad, just for the convenience factor alone. Imagine what it will look like when we go beyond simply “Save As PDF” for electronic textbooks are really take advantage of the potential electronic media has to offer.

I wonder if this is one of the probable outcomes of the current MOOC craze.   No one can seriously suggest that MOOCs offer the same quality of educational experience as in-person instruction ( or of a high-quality, low-enrollment online class), but they do offer some things worth considering, and I would argue that those features are similar to text books. Allow me to explain:

1) Like textbooks, a MOOC done well takes a lot of time, effort and resources.  The course I took listed no fewer than 23 people who helped out in preparing the class, and that didn’t count the U of Ill faculty who prepared the (free, online) text.

2) The big advantage of MOOCs is that they scale amazingly well.  The effort put into the course prep pays off  through the number of students you can reach, not just the semester you prepare the work, but for many semesters to come.

3) Like textbooks, MOOC’s aren’t enough. What I mean is that it’s a rare student who can pick up a textbook and be disciplined or prepared enough to actually learn the material on their own.  Just like you can’t simply throw a textbook at a student and tell them to come back at the end of the semester to sit for an exam and expect good outcomes, you can’t expect every student who signs up for a MOOC to actually develop intellectually.

But here’s a big difference: The MOOC’s offer a rich environment of lectures,  slick graphics and contextual links to internet resources and (usually) a free, online textbook.
So maybe, MOOC’s are the next generation textbook.  Faculty experts will team with production companies to develop both the textual content and the multi-media components (in nice 15-minute chunks) and host it all in a slick platform. Students then purchase access to these environments through the bookstore, or directly online and use it throughout the semester.  Like a text, students at University of Maine or UC San Diego can use a MOOC that I prepared.

I don’t know for sure, but I think that would be a fun way to teach a course. It sure would change what I did in the classroom!


November 9, 2012 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

On Line Education In a Traditional Discipline

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to participate in a lively discussion about online education with my colleagues in the engineering college. It was wide-ranging and revealed a lot of strongly-held views and beliefs about education in general. I heard some things I hadn’t thought and it surprised me with the passion with which some people view on-line courses.

There’s an interesting backdrop to this discussion which I discovered while working on an NSF grant proposal with colleagues at 7 other western universities.  Of all the disciplines in higher ed, the one that’s embraced on line education the least is engineering.  There are several ways to look at this (apparent) anomaly, let me suggest two.

First is the claim that engineering is somehow different from other fields of study. It might be just fine to put PSYCH 101 on line for thousands of students but that would never work for engineering courses. This opinion seemed evident in our discussion last week.  Personally, I’m inclined to agree that the nature of our field poses some real challenges to offering classes in the on-line environment, I’m also intrigued by the challenge it poses.  I’ve also kicked around enough to know that just because I can’t imagine something, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Another take on the lack of participation among the engineering faculty is simply that we’re a conservative bunch.  I’m not talking about political stances here, just the classical definition of the term. We don’t embrace change readily, and for good reason.  According to our code of ethics, we are to “hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the general public”. It’s our version of the Hippocratic Oath. Relying on the proven success of previous generations of engineers is likely to be the most sure way of doing that. New methods of design, analysis or, in this case, instruction, are met with skepticism,  and it’ s not simply laziness or lack of imagination (although, there’s some of both of those as well!). In any event, engineers are the ents of higher education, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.



November 4, 2012 at 6:41 pm Leave a comment

On Being a Student

I’m writing this at 10:42 Sunday night and have just wrapped up my Coursera course on Sustainability (with about 30 minutes to spare!) . I’ll have more to say about the course (including my final ‘grade’), its content and the mechanics of delivery, but for now, I thinking about the general experience of being a student.  I like to joke with people that I never left college. I walked on to the campus of Cleveland State University in September of 1976 and never left.  Well, I did leave Cleveland State, but you get what I mean.  My on-going journey has taken me to Ohio State (uh, sorry, THE Ohio State University), University of Delaware, Penn State, UC Davis and a brief stint at the University of the Basque Country (which I’ve chronicled on this blog. Boise State may be the last stop in this tour, but who knows?

