Penn State MOOC strives for sustainability

Katie Jacobs
January 20, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Whether people admit it or not, the way the world uses energy is unsustainable: Energy demand keeps going up as fossil fuel reserves go down, and science is racing to find an answer. Penn State’s latest MOOC — Energy, the Environment and Our Future — is exploring some of the proposed solutions by delving into the science behind energy alternatives such as solar and wind power.

Instructing the course, which began Jan. 6 and will run through March 3, is Richard Alley, a Penn State researcher and professor well known for his research on ice cores and what they can tell us about how climate has changed in the past. The MOOC will expand on material covered in a PBS series Alley hosted in 2011 called "Earth: The Operators’ Manual." Seth Blumsack, an associate professor of energy policy at Penn State, will also be contributing to instructing the course.

“This MOOC is about energy and us — jobs, money, climate and the future,” Alley explained. “Our current system is using fossil fuels about a million times faster than nature saved them for us, so we’ll also talk about the numerous options for building a sustainable energy system. I also want to stress the need for sustainable energy and the current proposed strategies.”

Bringing a MOOC to life takes more than talented instructors — it also requires deliberate course design. Penn State’s John A. Dutton e-Education Institute has been instrumental in the design of several University MOOCs, and Alley cited the Institute’s instructional designers Christa Watschke, April Millet, Sing Wong and others as being particularly devoted to bringing the course to fruition. 

Course design and IT in higher education have been in the headlines throughout the past year with the explosion in popularity of MOOCs, which have made education on a variety of subjects freely available to the masses. 

The course will begin with why energy sustainability is important, and move on to the physics and history of global warming. Options for different energy solutions will be examined before the MOOC wraps up with the economics, policies and ethics of energy sustainability. Students will view illustrated text, video clips (both original and from "Earth: The Operators’ Manual"), and interactive graphs and figures. They’ll also be able to discuss what they’ve learned via course message boards.

Alley said that one of his biggest challenges when planning the course was anticipating his audience and trying to match the class material to his future pupils. In contrast to preparing for a traditional on-campus class, MOOC instructors usually have only a small idea of who their students are — their education, age and accomplishments — ahead of time.

“This is the first time we’ve done this MOOC, and we don’t know in advance who will sign up,” Alley explained. “We have students from all over the world registering, so we don’t know what background or expectations they have going into the course.”

He described the MOOC as a learning process for both instructors and students, saying that as the course progressed, the instructional team would absorb feedback and tweak the class as needed.

As he completed the first week of the course, Alley has some goals about what he wants his students to take away from the MOOC experience. He hopes to drive home the point that the influence of energy use on climate is based on unavoidable physics, and that although fossil fuels have incredible benefits, they have large and growing costs, as well.

Additionally, he wants to reinforce the science behind sustainable energy systems and how it's taking us into the future of sustainable energy.

“While science never tells you what to do next, it does tell you what you can do,” Alley said. “If we start from there, we can generate a sustainable energy system that gives us a bigger economy with more jobs, greater national security and a cleaner environment.”

Alley’s is the last in Penn State’s initial run of five MOOCs, which began rolling out last May. The courses attracted thousands of students from all over the world, with more than 100,000 scholars enrolling in some. Alley agrees with many experts who say it’s too soon to say what their ultimate impact on higher education will be.

“I see MOOCs as another tool to advance education not to replace what we've done in the past but to add it. A public-serving institution like Penn State exists to discover what nobody knows yet, and to share that new knowledge with the public,” Alley said. “A MOOC gives us another chance to do just that.”

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  • Images from Penn State's energy and environment MOOC

    Penn State's energy and environment MOOC examines several alternative energy sources.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Richard Alley skydiving in New Zealand

    Richard Alley bungy-jumped in New Zealand while filming "Earth: The Operators' Manual."

    IMAGE: Earth: The Operators' Manual
  • Richard Alley in Antarctica

    Professor Richard Alley peeks out from a snow pit in Antarctica. He is well known for his research on ice cores and what they can reveal about climate change.

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated January 21, 2014