30 September 2015

New free course on planetary boundaries at SRC

In September, a MOOC on planetary boundaries will start for the second time at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. MOOCs are network courses that are free and accessible to everyone. Providing the course is a way for the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) to disseminate its scientific message. Last time, nearly 6,000 people from 137 countries took part.

‘The positive aspect of a MOOC is that we get to spread our scientific message about the Anthropocene and planetary boundaries. That’s a great boon to us. We are a small centre, but thousands of students are now getting the benefit of our lectures,’ says Lisa Deutsch, a researcher and Director of Studies at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

What she is referring to is the MOOC (massive open online course) entitled ‘Planetary Boundaries and Human Opportunities: The Quest for Safe and Just Development on a Resilient Planet’. The course is about human development within the limits to Earth’s sustainability, and the fact that we have presumably entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human activities are what have the heaviest impact on the planet.

MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) are study programmes provided free of charge on the Internet that are open to all comers. The idea was developed at the best universities in the US and Swedish HEIs are now getting on the bandwagon. The Stockholm Resilience Centre held its first MOOC last autumn, within the framework of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) initiative, which has the function of disseminating vital higher education worldwide.

Students from all over the world

People all over the world are indeed taking part, Lisa Deutsch relates. Last time, students came from India, China and the rest of Asia; almost every country in Latin America; several African countries; North America and Europe. Then as many as 15% completed the course.

‘Perhaps it doesn’t sound that much, but it’s roughly twice as high a proportion as those who usually complete a MOOC,’ Deutsch says.

The course comprises some 40 filmed lectures, including one given by the Director of the centre, Johan Rockström, as well as sets of multiple-choice questions and other material. A MOOC differs from other online courses in being accessible to so many people. This reduces the scope for teacher-led reflection.

‘We quite simply don’t have the resources to give many students personal feedback,’ Deutsch says.

Nonetheless, putting a MOOC together calls for a great deal of work. All the course material has been developed from scratch, and she estimates that the working group at the Centre devoted several months to preparing and implementing the first MOOC.

‘We have a good team and worked hard. It required more time than I’d expected, but I’m pleased with the result. And I was a complete beginner, and perhaps a bit pedantic, in those days. I wanted to go back to basics and learn how online teaching works,’ she says.

Hundreds of creative evaluations

The fact that so many kept going to the very end surprised her.

‘The massive response was really terrific. We had a voluntary closing assignment. The students were invited, if they wished, to send in a creative interpretation of their insights from the course. We received more than a hundred videos, songs and poems. It was incredibly rewarding to see that we had inspired so many to take on, in their own way, the environmental challenges we face.’

The forthcoming MOOC, which starts on 14 September, contains several novelties. The whole of the material has, for example, been translated into Spanish and parts of it into a range of other languages. In addition, the films are subtitled, and the aim is for teachers’ presence will increase.

‘We ask the teachers to be available for questions in the week their particular films are being shown. This gives so much and the students appreciate the chance of being able to chat to the teacher,’ she says.

The experience from the MOOCs has also resulted in a review of existing courses at the Centre.

‘We ran our first online course in January, and now we’re going through all the other courses. We want to use this teaching method to be able to offer the students greater flexibility and maximise active exchange with the teachers during the period spent in the classroom,’ says Lisa Deutsch.

Text: Thomas Heldmark, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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