More massive and more open

26th November 2015

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Richard Naylor

Richard Campen revisits massive online open courses and offers advice to potential learners

Many education establishments now offer MOOCs - massive online open courses - including the universities at Bath, Bristol, Durham, Exeter, Glasgow, Nottingham and Warwick (see the environmentalist, June 2014).

Testament to their popularity are the close-on 2,541,000 learners that have joined the Open University's MOOC platform, FutureLearn, since its launch in 2013. FutureLearn has 72 partners, including universities and professional bodies, such as the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and the Institution of Engineering and Technology, as well as specialist organisations, such as the British Museum and the British Council.

In the US, Coursera lists online classes from more than 120 universities and education organisations, including Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Edinburgh and Peking University. Courses range from computer science to teaching. Fortune magazine reported in May 2015 that more than 12.8 million students had registered for Coursera-listed courses.

The results of a survey of 52,000 online learners by Coursera and the universities of Pennsylvania and Washington were positive. Published in September, they showed that the careers of 72% of the respondents had progressed after completing a course. Among learners who said career advancement was a primary motivation for taking a course, 87% reported career benefits, with 33% reporting tangible benefits, such as a pay rise, promotion, a new job or launching a business.

Massive and open

A MOOC might attract thousands of learners - hence M for massive - and a wide range of short courses is available, offering what is often a free introduction to a new subject or a refresher - hence O for open.

Those new to MOOCs may find it perhaps intriguing that the range includes dentistry and first aid, as well as topics closer to an environmentalist's interests. These include climate change; greening the economy; environment and human health; sustainability; earth sciences; environmental justice; environmental management; green energy; environmental humanities; ecosystems; shale gas and fracking; and international development.

The panels on pp.iv-v provide some examples of courses, while that on provides information on the learning goals and objectives of two courses.

It is worth noting that courses may have different start dates and are usually offered more than once, so it may be worth registering for email alerts for courses that interest you. MOOCs are asynchronous: in other words, you can study when you like rather than have to attend online tutorials or meet deadlines. As such, they provide flexibility in terms of fitting in with the demands of work and personal commitments.

Courses usually last between two and eight weeks (though some are longer) and typically would require three to four hours of study a week. The ways in which MOOCs tend to be structured provide learners with a chance to debate issues with a broad range of other learners. This is usually achieved through "question and answer" forums or those for general discussion, videos, audio, articles and tests. A member of staff will moderate discussion forums to support learners and ensure online etiquette.

A positive feature of MOOCs is that they provide an opportunity for what FutureLearn describes as "learning in context" through storytelling. The strategy (or pedagogy) is centred on this storytelling approach, together with discussion, visible learning and community support among the students. According to FutureLearn, each course is designed as a complete learning experience in which a story is told step by step with challenges and helpful tips along the way to test and build understanding (see for more). The emphasis on discussion is recognition that people learn best when they share and debate ideas with fellow learners, to understand different experiences and perspective, and to fill the gaps in their own knowledge.

It is important to understand that MOOCs have no entry requirements and they do not always lead to a formal qualification or credit points for higher education. Passing tests or completing steps usually entitle the learner to a certificate of participation, although some institutes charge for this. A statement of attainment can serve as a good way to show evidence of formal or informal continuing professional development (CPD) or developing an understanding of a particular subject.

When considering a MOOC with specific learning or CPD aims in mind, it may be worth looking for those that are developed in partnership with professional bodies, institutions, government bodies or businesses. The University of Nottingham is an IEMA education partner and its "Sustainability, society and you" MOOC is one that has been developed with the institute.

Also, some environment and sustainability professionals may benefit from MOOCs as an introduction to topics related to generic roles, such as business administration and marketing, or so-called "soft" skills, such as communication. It is a good idea to check for the stated learning aims and objectives so that you can see how they might match your development needs and how you might summarise for your CPD record what you gained from the course.

Pros and cons

Although there may be many advantages to learning through MOOCs, it is worth considering that the particular style of online learning may not suit everybody. Some may find a MOOC impersonal or feel isolated because learners do not have direct contact with tutors or peers. Some MOOCs do include instruction or facilitation, so it may be wise to check the details against your personal needs or expectations. It is possible that a MOOC offered in a different part of the world from where you live and work may have different cultural aspects or conditions. That said, a MOOC in your home country might attract people from all over the world. The richness of perspectives and experiences that learners share can be informative and inspiring and may make up for the lack of tutor contact.

One other thing to bear in mind is that hundreds or thousands of learners might enrol on a course but between 50% and 90% of them may not complete it. There has been some suggestion that MOOCs may be better suited to more experienced learners and those with reasonably good digital literacy skills. However, some providers regard the course as experimental in terms of providing learning opportunities, new curricula and so on, so learners could equally view them as experimental in terms of developing their own skills for engagement and learning.