My wife and I were on joint sabbatical leaves at UC Davis in the winter of 1997. It was great opportunity to reflect on the first 10 years of my academic career.  As a result, when I got back to Pennsylvania, I started talking guitar lessons.  Stay with me, I’ll, tie this into the discussion. Part of my motivation was that  I realized that if I wanted to be a better teacher, I should never loose sight of what it’s like to be a student.  To put it another way, if you want be a good teacher, it helps to spend time doing something your really suck at.  To this day, the guitar still fills that niche for me.

This is my 26th year as a professor, but I think I’ve only taken 2 college courses since taking my PhD.  The past 8 weeks have been eye-opening on so many levels and I hope to  spend more time in this space in the coming days and weeks to explore them.  Here are a few things that I’d like to write about in the coming days.

1) This is the first time I’ve seen “sustainability” within a well-defined academic framework. It’s starting to look like a field of study with sturdy intellectual foundations.  I’ve been impressed with the content of the course. I’ve learned a lot.

2) The on-line environment is clearly an effective method of instruction. Is it a replacement for in-class lecture/discussion? Clearly not, but in a time of dwindling public support for higher education and increasing pressure to keep tuition low, we’d be crazy to ignore this tool as a way to leverage precious resources. I think there’s a place for on-line, blended and other models.  I predict we’ll be seeing a lot of this in the future.

3)  The discussion forums were the most eye-opening for me.  It occurs to me that students who would be loathe to contribute to an in-class discussion (for a number of reasons) may find this environment much more conclusive to their style.  This was the first time I realized that there are some elements of on-line instruction that may be superior to in-class delivery.

4) There’s an interesting dimension to this course and this discussion.  The course I took was “Introduction to Sustainability” and one of the implications that I keep coming back to  is the way that on-line education can possibly reduce the environmental footprint of higher education. The largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions on my campus is due to daily commuting.  Imagine if we deployed on-line education with the specific goal of reducing the days/week that students have to visit campus? What’s the impact of not building another parking garage? How many trees were saved by not having a physical textbook, printed syllabi, or hard-copy exams?

5) Preparation of a on-line course is a big undertaking. The closing credits of the course lists no fewer than 23 people who were involved in the preparation and delivery of this course (in addition to Professor Jonathan Tomkin).

6) What do we get for that investment? That’s the key question isn’t it? That’s what I’m trying to figure out, but the first answer that comes to mind, is that you get to engage 31,400 (estimated enrollment of this course) over an 8 week period.
We live in interesting times….



October 22, 2012 at 5:08 am Leave a comment

On-Line Education Experience, The Home Stretch

I just completed the 6th week of the 8 week Intro to Sustainability course from University of Illinois and Coursera.  So far so good.

The good news is that it looks like I’m passing. There are 3 ways to achieve a “badge” from the course, a) achieve 70% or better on the quizzes, b) participate in the weekly online discussions or c) complete a project.  Being a traditionalist myself, I opted for option a. I must admit that this has been pretty eye-opening to me. Nothing like being on the other side of the desk to get you to think about things.  But more on that in a bit.
Each week there are 2 quizzes, one about 20 questions, one about 5, most all multiple choice. It’s not clear if they will be equally weighted, so I’m counting them separately. Here’s what I’ve done through week 5 (week 6 will be released tomorrow). Long quiz first, shorter quiz second.

Week 1: 90%, 60%

Week 2: 70% 87.5%

Week 3: 85%, 83%

Week 4: 92%, 95%

Week 5: 80%, 68.8%
Like I said, the good news is that I’m pretty clearly passing. The bad news (or, more objectively, the interesting news) is that I’m not acing the course!  Even more to the point, one of my lowest sets of scores was for week 5, which focuses on energy, the area in which I am supposedly an “expert”!

