Developing academic writing skills for university through a new free online course

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With so many writing courses focused on academic writing out there, it is sometimes difficult to decide on which one to take. But a new free online writing course from the University of Cape Town sets itself apart in that it seeks to situate developing academic writing skills to the writer’s context.

The free online course Writing Your World: Finding yourself in the academic space has been designed around themes from the Humanities discipline and asks students to consider themes of  identity, mobility and culture through which students develop critical thinking skills so that they practise formulating comprehensive and insightful arguments.

According to both Dr Moeain Arend and Dr Catherine Hutchings, part of the course academic team, writing at school is very different from writing at university and this course aims to bridge that gap. “What learners fail to understand is that writing is an essential form of communication and not just something they do for their teacher. ‘It is a process not a product’, in the opinion of Dr Hutchings. The course has been designed for Humanities student to help them grapple with important concepts they may encounter in university, but it also appeal to a wider group of students as topics such as identity and culture are universal.

In the Humanities discipline, writing is the main mode through which content knowledge is assessed and it is therefore very important for students to master this vital skill. University level writing is more than regurgitating what has been taught, and it is important for students to find their own voice and be able to synthesise a variety of other voices, according to Dr Aditi Hunma, one of the educators on the course. “It is an extension of their viewpoints”, she stated, adding that there is no formula to writing; although there are important things that need to be followed, “the rules can always be negotiated”. Dr Gideon Nomdo elaborates that “students come to university from different backgrounds and that is where we like to meet them,” hence the team chose to structure the course around the themes of identity, mobility and culture.

The course also models the writing and feedback process through fictitious student writers, in order to provide learners with a clearer idea of what is expected of them. With writing being an such an important aspect of university, the team felt it was very important to try and reach a wide audience of potential university students, hence their desire to make this course.

Making the course has also been a journey of learning and helped the team to think more critically about their own writing. While the process of scripting, filming, editing was hard work and a learning curve for the academics and designers, they remarked “It has been one of the most exciting things we have done”. They hope their students will feel the same sense of excitement as they discover their academic writing voices and hone their essay skills.

The course is currently open for enrollment and a new version of the course starts every 4 weeks. Sign up now.   

How can developing countries contribute to the challenge of achieving climate change mitigation AND their own development

While reading through the many articles on climate change and the negative effects it is having on our planet, have you ever wondered why we are not doing more to protect it?

Developing countries are faced with particularly complex challenges through their need to develop to meet the basic needs of their people, while at the same time being pressured by the developed world to join global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To make things worse, developing countries will feel the adverse impacts of climate change first and the poor will be affected the most.

Greenhouse gases, unlike other forms of pollution, very quickly distribute themselves throughout the atmosphere, so the low emitters (including many developing countries) feel the effects of the same CO2 concentrations as the high emitters from the developed world. Hence it does not matter where the emission reductions are made from a climate change mitigation viewpoint. The challenge of climate change can only be made if all countries reduce emissions.

We know very well how to reduce emissions technically, the problem is how to balance the task of emission reductions fairly, while still allowing developing countries sufficient carbon space to uplift themselves. Of course, just like children fighting over a bowl of sweets, no one wants to sacrifice anything, unless it is sure the others will follow suit. Economists call this the problem of ‘free riders’, that everyone hopes everyone else will take action, and you hitch a free ride.

In the face of all this, what is a developing country to do? The first thing, I would suggest, is to determine how different degrees of climate change will affect the country – in terms of health and wealth (socio-economic impact). These estimates need to be credible to all the players, both within the country and in the global climate change mitigation negotiating forums. Wild, unsupported claims are likely to be ignored. Luckily climate scientists are producing very careful evidence, making clear that it is in every country’s national interest to act on this global problem.

Secondly estimating the country’s carbon emissions under different mitigation scenarios will help to assess the cost of different mitigation interventions. These cost impacts are necessary for the country’s decision-makers and for the purposes of negotiating the levels of mitigation required by each country. It is important to understand the indirect costs too, that is the socio-economic implications of mitigation – whether they are costs or benefits.

The accepted way to develop such mitigation scenarios is to use computer models. However, these models and their outputs will only be useful if they are credible to and understandable by all. There is no use in having an amazing model if no-one else understands the model’s assumptions nor accepts the results. One process that can help achieve credibility, acceptance and understanding is the MAPS process (Mitigation Action Plans and Scenarios).

MAPS was developed by the Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town together with SouthSouthNorth (a not-for-profit involved in climate change projects that explore the connection between climate change, poverty alleviation and development) and applied in in Brazil, Chile, Columbia and Peru. Viewpoints within different countries in different stages of development and affluence differ widely, so the MAPS teams came up with different strategies in each country while using the same process.