The dropout rate, however, should not be a concern for most learners because, even with a high rate, you might find that you are still actively discussing and learning interesting things with those who are active. Email notifications are often sent when learners reply to each other in the discussion forums and there is usually the facility to "follow" contributors.

If there is an opportunity to provide a personal profile you can tell other people something about yourself and discover more about other people's roles and interests.

The range of MOOCs always seems to be increasing and there are several platforms or providers. As with many products and services, it is best to look for reviews and feedback. It is also worth looking for MOOCs with providers that have a reputation for quality courses in terms of design and online teaching strategies. Good MOOCs will have content designed and developed for the purpose and are likely to be the most interesting, engaging and enjoyable courses.

MOOCs are not a substitute for higher education, but may be useful for learning about new topics or as refreshers for contemporary issues. You could use search engines to find information or watch video clips on the web, but a MOOC may provide a syllabus, a set of learning objectives, a structure and an opportunity to share the short learning experience with others. It may be a useful addition to CPD.

Richard Campen, FIEMA and CEnv, is an associate lecturer with the Open University and has facilitated one of its MOOCs, Introducing ecosystems, which is offered through FutureLearn.

Finding a course

Lists of MOOCs can be found through a number of organisations
and websites, including:

  • FutureLearn -
  • Open to Study -
  • UN environment programme -
  • The Complete University Guide -
  • Coursera -

Examples of courses

Solving the energy puzzle: a multidisciplinary approach to energy transition

University of Groningen

The free seven-week course includes an introduction to global energy and sustainability issues; changes in energy systems and technology; legal and economic considerations at regional and country levels; how communities and individuals perceive energy transitions and interact with policies; and how to analyse the energy transition question in the learner's own country.

Fairness and nature: when worlds collide

University of Leeds

A two-week course on managing natural resources using a set
of basic principles.

Exploring possible futures: modelling in environmental and energy economics

University of Basel

An eight-week course on how to develop and use models in environmental economics and energy economics, covering
conceptual aspects and numerical modelling.

Sustainability, society and you

University of Nottingham

This six-week course enables learners to explore sustainability from the perspective of the environment, the economy, health, politics, society and culture, education and community.

The university is an education partner of IEMA and both organisations work collaboratively on this course.

Our changing climate: past, present and future

University of Reading

Over five weeks, learners explore how climate shapes the way people live, the food they eat, the water they drink and the cities in which they live.

Environmental humanities: remaking nature

UNSW Australia

A six-week course that provides a broad overview of an
emerging area of interdisciplinary research that reframes contemporary environmental challenges using approaches
from philosophy, literature, language, history, anthropology,
cultural studies and the arts.

Tackling the global food crisis: sustainable agrifood systems

Queen's University Belfast

Four-week course covering the maintenance and enhancement of global food supplies as well as improving human wellbeing in the developed and developing world.

Shale gas and fracking: the politics and science

University of Nottingham

During the four-week course, learners study the politics, economics and science of shale gas as well as potential local environmental aspects, including water contamination,
seismic activity and air pollution.

Environmental justice

University of East Anglia (UEA)

The 10-week course aims to help learners understand how injustice is a common feature of many environmental problems. It looks at deforestation, biodiversity loss, climate change and other environmental issues.

A list of past and upcoming MOOCs on nature and the environment is available at

* Note that courses have different start dates and many are offered more than once so it may be worth registering for email alerts for those in which you are interested.

Examples of MOOC learning goals and objectives

Climate change: challenges and solutions

University of Exeter - FutureLearn

Eight weeks, three hours a week, certificate of participation available.

The course, aimed at the level of students entering university, seeks to provide an inter-disciplinary introduction to what is a broad field. It engages experts from the University of Exeter and partner organisations.

The course will set contemporary, human-caused climate change within the context of past nature climate variability. Then it will take a risk communication approach, balancing the "bad news" about climate change impacts on natural and human systems with the "good news" about potential solutions. These solutions can help avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change and increase the resilience of societies and ecosystems to those changes that cannot be avoided.

Climate change

University of Melbourne - Coursera

Thirteen weeks, between six and eight hours a week, certificate/statement of accomplishment available.

The overall aim is to provide an introduction to the socio-political, scientific, and economic aspects of climate change. It is hoped that the student will emerge with an enhanced ability to analyse claims about the science itself and the responses that can be made by humanity at present and for the future, based on current scientific data and its predictions over the next decades. /p>

Learners will:

  • Emerge with a broad understanding of the science underpinning the claim that human activity has played a role in causing the current rise in global temperature.
  • Develop an awareness of the present and future impact on global communities, the political response to such impacts, and consider basic economic concepts and models that describe a framework in which changes to our use of resources can occur.


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