Which brings me to my thoughts about academic quizzes and test (or, in the jargon of the profession: assessment).  I found the quiz questions to be pretty straightforward, but a bit annoying at times. All too often, they were testing on whether or not I heard a specific statistic in a video, or was able to glean a specific detail from the reading.  Instead, I was hoping for questions that probed my deeper understanding of the issues.  After all, that’s the desired outcome, is it not?

Of course, that’s much easier said than done and I suspect I would do much that same if I was designing a class of this nature.  And, in all fairness, I’m simply not putting in the time (10 to 12 hours/week) that the course designers suggest.  I’m lucky to fit in 2 hours, sometimes less.

All-in-all, this continues to be eye-opening and it continues to make me think about the way I teach. It also has given me more appreciation for the lives of my students.

But more on that later.

October 8, 2012 at 5:35 pm Leave a comment

First forays into distance education

I’ve long been intrigued by the potential of distance education on any levels.  From a sustainability standpoint, I see huge potential to reduce the single biggest impact on the campus carbon footprint: commuting.  Not to say that all courses should be delivered via the internet (I would sorely miss the personal interaction), but I can be persuaded that some portion of a degree program delivered digitally might have benefits.

For my own part, I’m taking the online course (see previous posts) in an effort to see what the student experience is like. So far, so good.
On the other side of the classroom, I’ve been experimenting with technology to help me deliver my in-person class this semester (Renewable Energy Systems).

Last week, I found I had a difficult conflict and was faced with the prospect of cancelling class. So, I recorded two lectures using the new desktop capture software that’s recently been made available to all Boise State faculty, Camtasia Relay.

The two lectures were done it two different styles. First, I just talked over power point slides:

Then, after reading the documentation a bit (RTFM!), I found that I could include a web cam inset, giving an interesting “talking head” view that goes along with the slides:

I found the results very interesting.  If you had asked me last week whether or not the web cam image added anything to the video, I would have rolled my eyes. “Of course not!”, the video image conveys no additional information.  However, two things were distinctly different. I found that when I did the narration, I felt more animated and engaged knowing that the image was going up at the same time. I was talking to the camera, not the computer monitor.  I would not have guessed I would have felt any different, but I did!

Second, the students said that they liked the talking head video better.  Not sure why.
What do you think?

September 24, 2012 at 3:27 pm 2 comments

My Online Course: The Halfway Point

I just completed the quizzes for week 4 of Introduction to Sustainability, a MOOC offered by the University of Illinois through Coursera. It has been a fascinating experience for a number of reasons. There are several topics I’d like to explore in greater detail, but here are a few quick thoughts.

1) It’s generally easier to do well on the quizzes if you do the readings and carefully listen to the lectures.  OK, now that you’ve stopped giggling, here’s what I’m trying to say.  Since I have a day job and am trying to fit this course in wherever and whenever I can,  it’s very tempting to just try to “wing it” on the quizzes.  While I’d probably do OK on some topics, others have been relatively new to me.  Regardless of how much education I’ve had, it still takes time and effort to absorb and incorporate new information into my own body of knowledge.

2) There really is overwhelming evidence that the climate is changing

3) There is extremely strong evidence that human activity is contributing to much, if not all of that change.

4) Online discussions have the potential for engaging students in a completely different way than classroom discussions.  A possible conclusion is that online activities could engage some students that would be difficult, if not impossible, to engage in a more traditional classroom setting.

5) Being one of 31,400 students (the number that was enrolled at the start of the class) does not seem overwhelming to the individual student (well, to this individual student, at least).

6) As demonstrated on the discussion boards, students are not shy about their opinions.

7) As also demonstrated on the discussion boards, that lack of shyness is not necessarily related to how well thought out, or how well argued, those opinions are.

More later!


September 23, 2012 at 6:51 pm Leave a comment

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