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«International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning Volume 16, Number 1 February – 2015 Astronomy for Astronomical Numbers: A ...»

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International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning

Volume 16, Number 1

February – 2015

Astronomy for Astronomical Numbers: A

Worldwide Massive Open Online Class

Chris D. Impey, Matthew C. Wenger, and Carmen L. Austin

University of Arizona, Tucson, United States


Astronomy: State of the Art is a massive, open, online class (MOOC) offered through Udemy by

an instructional team at the University of Arizona. With nearly 24,000 enrolled as of early 2015, it

is the largest astronomy MOOC available. The astronomical numbers enrolled do not translate into a similar level of engagement. The content consists of 14 hours of video lecture, nearly 1,000 Powerpoint slides, 250 pages of background readings, and 20 podcast interviews with leading researchers. Perhaps in part because of the large amount of course content, the overall completion rate is low, about 3%. However, this number was four times higher for an early cohort of learners who were selected to have a prior interest in astronomy and who took the class in synchronous mode, with new content being added every week. Completion correlates with engagement as measured by posts to the online discussion board. For a subset of learners, social media like Facebook and Twitter provide an additional, important mode of engagement. For the asynchronous learners who have continuously enrolled for the past 15 months, those who complete the course do so quickly, with few persisting longer than two months. The availability of a free completion certificate had no impact on completion rates when it was added midway through the period of data analyzed in this paper. This experiment informs a new offering of an enhanced version of this MOOC via Coursera, along with a co-convened “flipped” introductory astronomy class at the University of Arizona, where the video lectures will be online and class time will be used exclusively for small group labs and hands-on activities. Despite their typically low completion rates, MOOCs have the potential to add significantly to public engagement with science, and they attract a worldwide audience.

Astronomy for Astronomical Numbers: A Worldwide Massive Open Online Class Impey, Wenger, and Austin Keywords: Education; distance education; online learning; online education; science; science education; astronomy; astronomy education; MOOC Introduction Higher education in the United States is in a state of flux and stress. Two and four year higher education institutions are still seen as a gateway to a better future and financial security, but the cost of a college education has increased by a factor of two (inflation-adjusted) over the past 30 years, and outstanding student loans of nearly a trillion dollars exceed credit card and automobile loan debt (Frye 2012). STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education faces its own particular set of challenges. The science literacy of the average citizen is modest, leaving them poorly prepared to understand or judge technical societal issues like energy production, climate change, and genetic engineering (NSB 2012). Meanwhile, there is growing demand for graduates with technical skills and majors but the supply of trained graduates is inadequate. Completion rates for STEM majors are 40%, much lower than in non-technical subjects. The administration of President Obama has set a challenging goal of training 100,000 new STEM teachers and producing a million more STEM graduates (NSTC 2013).

The rapidly increasing capability of the Internet and the availability of online content are rapidly eroding the “sense of place” in a college education. Online learning is not new but it has started to become a major component of the educational landscape. The number of students taking one or more online class grew from 2 million to 7 million from 2002 to 2011 and over that period the percentage of total college enrollment online grew from 10% to 32% (Figure 1, Meeker and Wu 2013). Reticence over the quality of online instruction is steadily diminishing; in a 2012 survey, 77% of the academic leaders at 2,800 U.S. colleges and universities considered purely online education to be the same as or superior to face-to-face education (Babson 2013). Set against this rapid growth is the fact that research-based and learner-centered teaching methods have not been adopted widely in science classrooms (NRC 2012). The challenge of implementing effective pedagogy without face-to-face contact or personalized interaction is an unsolved problem.

Massive Open Online Classes

The instructional approach attracting the most media attention is MOOCs, or massive open online classes. The traditional MOOC is free, open to everyone, and does not result in university credit, so it is more appropriately considered outreach than formal education. Many universities are putting video lectures and entire courses online, and the number of iTunes U downloads has grown in four years to 60 million (Figure 1). Coursera is the largest company delivering online courses, and their course enrollment has grown at a meteoric rate, from 1 million in September, This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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2012 to 9 million in April, 2013. By lowering the bar for access to instructional materials and expert teachers, private companies like Coursera, edX, and Udacity are helping to democratize higher education. Companies like Udemy are making substantial contributions to professional development. For example, 75% of iTunes U downloads and 70% of Coursera users are located outside the United States (Masters 2011; Koller and Ng 2012). Coursera pioneered the delivery of online courses for transferable college credit. This opens up a new and powerful marketplace in higher education, where students can combine elements of a degree using local, face-to-face classes, and the best of the online offerings. MOOCs are often aimed at adult “recreational” or lifelong learners but a majority of the undergraduate population is now composed of students older than twenty-two, and these are often people with families and jobs. They will increasingly demand flexible delivery of the courses they are taking.

