I just received my certificate in Tropical Coastal Ecosystems, produced by the University of Queensland on the edX platform. As part of the Center for Instructional Technology at Duke, I usually help create MOOCs. In this case, I was on the other side, as a learner.
Tropic101x is an 8-week course that led us through 6 units of basic information about coastal ecosystem communities, ecosystem services and threats, management and research methods, and a two week virtual field ecology project. I expecting to enjoy the course, because of my interest and the gorgeous underwater video. I did, and I also learned more than I expected, looked forward to the release of new material each week and admired the course design. I’m quite sad the course is over.
Why was this online course so compelling? Well, yes, terrific underwater video, but that’s not enough to sustain 8 weeks of commitment; there’s plenty of video on the internet. Three characteristics of this course made it compelling: clear organization, the diversity of materials and assessments, and frequent assessment with feedback.
Each of the 6 content sections (equivalent to one week), began with an overview, followed by several topics. Each topic included a variety of related content delivered via different types of videos, scientific papers, meeting reports and websites outside of the course, all organized by the topic theme. Interspersed in the content were Knowledge Acquisition Moments, or KAMs, where we learners could apply our newly-acquired knowledge. We spent the final two weeks of the course on a final project.
The KAMs were effective in promoting learning by providing practice and feedback throughout the course; the grades on KAMs did not count towards the final grade. They were fun, and I looked forward to them perhaps even more than the spectacular underwater video. KAMs included traditional multiple choice, multiple answer, true-false or fill-in the-blank questions. More than that, KAMs included drag and drop activities for identifying coral (example pictured below), constructing a phylogenetic tree, a model of a shoreline, labeling parts of the nitrogen cycle or seagrass. Other KAMs guided me through reading a scientific paper and diving into Google Street View Oceans. Several KAMs allowed me to manipulate conditions, make predictions, and see the results. For example, I could manipulate the reef conditions (light, temperature, concentration of carbon dioxide) and observe growth and rates of decalcification and calcification on the reef (pictured below).
True to their mission as “knowledge acquisition moments”, all KAMs allowed me to check my answers, often with an explanation, and allowed numerous retakes.
Course content included video, scientific papers, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) website and workshop reports. The video included a wide range of styles, from the familiar talking-head-with-slides variety to videos in the field, either above or under water; for example, we took a virtual field trip across Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, from the forest, through the mangroves and sea grasses to the coral reef. In addition, there were video interviews with researchers, with experts in promoting sustainable local fishing practices and conservation issues. A few videos were animations. Several videos were shared by organizations working on conservation issues, including this delightful video of Honduran Guardians of the Reef. The range of content type, curated around the unit topic, made the learning experience both lively and connected to the real world.
The formative assessments, or KAMs, allowed us to practice and assess our knowledge before taking the graded assessments at the end of each unit. There were many, many KAMs, often one after each short video. I probably spent more time in the KAMs, practicing and testing my ability to apply the concepts and receiving feedback, than I did watching video. And I genuinely enjoyed the KAMs.
Each unit ended with a quiz, in many cases with questions similar to those on that unit’s KAMs. The quiz scores counted towards the final grade in the course. We had two opportunities to pass each quiz.
The final two weeks of the course were devoted to a 3-stage virtual ecology project. For this project, we were asked to design a survey, identify coral reef benthos or fish, and analyze data. Successful completion of the final project counted towards half of the final grade in the course.
I appreciated several features specific to the edX platform. I could see and use the text transcript to navigate though the videos. Sometimes I did not watch the videos, but read or skimmed the text, occasionally clicking on the text to jump to that section of the video, to see the visuals or hear the explanation. Another nice feature is the “Progress” section of the site, which showed my scores and pass rate in graphical form, and lists all assessments, both graded and ungraded. Although I was not concerned about my grade, I found the graph rewarding.
According to a recent email from the course, it will be relaunched as a “self-paced” course soon. I look forward to visiting it again. And did I mention the gorgeous underwater videos?