Training focus: MOOCs move up the agenda

7th June 2014

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Tom Wood

Richard Campen on why environmentalists should consider massive online open courses

Imagine a classroom with tens of thousands of students and teachers from all over the world sharing their ideas and experiences; that is the idea behind the latest revolution in e-learning: massive online open courses or “MOOCs”.

MOOCs began emerging two years ago and are free online courses open to anyone regardless of their previous qualifications. Course material is opened up by universities and training bodies to an unlimited number of people – the record stands at 300,000 students enrolled on one course – and online communities build up around the MOOC discussing its content. The courses offer a free introduction to a new subject and the opportunity to debate issues with a broad range of people.

A better way to learn?

So how can environment professionals benefit from MOOCs and are they as good as conventional, face-to-face teaching methods?

Essentially, online learning is about the ways in which electronic media and information and communication technologies are used to support learning and teaching. These methods of access to learning can provide flexibility in terms of fitting in with the demands of work and family commitments, and perhaps personal approaches to studying – how an individual acquires and processes information in a learning situation.

Like many other online services, e-learning has started to evolve towards an “anytime, anywhere” approach, and most new technologies support this. As one might expect with all good courses, the online option should encourage reflection, enable dialogue, foster collaboration, apply theory to practice, create a learner community of peers, encourage creativity and motivate the student. These are aspects to look out for in an online learning prospectus, otherwise one may as well read a book.

Sustainability, society and you

The University of Nottingham’s eight-week “sustainability, society and you” course (five hours a week) is a broad introduction to sustainability.

The course is led by Dr Sarah Speight, archaeologist, educator and the university’s academic lead on sustainability. It also features contributions from academics from across a variety of disciplines, supported by expert facilitators. Through videos, readings and discussions, learners explore different perspectives on sustainability, including: economic, political, social and cultural, business and personal.

Learners are encouraged to look at their own behaviours and undertake activities such as blogging, sourcing images and carrying out a waste audit. To learn more, see here.

The delivery of online learning has largely moved on from the days of simply putting copies of lecture presentations on a web page. In this sense it remains important that e-learning should not just be about simply reading something that’s online.

As Professor Gráinne Conole, director of the Institute of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester, has noted, the method and practice of e-teaching and e-learning may include:

  • assimilative learning – whereby learners read, view or listen to something;
  • information handling – for example, manipulating data in a spreadsheet;
  • communication – with peer learners or tutors;
  • productive learning – for example, the creation of an artefact of some kind, such as web content;
  • experiential learning – in other words, by practising or mimicking; and
  • adaptive learning – through modelling or by simulation.

Teachers and learners often talk about the “virtual learning environment”, or VLE. It is in this environment that the methods and practices outlined above are developed.

As they progress, learners may have the opportunity to engage in discussion forums, wikis (a knowledge-sharing website or database developed collaboratively), groupwork in problem-solving exercises, “virtual experiments” and quizzes.

Quizzes may be interactive and computer-marked as part of the learning assessment process so that teachers can judge progress; contributions to online discussion forums may be compulsory and may also form part of the assessment. Many MOOCs include moderated discussion forums and assessment “steps” which, if completed, may provide the learner with a certificate of completion.

There is evidence that most MOOC participants are educated and are taking part out of general interest. As such, MOOCs may be helpful to people who might like an introduction to a subject, such as: “sustainability, society and you” (see panel, above). Other course titles include: “fairness and nature: when worlds collide”; “make an impact: sustainability for professionals”; and “climate change: challenges and solutions” (see panel, p.x, for more information on finding MOOCs).

In terms of continuing professional development (CPD), some environment professionals may benefit from MOOCs, or other short courses, as an introduction to topics related to the environment and CPD, such as business skills, communication skills and working with the media. Many courses make clear the number of CPD hours that may be claimed on completion of the programme.

For qualifications-based courses, there are ways in which students can demonstrate their skills to prospective employers with outputs, in addition to assignments marked by tutors.

In a similar way to keeping a record of CPD, students can practise these approaches to support their online learning experiences and provide evidence of their skills development through learning journals and skills portfolios. As well as tangible outputs from a course, students may be able to show other skills, such as the ability to work in a group or to solve problems in an asynchronous, virtual environment, which are equally applicable to work environments.

Digital literacy

Just as with the use of social media, users of electronic information and communication technologies need the skills to explore the evolving landscape of online learning. This is as important for the teachers as it is for the learners, and it is about having computing skills that move beyond the basics necessary to achieve the European computer driving licence (, for example. Being digitally literate means being able to navigate the VLE and to critically engage with the media and content – it is well known that things are not always what they seem in “cyberspace” so users have to learn to be selective and evaluate what they see.

As learners and teachers, we need to be aware of how we project ourselves in the online learning communities that we join, and be aware of the infinite connections in a complex and dynamic cybersocial world. It can be hard to define online “presence”. In some ways, presence is taken for granted in social media, but there are numerous examples of where things have “gone wrong” for people in terms of their presence in the virtual world. A number of high-profile people have had to close their Twitter accounts because of abuse, for example.

A world of exploration

As environmental practitioners we often deal with gaps in data, uncertainty, different perspectives and complexity. It is worth reflecting on the findings of one US research project published in the journal Open Learning in 2011. It explored how online students engaged in learning processes and found that process-related objectives are as important as content-related objectives; that students benefit from opportunities to discuss their findings with a peer group; and that open-ended online experiments may encourage students in self-directed questioning and exploration.

After all, as environmentalists, are we not continually exploring and asking questions? A well-designed VLE can be as good for this as the lecture room or university café.

Richard Campen, FIEMA CEnv, is an associate lecturer at the Open University.

Going online

Many education providers offer short, free, introductory courses at various levels, including on environmental subjects. See, for example, the Open University’s environment and nature courses and the University of Oxford’s introduction to the science of climate and climate change.

Online courses on business skills include the University of Exeter’s business and sustainability course and the University of Nottingham’s “how to read your boss” course.

For courses offered by various universities. For a list of available MOOCs, see here.


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