Spotting every trick in the MOOC

If you haven’t heard of MOOCs you may simply have overlooked them; online advertising for MOOCs seems to be everywhere and, with Google supplying user-relevant advertising, ones related to climate seem to come up frequently (for me anyway).  MOOC List provides a description:

  • MOOC stands for a Massive Open Online Course.
  • It is an online course aimed at large-scale participation and open (free) access via the internet.
  • They are similar to university courses, but do not tend to offer academic credit.
  • A number of web-based platforms (initiatives) supported by top universities and colleges offer MOOCs in a wide range of subjects.

MOOCs provide a series of video lectures and reading available to study at a self-paced rate over the weeks of the course duration. Some also encourage student interaction via discussion boards or wikis and, if assessment is included, it may be though on-line multiple-choice answers, or, in the better courses, submission for peer or tutor assessment.  For some this provides a means to a certificate of achievement, although certificates tend not to have any academic value.  It is also possible to simply ‘audit’ the courses – sign up and follow the lectures, but submit no assessments.

Having recently completed a technical MOOC via edX (one reason for the lack of blogging of late), I’ve taken notice of others coming up and a few climate ones piqued my interest. However, I do wonder what depth they are able to provide, given that there are usually few prerequisites.  Who are they aimed at? Would they provide a good grounding in the science?  Would they teach uncertainty? hypotheses? As science is supposed to be about learning how to question, I would hope so.

I thought I’d see what is available.  MOOC List provides a searchable list of most but not all courses available. According to the adage – ‘you can’t judge a MOOC by its cover’ – but here’s my run down of a few climate-related courses starting in the next few weeks.

Climate MOOCs: the good, the bad and the ugly

The first one is from The World Bank.  Yes – ‘fraid so:

Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided
It is now becoming clear that without necessary climate action, the world may become 4°C warmer by the end of this century. As this threatens to roll back decades of development progress, this is a ‘make or break’ point. This course presents the most recent scientific evidence as well as some of the opportunities for urgent action.
Provider: The World Bank via Coursera
Start Date: Jan 27th 2014 (4 weeks – 3-6 hours per week)

Course Syllabus

  • Module 1: Observed Climate Changes and Impacts: Hundreds of Thousands of Years to Now
  • Module 2: Possible 21st Century Climates
  • Module 3: Life in a 4°C Warmer World
    a) Impacts Across Key Human Support Systems
    b) Risks of Large-Scale and Disruptive Changes in the Climate System
  • Module 4: What Can We Do About It: Choice is in your hands (Discussion)

Who is it aimed at?

Depending on your particular interest you can choose to participate in one of two tracks for optional activities:

  • Track 1: Climate Champion
  • Track 2: Policy and Leadership

All I can think of about this one is ‘aaaarghhh!’ This is a skeptic’s worst nightmare – climate ‘science’ aimed at activists and policy makers.  Balanced view? Not a hope.


The second offering in my list is from UCSD – instructors include Naomi Oreskes:

Climate Change in Four Dimensions
This course views climate change from a variety of perspectives at the intersection of the natural sciences, technology, and the social sciences and humanities.
Provider: Univ. of California, San Diego via Coursera
Start Date: Jan 7th 2014 (10 weeks – 5-7 hours per week)

The 19 lessons in the syllabus provided cover a lot of ground, but is it a case of education or presenting understanding of climate change as a fait accompli? The required reading for Week One being the IPCC 2007: Summary for Policymakers, I’m concerned.

Lesson 3: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change:How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong? Part 1 (Lesson 4 is Part 2)

Sigh.  Then there’s this week:

Week 7: How the public views climate change

  • Lesson 12: Merchants of Doubt, Part 1
  • Lesson 13: Merchants of Doubt, Part 2

It would be worth signing up for just to see what is presented in Week 7 and finding out just who is being portrayed as a merchant of doubt.  Do you think they’ll use the ‘d’ word? I would hope not.