MAPS accepts that in order to get policies changed in the desired direction, all the stakeholders (scientists, activists, entrepreneurs and policymakers), with their different motivations, need to be brought to a common understanding of climate change mitigation and different development pathways, so that a way forward can be agreed and acted upon. In the MAPS process this is achieved by “mandating” and “co-production of knowledge”. Mandating means being delegated the decision-making power to run a process whose results will be taken seriously by governments. Co-production of knowledge involves all stakeholders agreeing on what data to use and how to interpret it (e.g. data on development plans, emission data, population statistics, how industries interact, energy usage, how to measure socio-economic health, etc.).

The next step in the MAPS process is to come up with many different actions and to model the impact of the actions on the system, for example, emissions, economics, social aspects and so on. There needs to be a balance between the level of detail, complexity, the ability of the players to understand the models results and this must be communicated to all stakeholders. This will all be affected by the resources available such as, skilled people, time and money.

In each of the four countries mentioned above, there was co-production of knowledge, many mitigation actions were explored through modelling and the results considered by Scenario Building Teams (SBTs). The SBTs were the assembled stakeholders from various walks of life, using information from the modelers to construct different development and mitigation scenarios. It was found in most cases that the combined actions, even if they were carried out perfectly, came nowhere near achieving the desired level of emission reductions. This is known as the “mitigation gap”. The mitigation gap was found to be caused by many different factors in the four countries. Some factors were political – the governments felt they couldn’t sacrifice development for mitigation; others were technical – the country didn’t have the capability or flexibility to make the necessary changes; and some factors were due to vested interests, digging in their heels and hoping to survive. There were tough discussions in all SBTs!

Following these discoveries the MAPS teams interrogated the mitigation gaps, looking for ways to narrow the gaps, find new possibilities, or ways to persuade stakeholders to reduce current constraints.

Finally the teams explored the concept of “bridges”. Bridges between knowledge and domestic policy and between domestic policy and international contributions and agreements. This was aimed at helping the governments decide on their internal strategy for development and climate change mitigation. The second bridge was putting the mitigation scenarios into the mitigation contributions that each of the four countries submitted to the  global climate change negotiations, before a key UN meeting in December 2015, that resulted in the Paris Agreement.

If you are interested in learning more about MAPS, an excellent online course was developed by the MAPS team. It is called Climate Change Mitigation in Developing Countries. The course consists of an on-line, interactive series of video lectures, review and graded quizzes, written assignments and interactive discussion forums. The course director is Professor Winkler, head of the UCT Energy Research Centre and a climate change expert. Professor Winkler has been a member of South Africa’s negotiation team at the UN climate change conferences for many years.

The course is aimed at climate change practitioners, development workers, students, lecturers and teachers or simply those who are curious about how climate mitigation is understood. The focus is on developing countries and how they can contribute to climate change mitigation while also encouraging development and its benefits.

As Professor Winkler says: “This course is for those who want to tackle the tough challenges of development and climate change … I really hope that this course will inspire you to take action and to make a difference in your context. It’s only by everyone acting together that we can hope to solve the development and climate challenge.”

I completed the course, taking a bit longer than the three hours per week estimate (because I kept getting side-tracked into all the interesting additional readings provided!), and emerged a changed person! I was dismayed at the complexity of it all – the actual climate systems, the contested data, the model choices, the political/economic/social challenges to any change. However, I was also inspired and encouraged by the way MAPS was able to get groups of widely divergent stakeholders, including the governments, to engage with each other, understand the differing viewpoints, and come up with workable solutions. This course was created before the Paris Agreement in 2015, however I think that MAPS-type processes would be ideal in helping the UNFCCC Paris Agreement countries develop and implement their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

Written by Peter Atkins, Mentor on the Climate Change Mitigation MOOC

Absolutely brilliant course: From green algae to humans – Life on Earth in five weeks


Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan was one of the first academics who came to mind when CILT were identifying possible courses for the UCT MOOCs project. She is an internationally renowned A-rated researcher whose research interests include dinosaurs and she is passionate about communicating science. These add-up to a winning combination for a MOOC educator. Now that she has created her course – Extinctions: Past and Present – this prediction has proven sound. Participants are effusive and glowing in praise for Anusuya’s course. As this reviewer posted:

Life on Earth in five weeks. From green algae to humans. Absolutely brilliant course. The rise and fall of the dinosaurs. Mass extinctions, Asteroid strike. Great tutor communicates subject clearly and understandable. Great material. Did not want this course to end. (on Class-Central)

I really enjoyed this course 😀 It furthered my understanding of extinctions that I study at uni, and they provide plenty of useful resources! The part I loved the most with this course was listening to professionals talk about their field of study and how it assists with the understanding of these past extinctions and help with predicting the upcoming sixth extinction. (on Facebook)

Many shared these sentiments – wanting the course and the lively discussions to continue. An Extinctions Facebook page has been created to maintain a community beyond the five weeks of learning engagement.

