I’m-Running-Out-Of-Titles-For-Earth-Science MOOC

Course: Planet Earth… And You!
School: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Dr. Stephen Marshak, Dr. Eileen Herrstrom
Earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain building, ice ages, landslides, floods, life evolution, plate motions—all of these phenomena have interacted over the vast expanses of deep time to sculpt the dynamic planet that we live on today. Planet Earth presents an overview of several aspects of our home, from a geological perspective. We begin with earthquakes—what they are, what causes them, what effects they have, and what we can do about them. We will emphasize that plate tectonics—the grand unifying theory of geology—explains how the map of our planet’s surface has changed radically over geologic time, and why present-day geologic activity—including a variety of devastating natural disasters such as earthquakes—occur where they do. We consider volcanoes, types of eruptions, and typical rocks found there. Finally, we will delve into the processes that produce the energy and mineral resources that modern society depends on, to help understand the context of the environment and sustainability challenges that we will face in the future.

[Addendum: This course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be different]

It was the best of MOOCs, it was the worst of MOOCs…

First, the good news: the lectures were superb. Information was well-organized and presented clearly, with plenty of visuals in a variety of formats: hand-drawn sketches, photographs, professionally printed diagrams. Not to mention visual aids: I finally understand the many kinds of earthquake waves, thanks to … a slinky! Other pictorials were included, but it was the slinky that showed me how a wave could travel both parallel to, and perpendicular to, a slip.

Dr. Marshak’s lecture style was a pleasant surprise; I found it extremely effective. He speaks very calmly and quietly, like he’s talking to one person instead of a class or even a camera. I don’t put a lot of importance on style, since substance is so much more important, but considering how many times I rewind and replay videos, it’s always nice when listening is a pleasure. Another interesting touch was his inclusion of emotionally intense information at the end of the earthquake and volcano lectures. In the case of the former, I was nearly in tears as he described the extent of the damage done by the Japanese earthquake of 2011; likewise, I was deeply moved by his explanation of the casts of Pompeii. These segments weren’t just about earth science; they were about people affected by the scientific processes we’d been learning about, connecting us in a more human way to what we’d studied. It was a great way to finish off the material for those weeks.

Likewise, Dr. Herrstrom’s explanation of the science needed for the first two labs was clear and complete. She made a nice summary of the more expansive lectures, focusing on the information necessary to execute tasks.

I also applaud the effort to create a multi-modal learning experience. The lectures and the weekly quizzes were only the beginning of the coursework: each week we had a lab, an assignment, and a discussion topic, with two peer reviews of those discussion topics during the five-week span. People learn in different ways, and this course tried to provide multiple avenues. The execution left a lot to be desired, but the theory was excellent.

The CTAs (students chosen for their ability to deal with other students patiently and helpfully, who usually have some background in the subject) were wonderful. When things went south (and they did), they – all volunteers, not paid staff – were caught in the middle, yet they maintained a superhuman level of grace under pressure. At one point I said they deserved combat pay. At the very least, they deserve medals.

And it’s a good thing they were there, because actual staff – people employed by the University, people connected with producing the course, presumably people who had some interest in how the course was received – were few and far between. In fact, other than one staff person identified only as Univ. of Illinois Support #6 who showed up quoting legalese (a whole other kettle of fish, I’m not gonna go there), the course was without staff. This is the vision for the future, I realize, and there are courses where this works, particularly when good CTAs are involved. But here, where so many problems cropped up, it was as if this were an orphan class, and whomever was responsible for it – someone at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, presumably – just didn’t give a damn.

The main problem was in the labs.

The first lab – using seismographs to locate an earthquake – was pretty good, if slightly miscalibrated. The visuals of the seismographs and graphs were much too small to allow detailed measurements necessary to obtain the kind of precision the answers required. I spent a lot of time on the lectures, so I didn’t get to the labs until fairly late in the week by which time the autograder had been “adjusted”. How adjusted, I don’t know – and I still don’t know if I really did the measurements correctly, or if anything was accepted as a valid answer at that point.

The labs went downhill from there. If the point was for us to learn to use Google Earth, well, I still don’t really know how, I just know how to click on this folder and watch the world go by. I’ll admit, I have an attitude towards Google Earth. But, unlike the first lab, where the purpose seemed clear and I understood the connection to the lecture, the rest of them seemed like busywork culminating in looking at things I wasn’t able to interpret or understand. How many valleys are in this view? I don’t know – which of that stuff is a valley? Are there several towns, or many nearby towns, in the ashfall zone of Vesuvius? Tell me what “nearby” means, and the cutoff between “several” and “many”, and I’ll tell you. In the plate tectonics lab – a topic in which I’m very interested, by the way – I gave up on Google Earth and just looked for map images of the pertinent plate boundaries.

In one case, a student documented 14 problems with a single lab, including one question that seemed to include all wrong multiple-choice answers. Either that, or I was measuring the wrong thing, or measuring the wrong way, since the answer I selected was marked as correct. I’m not sure what I was supposed to learn from that.

I had it better than some, however; there were lots of people who couldn’t get Google Earth to load at all. A couple of us posted still shots to fill the void in Week 4, but I think most people just gave up.

The “assignments” seemed to be low-level quizzes in disguise; I’m not sure why they were separated out. I don’t even remember them, in fact, other than I had to enter my hometown latitude and longitude every week. I suppose I should take the 20 points and be merrily on my way, but I wonder if these were supposed to be something else, and it just never happened.

The one assignment I loved – an extra credit assignment – was mineral identification. That module was off-site, part of Black Hawk College’s website rather than Illinois or Coursera. But it was fun. I like rocks.

The discussion assignments weren’t my particular cup of tea, but there’s plenty of room for disagreement on that; some students seemed to like them. We’d have to write a letter advocating for or against a town’s earthquake preparedness expenditures, a mine, or convince residents to evacuate before a potential volcanic eruption. A great deal of information could get packed into things like that – but we were limited to 150 – 200 words. Later, staff backpedaled and claimed that was a “suggestion” but since that “suggestion” was on the grading rubric, it felt more like a requirement. Again, there was some kind of disconnect between what was intended and the material itself. Follow that with a “grading rubric” 20 options for one type of post and 12 for another… and it was overcomplicated to the point of absurdity. Again, a good concept, run into the ground by poor execution.

But sometimes, adversity creates opportunity. I again fell in with this loose consort of ironic MOOCers who made the five weeks delightful with the creation of a “Whine Corner.” As in Origins, it wasn’t so much about complaining as it was about camaraderie and horseplay. It’s a flexible little sub-community, already moved on in ever-changing form to other courses, where new students add their humor.

I can’t help but wonder what went wrong with this course, leaving it like cloven into good and bad like Calvino’s Viscount. It’s a shame, because this could’ve been terrific; if they fix the problems, it still can be. And I do finally understand earthquake waves.


5 responses to “I’m-Running-Out-Of-Titles-For-Earth-Science MOOC

    • Yes, it’s running right now, and the CTAs are amazing – one’s a GEOPHYSICIST for pete’s sake, giving real subject depth to questions like “where does the extra silica come from?”

      Nice to see you!

      • I’ve been enjoying your blogs. You are a gifted writer with a wide range of interests. Your series on MOOCs is very informative (and helpful – I signed up tonight for a class based on your assessment) but you cover a lot of other great topics – makes for some good reading!

      • The Brain and Space. I was totally unaware of it until you wrote about it. It’s now on my watchlist since I missed the Sept 1 start (though I may sneak in and look around). Like you, I took Noor’s Genetics and was enthralled. It was hard, but really good.

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