If you’re down under, there’s no shortage of ‘local’ courses in this global online world.  Take this one for example:

Climate Change
Find out how climate change will affect us, why we should care about it, and what solutions we can employ.
Provider: Macquarie University via Open2Study; instructor: Lesley Hughes, making extensive use of interviews with Tim Flannery
Start Date: Jan 13th 2014 (4 weeks – 2-4 hours per week)

Ah, Tim Flannery – that eco-wiseacre as Clive James calls him – that tells us a lot about the basis – and bias – of this short course.  It fills me with horror when I see the first bullet point under “What will I learn?” is “Why human activities are changing the climate”. Impressive numbers ‘tho:

  • 222 students are taking this course
  • 1,546 students have taken this course
  • 6,667 videos have been watched
  • 566 classroom posts

And that’s what bothers me. Mass online indoctrination. How long before we get eco-activists claiming expert knowledge because of such free short courses – and would they then be Climate MOOChers?


Back in the UK “a number of experts from the University of Exeter and a number of partner organisations” are on the bandwagon too:

Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions
This course aims to explain the science of climate change, the risks it poses, and the solutions available to reduce those risks.
Provider: Univ of Exeter via FutureLearn; instructor: Tim Lenton
Start Date: Jan 13th 2014 (8 weeks – 3 hours per week)

This course says it is pitched at university entry-level.  Entry to what subjects?  I guess a science background is assumed.

The course will set contemporary human-caused climate change within the context of past nature climate variability. Then it will take a risk communication approach, balancing the ‘bad news’ about climate change impacts on natural and human systems with the ‘good news’ about potential solutions.

No bias there then. I shudder a little when I see ‘risk communication’ in anything to do with climate these days. Rog Tallbloke has had some things to say on MOOCs, and apparently is aware of a few people signing up for this one and keeping an eye on it.


Finally, here’s a serious one – serious in effort required and scientific description.  This offering from MIT has Kerry Emmanuel as one of the lecturers.  Whatever happened to the re-framing of Global Warming as Climate Change, or are these guys to be lauded for being above such a thing?

Global Warming Science (Course Code 12.340x)
An introduction to the physics of the climate system and the basic science underpinning discussions of anthropogenic climate change.
Provider: MIT via edX
Start Date: Feb 19th 2014 (12 weeks – 8 hours per week)

About this Course

12.340x introduces the basic science underpinning our knowledge of the climate system, how climate has changed in the past, and how it may change in the future. The course focuses on the fundamental energy balance in the climate system, between incoming solar radiation and outgoing infrared radiation, and how this balance is affected by greenhouse gases. We will also discuss physical processes…  […].

We will not cover issues regarding policy responses to climate change. Rather, Global Warming Science is designed to be a strictly scientific introduction to this important topic.

12.340x is geared toward students with some mathematical and scientific background, but does not require any prior knowledge of climate or atmospheric science. See the prerequisites section for more details.

You know I actually like the sound of this one and might consider signing up to ‘audit’ the course. It would be interesting to see if it is taught as cold hard science, free of consensus and presenting all due uncertainty.


If I think back to the 1980s to my own student days, we were taught, unproven and conflicting theories.  In one course (biotech) which was (and still is) a fast-moving field, a professor came in after a semester break to tell us that two things he had taught us previously were now wrong, but that was hard science.

Some of these courses, particularly the more high-profile ones, could get anything from 500 to several 1000 sign-ups, from all over the world. It would be interesting to see how awkward questions are handled in the on-line discussion forums, and perhaps encourage, oh I don’t know, an alternative view. However, making a positive impact would require some restraint and a delicate steer of discussions.

I do hope skeptics are considering signing up to these courses. If they are science free from bias, or we can encourage them to be more so, that would be a positive step for all.

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4 Responses to Spotting every trick in the MOOC

  1. Bloke down the pub says:

    Perhaps in all that spare time you have, you could start running a course yourself so that we’d be able to get a certificate from the university of Verity.
    Happy New Year.

  2. Verity Jones says:

    Worth millions in years to come 😉 I seem to remember ‘veritas’ as a university motto – ah it’s Harvard (among others) – I just checked.

    In reality it would take more than my knowledge, which is patchy. On the down side also, one of my friends is a guest lecturer on an engineering course and says for every hour in the lecture room he spends at least three preparing. I think I’d want to be paid to do it – I’m not that much of an altruist. Besides I’d like to see just how ‘neutral’ that edX one is. I suspect it would do a reasonable job of presenting both sides and it’s only in interpretation and conclusions that we sceptics would disagree most.

  3. John Robertson says:

    Happy New Year, sorry commented in wrong post.
    Soon we will be all be claiming credentials from imaginary institutions.
    Given the current state of science and academia, would anyone notice?

Comments are closed.