The five week course takes participants on a journey to explore how life on earth has been shaped by five mass extinction events in the distant past, and how biodiversity is facing a crisis, with the prospect of a sixth extinction event today. Anusuya introduces each week and interviews guest scientists about how their research informs us about the biodiversity of our planet including the very first life forms; fish and tetrapod diversification; the radiation of reptiles and dinosaurs; and the rise of mammals. The course covers the five previous mass extinction events in the distant past and then looks at the current threats of a sixth extinction.

It is hard to believe this today, but Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan became a scientist quite unintentionally. You can read about how Anusuya’s career shifted from her vision of becoming a high school biology teacher to the world-famous dinosaur researcher she is today.

Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan - UCT Palaeo-Biologist
Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan – UCT Palaeo-Biologist

Over 3,300 participants from 120 countries around the world signed up for the first run of the Extinctions: Past and Present course on 20 March 2017. The top countries were the UK and South Africa, followed by the USA, Australia, India, Mexico, Canada and Brazil (see map below). Nearly half of those completing the pre-course survey were over 55 years with the rest of the cohort being equally spread across the younger age groups (including some under 18s!).

Geographic distribution of the participants enrolled for the Extinctions: Past and Present (darker colour represents greater numbers)
Geographic distribution of the participants enrolled for the Extinctions: Past and Present (darker colour represents greater numbers)

There were 2,000 who started the course, which is typical of MOOCs, where about half of those who signed up become active learners. The participants ranged from highly qualified people learning alongside postgraduate students, teachers, grandparents, and school learners. Many enrolled for general interest and enjoyment, with a high proportion sharing a concern for understanding humans impact on life on earth. There were intense discussions breaking out just about every week, a feature of the FutureLearn courses. Participants discussed all kinds of related issues from the oldest evidence of life; where humans originated; whether the first dinosaurs were bipedal; whether viruses are alive; whether a mass extinction can be called an ‘event’; what caused the different extinctions; how limbs and eyes evolved; is the Anthropocene a real phenomenon; whether humans will survive the next extinction and many others. Participants contributed many additional links and readings to supplement the discussions, and Anusuya offered guidance to other research where the debates extended into new areas. While specifically designed as a public outreach and popular science course, the feedback on the course was positive from participants with many different backgrounds.

Compared to other courses we saw very high engagement. Just over 40% of the 2,000 who started the course, eventually completed most of the course. The final week, which considered the possibility of a human induced sixth extinction, provoked tremendous discussion, exceeding the level of discussion in all but the first week.

Many enthusiastic participants left 5-star ratings on the MOOC review site, Class-Central,  on the Extinctions FaceBook site and on Twitter :

  • This was an eye opening course and I am now much more aware of the impact we are all having on our future planet. It is up to us to look after it not just exploit it.  (Facebook post)
  • The course was incredible. The evolution of Life ( and death) on Earth in five weeks Anusuya’s communication and presentation was brilliant. I was able to follow all the material and it was enjoyable.  (Facebook post)
  • Amazing course: Great interviews with passionate, informed people, and the loveliest warm and optimistic presenting Prof. You are going to learn lots and have a lot of fun doing it plus you are going to “walk -out” of this course a slightly changed person. Take the course!  (Class Central review)
  • One of the best MOOCs I ever did! A trip into a new world… I already included some activities around extinctions in my classes 😉 Thanks again! (Facebook post)
  • This has been an absolutely terrific course, covering the five known mass extinctions clearly and succinctly, and discussing the factors leading to a sixth possible mass extinction at present. Anyone interested in ecology and evolution should sign up for it – you won’t regret it. (Class Central review)

The making of this MOOC was quite eventful – requiring the team to hike part way up Table Mountain in the rain with camera equipment to film an interview with a plant ecologist; changing filming venues during a campus shutdown as well as the challenge of visually representing deep time in diagrams and graphics. This course was an enormous team effort – Anusuya and her PhD student, German Montoya, spent hours preparing and editing the material. Anusuya herself not only recorded many lectures, but also interviewed 15 scientists about their work to showcase current research on aspects covered during the course. These interviews were very popular with participants [for example, John Pearce said on his Class Central Review: Especially stimulating were the video interviews with a wide range of specialist scientists actively engaged with state of the art work in their fields].  

From the production side – CILT deployed two videographers, a graphic designer,  two learning designers and a project manager. Even the production team joined the Extinctions course fanclub – going as far as designing a special Extinctions course t-shirt as a memento of this epic experience!

MOOC production team: Been there, done that and got the t-shirt!
MOOC production team: Been there, done that and got the t-shirt!