MOOCs inspire new educational opportunities

The UCT MOOCs project set out to create 12 Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with several goals – one of which is to make UCT’s knowledge resources globally accessible. To that end, most of the materials were licensed to allow sharing – through creative commons licensing which facilitates legal reuse. There has also been a great deal of effort put into providing multiple formats of materials to increase possible reuse. For example, every video has subtitles and a downloadable transcript. In the Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion course, the educators also added separate audio files to increase accessibility.

As the courses are running, we have been capturing the stories of some of the participants who sign up and find value in the courses. You can view the MOOC Learner Stories collection on the CILT YouTube channel.

In this blog post, we will feature learner experiences which focus particularly on the reuse of material for inspiring or enabling new teaching approaches. From among the many stories we have chosen to share cases from two of our courses hosted on FutureLearn – Extinctions: Past and Present and Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion.

Finding inspiration for teaching from the Extinctions course

Extinctions: Past and Present is a course in the field of paleobiology which explores how life on earth has been shaped by five mass extinction events in the distant past. At present, biodiversity is facing a crisis, with the prospect of a sixth extinction event today. The course was developed with a general science communication purpose but as is usual with open courses, attracts a variety of participants including specialists and those involved in education.

Two such specialists are Aviwe Matiwane and Dr Rose Prevec from Grahamstown, South Africa who work in the field of paleontology at the Albany Museum.

Dr Rose Prevec is a paleobotanist and holds the post of Creator and Head of the department of Earth Sciences at the museum. She took the course to see how the subject was being taught in the MOOC, and was really excited about the learning experience.

I am used to the very dry reading of manuscripts and papers and learning information the hard way; having to ferret out information myself. And to have these amazing things laid out in different forms and hearing researchers speak about their work in person and then seeing graphics and having the information reaffirmed in the text was wonderful. It was so easy to absorb that information.

The interviews were so nicely done — they were conversational and also so informative. That relax lovely atmosphere that Anusuya always conveys made the course very engaging and not intimidating at all.

Dr Prevec enjoyed the course and was inspired by some of the methods – using mixed modes (for example, graphs; lectures; texts; links to other readings).  She is planning to use some of the material in her own teaching.

What I really got from the course was more about, teaching methods. I do give some courses in paleontology and the kinds of things/ highlights of bits of information that came out – show me areas that I could include in my courses.  I will definitely use some of that information in beefing up my courses.

Aviwe Matiwane, is a PhD student at Rhodes University, based at the Albany Museum and she also took the Extinctions MOOC. Once again, Aviwe already has a degree in this field but found the MOOC to be a useful refresher.  As a young educator herself – she is tutoring at Rhodes University, it was a really quick and easy way to revise material which she needs to be familiar with for her undergraduate students.

I had forgotten what I had learnt in undergrad so it was a refresher course. For example, I tutor cell biology and we do some parts of extinction, and it [the MOOC] actually increased my knowledge.

Prof Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan did short interviews with researchers who offered a few insights about their work, and participants on the course loved getting ‘to know’ the researchers behind the academic work which informs this field.  Dr Prevec also commented on this aspect – as a way of making research ‘come alive’.  This can be a powerful teaching and communications tool.

The extinctions course was wonderful because we got exposed to different researchers in different fields. There is a difference between reading something online and actually having the researcher or professional talk to you about it.

Developing understandings of Disability and Inclusion in education

Another UCT course, Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion was developed specifically to offer support to teachers.  It was designed as a form of professional development to help teachers see possibilities for inclusion of disabled children in mainstream classrooms even in low-resourced environment. Many participants have responded to the material as teachers.  But we have other participants finding educational value in the course.

Benedict Leteane enrolled on the course in 2016 when he was looking for information about how to mainstream inclusive practices in higher education. Taking the MOOC exposed him to the idea of disability as a field of academic study.  He strongly believes all teacher education should include a core module on disability and inclusion.

As much as I have a disability [Benedict has a  visual impairment], there is more that I don’t know about disability. Also being involved in disability organisations, we are trying to be activists, but we need to learn more. I never thought that I could study disability – I thought for what would I study this, as I have a disability. But when I looked at the MOOC, and how meaningful it was, I thought I should study disability  and take it as a career.  Looking at it as an academic field of study – compared to other fields.  

Benedict is now enrolled in a PG Diploma in Disability Studies at UCT – in the same department which made the MOOC!

Claire Ozel, on the other hand, who based at the Middle East Technical University in Turkey is involved in teacher education. She appreciated the content of the Education for All: Disability, Diversity and Inclusion MOOC because of its explicit focus on low resource settings.

When I started out, I was looking for examples [of inclusive practices in education] and the only examples I knew about were from the UK and the US and those examples were not transposable and then you are left high and dry.  But the wide variety of examples which the MOOC gives from different countries and different situations in Africa.  People will look at those and say, “oh, I can do that”.  And that is giving people the confidence to have a go.  That is what is important.

Claire emphasises the importance of having material which people can relate to and she points out that you can never know what people will need because it is open to everyone, whose context those designing the MOOC can’t know in detail. She is also very mindful of the need to provide access to learning resources, not just a course, because not everyone wants to follow the full six week course schedule.

We essentially need to get this material out. The MOOC is fantastic if you want to take a regular course and be guided. When you prepare the MOOC, you don’t know which parts of the MOOC will be relevant to whom, because you have no idea who will be taking it. So for instance, one person will say: ‘ah, that child (described in the MOOC), didn’t I have a child like that in my class?  And someone else will be saying my little two-year old is going to be growing up and in three years time that child will be needing to go to school and who do i need to speak with?  And so that is where the material in the 5th and 6th week is really important.

The UCT MOOC project shares the course materials as  Open Education Resources (OER), so as to increase the usefulness of MOOCs beyond a course experience. This encourages participants to find their own uses of the course and course materials in the way in which Claire has indicated above.

As the UCT MOOCs project reaches completion, through research, the team will be exploring further what value participants have found in the courses.

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