Online course on bipedalism launches

by Maria Harrast | 10/3/17 2:05am

On Sept. 26, the College released its latest massive open online course, or MOOC, called “Bipedalism: The Science of Upright Walking.” Taught by anthropology professor Jeremy DeSilva, this free five-week course, open to the public, is the newest addition to DartmouthX, a collection of Dartmouth MOOCs created over the past three years.

The course is comprised of five units: comparative anatomy, evolutionary origins, evolutionary history, human variation and the trade-offs of bipedalism, DeSilva said. Each unit involves watching short videos, completing knowledge check quizzes and participating in activities that challenge learners to apply their knowledge, he added. 

Although the MOOC is free, participants can pay $49 to receive a verified certificate upon completion of the course. Another feature of the course is that learners can study at their own pace, DeSilva said. 

“A learner could go on the website this morning and be done with the course this evening if they binge-watch the videos and do all the knowledge checks and activities,” DeSilva said. “Everyone learns differently. For some people, it might be best to do this; for others, they would want to space this out over the course of five weeks.”

DeSilva was inspired to develop a MOOC after speaking with Josh Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, who introduced him to the idea of making his knowledge accessible to a broader audience. With 1,292 learners from 86 countries currently enrolled in the course, DeSilva’s MOOC demonstrates the global reach of DartmouthX, he said. 

This global scope is a common characteristic among many MOOCs. The course “Question Reality! Science, Philosophy, and the Search for Meaning” taught by physics and astronomy professor Marcelo Gleiser was the first bilingual MOOC offered by DartmouthX, Gleiser said. Learners could choose to take the course in either English or Portuguese.

“I had a few [question and answer] Reddit sessions, and those were really fun. I couldn’t even keep up with all the questions coming from so many people,” Gleiser said. “I think that the most positive part is realizing how many people are interested in these kinds of questions and how amazing it is to engage with people from Brazil to Madagascar.”

DartmouthX MOOCs appear to not only be successful on a global scale but also in retaining learners. According to Gleiser, 32 percent of learners completed his course, whereas the average for MOOCs without a certificate is five percent, Kim and Gleiser said. Additionally, the College has had over 115,000 learners enroll in DartmouthX courses, Kim said.

However, Kim noted that the goal of DartmouthX is not to boast high numbers but rather to promote learning.

“We know that what we’re doing for DartmouthX is nothing like what you get here at Dartmouth,” Kim said. “Experimenting with teaching open online education really forces us to think about things you can only do between a professor and a student and things you can do looking at a screen. We’re not pushing for numbers — we’re really pushing to advance learning.”

While DartmouthX MOOCs have proven successful, DeSilva does not believe they are a replacement for in-class learning.

“Nothing can really top the classroom experience,” DeSilva said. “There was a while where people were saying online courses would replace college courses, and that’s never going to happen. You can’t get that same experience watching videos on a computer screen as you can sitting in a lab with me and measuring fossils.”

A challenge that MOOC developers face is promoting active learning in what may be a passive process of watching videos. One way DeSilva and his team addressed this concern was by incorporating three-dimensional digital models of fossils that learners can rotate as they watch the videos. Since the creation of these models for the MOOC, DeSilva now utilizes them as a resource with his own students at the College.

DeSilva added that another benefit of developing his MOOC has been learning how to explain information in an accessible way that anyone can understand. The vast majority of learners are not Dartmouth students themselves, and many of them enroll in MOOCs for a variety of reasons. Kim noted that for a course such as bipedalism, learners will typically enroll because they have an inherent sense of curiosity, while other MOOCs give learners the opportunity to advance their careers, such as “Retail and Omnichannel Management” that offers a professional certificate in retail management from the Tuck School of Business.

“You have a mix of folks who are either just curious lifelong learners or people who are really using these courses to think about how they can advance the next steps of their career,” Kim said.

Faculty are continuing to develop MOOCs that cover a wide range of subjects, Kim said. Future DartmouthX courses will include “Free Will, Attention, Top-Down Causation and Consciousness in the Brain” with psychology professor Peter Tse, “Materials in Gear” with engineering professor Rachel Obbard Th ’06, “John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’” with English professor Thomas Luxon and “Complementary and Alternative Medicine” with Geisel School of Medicine medical education professor Mark Spaller, Kim said.