Along with spectacular growth and obvious promise, MOOCs have been subject to skepticism and pushback. Administrators are fearful of the threat to the current, unsustainable cost model for higher education but they also hope it may be a way to spread their “brand” to new markets, while educators are excited by the potential of the Internet as a learning medium but are suspicious that the quality of learning will be poorer when it is online. Research on MOOCs is in its early stages so there is a need for analysis informed by data gathered on classes that have firm pedagogical foundations. Some research questions are difficult to address due to privacy issues in the use of learner demographics an online behavior, and due to limited data analytics provided by some MOOC hosting companies. The factors that make for a successful MOOC are starting to emerge (McAndrew and Scanlon 2013; Reilly 2013; Ebben and Murphy 2014), and first results from the large-scale experiments of Coursera and edX are being published (Breslow et al. 2013; Perna et al.

2013). General metrics for performance and success of MOOCs across all subject are being developed for the first time (Klobas 2014). Completion rates are generally low, so understanding and increasing student engagement in the disembodied, online environment will be essential if MOOCs are to spread and flourish (Ramesh et al. 2014). A second, more profound issue is the distinction between engagement and learning. If the goal of a science class is to increase content knowledge and facilitate a high level conceptual understanding of science principles and process, which is much harder to facilitate and measure than mere engagement, particularly in an online environment (Reich 2015).

Astronomy: State of the Art

Astronomy: State of the Art is a MOOC specifically developed to study student participation in an online learning environment. The project aims to serve multiple audiences of learners. One is those self-motivated adults who take a free course out of interest in the subject and not to get a degree or for university credit; this is the traditional audience for a MOOC. Another is a set of college students who use the online environment for lectures and quizzes but whose classroom time is devoted to hands-on activities and group work; this is the “flipped classroom” model. A This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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third we plan to serve in the future is composed of students remote from the university offering the MOOC, who are paying to take a completely online class for transferrable university credit;

this is the part of the landscape with the potential to disrupt the traditional economic model of higher education. Our group is developing tools to work with all of these audiences, as far as possible using methods that are interactive, centered on learners, and grounded in research methods. Astronomy is an attractive vehicle for science literacy and outreach because it is a dynamic subject with new discoveries announced almost weekly. The web site for the class is http://www.udemy.com/astronomy-state-of-the-art/. Enrollment is free.

The first implementation of Astronomy: State of the Art was intended as an outreach vehicle for a broad public audience. All aspects of astronomy from planets to cosmology were included, but the emphasis was on exciting topics where the research progress has been rapid: large telescope construction, adaptive optics, Solar System exploration, exoplanets, black holes, dark energy and dark matter, and big bang cosmology. Udemy was selected as the provider of the free course in part because a course can be offered by a single instructor without an institutional commitment.

The privately-held company is smaller than Coursera and edX but has also been growing very rapidly, reaching 5 million students and 22,000 courses in early 2015 (www.udemy.com). Most Udemy courses are on technical subjects and for professional development and the courses are asynchronous in the sense that a student can sign up for the course at any time and follow the material at their own pace. The company doesn’t offer the infrastructure for any testing beyond multiple choice questions. But the architecture and user tools for video content are robust and scalable and they were entirely adequate for this experimental course. The instructor for the course was a senior professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, who has taught many face-to-face astronomy courses at the introductory and advanced undergraduate levels (CI). He was assisted by a half-time staff educational technologist (MW), and a half-time undergraduate teaching assistant (CA), who were responsible for creating and editing video lectures and weekly assignments, as well as communicating with the students on the course web site and using social media.

Our goals in this project included creating the first MOOC that presented astronomy in terms of the cutting edge topics that define the research frontier. A MOOC can have a broader goal than an introductory college class, since it accesses a demographic that is typically more mature, with more people who take the class out of general interest than because of a university requirement.

Adult learners do not need or expect to master the formal apparatus of physics and mathematics needed to comprehend the universe. But they can be given a conceptually high level treatment that lets them share in the excitement of research on black holes and exoplanets and cosmology.

Another goal was to investigate the behavior of two cohorts: the pre-registered group who had a prior interest in astronomy and the continuously enrolling (and much larger) group encountering the class in the Udemy marketplace. A third motivation was to investigate correlations between various modes of engagement, such as accessing course materials and usage of social media.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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Course Content This course has gone through two modes: one “active” and a subsequent “passive” mode. The course was initially designed as a seven-week class to be offered beginning in March, 2013. In this synchronous early phase, a series of lecture videos was released each week, along with self-guided assignments and additional material for students to explore on their own. The additional content consisted of reading material and podcast interviews with scientists at the University of Arizona engaged in research related to the weekly topic. The core content is a series of video lectures that total about 14 hours. Video was primarily filmed as first person “talking head” of the instructor shot against a green screen so that backgrounds could be added later, interspersed with relevant animations, images, and video clips. The footage was edited and rendered in Final Cut Pro 10.

There were between five and seven videos for each week’s topic; each video lasted an average of ten minutes with the shortest being around five minutes and the longest less than 20 minutes. All videos were subsequently posted on YouTube so they would be available for people not enrolled in the Udemy course (https://www.youtube.com/user/AstronomySOTA).

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