First DartmouthX online course began Tuesday

by Erin Lee | 2/3/15 7:52pm

Dartmouth’s first massive online open course, “Introduction to Environmental Science,” launched Tuesday morning as part of the DartmouthX program on the Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed website edX. The six-week course focuses on biodiversity, energy and global change and currently has over 8,500 people enrolled worldwide, environmental studies professor and course lead Andrew Friedland said.

The course is modeled after “Introduction to Environmental Science,” a class that Friedland has taught at Dartmouth for about 25 years. Because the course is shorter than a typical term at Dartmouth, some topics had to be omitted, namely air and water pollution and recycling, he said.

At Dartmouth, Friedland’s course enrolls 60 to 100 students per year, but the MOOC format allows him to expose many more people to the material, he said.

“I try to explain that there are natural systems on earth, humans influence them and there are no easy answers,” Friedland said. “If I can even get 10 percent of the course enrollment — 800 students — to get some appreciation of that, I would be really excited.”

Every week, students will watch short videos filmed and produced by Friedland and his team, read materials and take quizzes to test their knowledge. While courses on the edX website cannot be taken for credit, students can either audit them for free or receive a verified certificate of achievement for a small fee. EdX, a nonprofit, open-source software platform, was created in 2012 to increase access to quality education and advance teaching and learning online, edX communications manager Rachel Lapal wrote in an email.

Director of digital learning initiatives Josh Kim said that Dartmouth has considered joining the open online education movement since edX’s inception, but was concerned that online courses would not facilitate professor-student interactions.

About 40 percent of the students who are enrolled in the online environmental science course have college degrees, and 27 percent are from the United States, according to edX analytics. Other significant contingents of students hail from India, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil and Spain.

Instructional designer and course lead Michael Goudzwaard said that student motivations for taking the course include the flexibility of scheduling, opportunity to explore different topics and professional advancement.

For the past week, the students have been participating in pre-course content as part of a “Week 0” module, allowing them to introduce themselves to the participants in the class, Goudzwaard said.

He said that this course is the first with a “Week O” module and that the idea of offering pre-course content may be adopted by other courses in the edX community.

Dartmouth doctoral student and head course teaching assistant Justin Richardson said that his role with the MOOC will be similar as to when he served as a teaching assistant for “Introduction to Environmental Science.”

“My job is to make sure that they’re not just talking to a robot, that there’s academic support,” he said. “Really they’re their own community. We’re just assisting minimally so that it grows by itself.”

Richardson said that one of his main challenges will be the number of assignments he has to grade, as some of the course’s quizzes ask the thousands of students to write short “tweet” style responses that then need to be reviewed individually by course staff.

Associate director of Dartmouth’s media production group and lead course video producer Mike Murray said that the team created about 35 videos in total for the course. This was his first time working within the academic realm, as the media production department typically works with the admissions office, athletics department, alumni affairs office and advancement office, he said.

Murray said that he believes faculty are more interested in utilizing videos as teaching tools in their courses. He said Friedland has expressed interest in using some of the videos produced for the MOOC in his “Introduction to Environmental Science” course.

Friedland said that the videos consist of short, engaging clips of Friedland talking directly to the camera, as opposed to full-length lectures, as well as diagrams and schematics. In the videos the team also went on “field trips” and visited the Dartmouth power plant, an organic farm and a photovoltaic tracking panel in Norwich that follows the sun, he said.

Emily Lacroix ’15, who helped develop course materials for the online class, said that she took several edX courses this past summer to get a sense of successful approaches and found that interesting videos made a big difference in her engagement with the class.

HarvardX communications director Michael Rutter said that the program has expanded significantly in its three years of operation. The original staff of two has now become a team of 50 that comprises design, research and editing teams.

HarvardX currently has 63 active projects, he said, and the program is operating on a much larger scale than Dartmouth’s likely would, as the comparative sizes of the institutions are different.

Director of communications and external relations at MIT’s office of digital learning Beth Zonis said that MIT’s edX program, MITx, currently offers about 40 courses and has enrolled about 1.3 million people since its outset.

Strategies that have worked well for MIT involve centering courses on both specialties like science and engineering and on “rockstar” faculty who can draw interest based on their notoriety, she said, adding that both are approaches that Dartmouth could use as well.

“The question to ask is: what can Dartmouth do that nobody else is doing?” she said.

These online courses are essentially experiments for developing digital materials and innovative approaches that can be applied to classes on campus, Kim said.

“Because of the number of students that go into these courses, we get lots of data,” he said. “Looking at how students progress through the course will help us improve those courses and help us think about how to improve education here.”

A structural engineering course taught by engineering professor Vicki May will begin on May 5, the College has reported. Two other courses — an introduction to opera and an American Renaissance literature course — are in the process of being developed, though their launch dates have not been determined.