Virtually learning the real thing

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) may be just the solution for many seeking to enhance their understanding of climate change and related policies

Go to the profile of Alastair Brown
Apr 20, 2017
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When I meet people for the first time and they find out I work on a journal called Nature Climate Change, it’s very common that they initiate a conversation along the lines of “Is this really happening?”, “Is it going to be bad?”, “What could/should I be doing?” and many other tricky questions. Less often, but not infrequently, I get “Well that’s a load of rubbish, I’ve looked into it and I’m not convinced” or words to that effect. These can be challenging conversations to manage because the individuals are rarely interested in exploring the arguments in order to assess their own knowledge. However, sometimes people are sceptical in a scientific sense (i.e. they have reservations but are looking for evidence to inform their judgement) or are just curious about these issues. In all of these situations, beyond covering some basics conversationally, where can I direct people who lack many of the necessary Earth science concepts? This begs the wider question, where can people look, not just to get some short messages about climate change, but to more deeply educate themselves about the issues?

Of course, popular science books, text books, university courses, and the IPCC assessment reports are good options for many people, but they have barriers to participation: expense, time, access, expertise etc…perhaps particularly in the developing world. And in my own limited experience, it would be rare that I would recommend, or realistically expect, someone to attend a university course or read the latest IPCC assessment report.

One attempt to bypass many of these barriers to participation is the development of MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses – designed to allow unlimited participation and open access via the web. As with all new developments, there are concerns about how standards will be maintained and what impact they will have on established modes of learning. However, quite simply, MOOCs offer unprecedented access to structured and guided education opportunities. This is surely a good thing, particularly for climate change which has almost ubiquitous causes and consequences.

There is already a dizzying array of MOOC options to choose from, so unless you have a particular course in mind, a good first port of call will be a MOOC list service. The aptly-named MOOC List is one example, which claims to be a “List of MOOCs offered by the best universities and entities”. Searching MOOC LIST by the tag ‘climate change’ yields around 65 courses from well-known universities in Europe, Scandinavia, Australasia, North America and China, as well as institutions like the UN and World Bank, amongst others. Clearly, if you have access to a computer and some time to invest, this is a significant educational resource.

It is noteworthy that analysis of MOOC Students in the US (though not in a climate change context) reveals that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to enrol in MOOCs and earn a certificate than their higher socio-economic background peers. This shows that that free online learning opportunities do not necessarily translate into equal educational attainment. While perhaps unsurprising, we should not let the quest for perfection be the enemy of the good, and in my opinion, MOOCS represent an important step in the right direction.

Focussing on a couple of examples of climate change MOOCs, Exeter Universities ‘Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions’ has been running since 2014. The course has attracted learners from over 160 countries and had close to 8000 people enrolled in January 2017, with course completion rates of around 8-9%. To provide some insight into the people taking the course and its impact they have also provided a ‘Your Stories’ map which provides a great perspective on the participants. A somewhat more applied course “Introduction to Water and Climate” run by TU Delft saw over 9000 students from 178 countries enrol in 2016.

Although these courses can require significant time commitments, they do present valuable opportunities to learn about the many aspects of climate change. We know to be suspicious of silver bullets, and MOOCs cannot claim to solve the problem of climate change education, but they are becoming an important part of the educational landscape that we can perhaps utilise to inform interested parties in need of some more in-depth climate change knowledge. Looking through the available options for this blog I saw a number that I would be interested in taking. I am yet to steer anyone to a MOOC following an unsolicited climate change conversation, but maybe next time I will try.

Image credit: Atomic Imagery/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Go to the profile of Alastair Brown

Alastair Brown

Senior Editor, Nature Climate Change