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MOOC Explores Alien Worlds

Astronomy prof teaches about planets in other solar systems


Wanted: Amateur star-gazers and Star Trek fans interested in exploring planets outside this solar system. Must be open to the possibility of life beyond Earth. Knowledge of Klingon not necessary. Sense of humor a plus.

So might read the description for Andrew West’s MOOC—massive open online course—called Alien Worlds: The Science of Exoplanet Discovery and Characterization. The course launches on Friday, October 31, and more than 4,870 people have already registered. More are welcome to join.

Over the course of nine modules, students will learn some of the techniques used to discover the thousands of known exoplanets—those planets that orbit stars other than our sun—and discuss scientific tools to characterize their size, mass, composition, and atmosphere. They will also gain a basic understanding of light, gravity, and motion. Ideally, says West, they will come away with a finer and more nuanced understanding of their place in the universe.

The College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of astronomy hopes his MOOC students will also learn that science constantly changes. It’s a phrase students in his on-campus course have learned to repeat on cue, he says, much like a call-and-response sermon in a Baptist Church.

“Science is never truth,” West says. “It is the quest for truth.”

The classroom version of Alien Worlds (AS105) is one of the more popular courses among undergraduates. It has its own Facebook page, with 300-plus members, more than the number of students who can register each semester. West says converting his traditional class into a MOOC was like boiling it down to its essence. The condensed version features short lectures, demonstrations, and video interviews with astronomy experts from BU and other universities, among them MIT, Yale, and Harvard. Online message boards facilitate class discussions and are monitored by student helpers or by West himself. And all course assessments are graded automatically.

West got to dream big in designing his MOOC, and he came away with new resources that he can use in his traditional course. Information Services & Technology staff developed an interactive program that allows students to tinker with the orbit of a planet by changing its properties. And the University’s Scientific Instrument Facility built a 10-foot-long aluminum seesaw that rotates 360 degrees to help demonstrate the technology used to detect exoplanets.

The Alien Worlds MOOC launches at the same time that West is teaching his on-campus course, which means his traditional students could sign up, play with the new tools, and provide him with feedback. He thinks students who double-dip will come to class better prepared and with questions that dive deeper into the subject matter.

Flipping the classroom-first model, with students listening to the lecture before attending class, “would revolutionize the college learning environment,” West says. “Lecturing is not anywhere close to the most efficient or effective learning style, yet I and the majority of my colleagues continue to lecture as if it’s still 1600. Research tells us that it doesn’t work.”

While West appreciates the upside of MOOCs, he wonders if something might be lost without the face-to-face communication of a classroom. “Going to college is not like learning a trade or content,” he says. “It’s about learning to think and grow as a human being.”

West’s MOOC is among the first four developed at BU, all of which are offered through the online platform edX. All are available, for free and without credit, to students globally, who can do the course work at their own pace and convenience. They can opt either to audit the class or to pursue a completion certificate.

BU’s first MOOC, Sabermetrics 101, drew almost 17,000 students when it launched last spring. Two other MOOCs—The Art of Poetry, taught by Robert Pinsky, a CAS English professor, and War for the Greater Middle East, taught by Andrew Bacevich, a CAS and Pardee School of Global Studies professor emeritus of history and of international relations—debuted in September. A fifth, AP Physics 1, launches in January, while a sixth, Differential Equations, is in development.

Register for Andrew West’s MOOC, Alien Worlds: The Science of Exoplanet Discovery and Characterization, here. Follow the class on Twitter at @bualienworlds.

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

One Comment on MOOC Explores Alien Worlds

  • Maureen Coffey on 11.04.2014 at 5:04 pm

    “… if something might be lost without the face-to-face communication of a classroom …” While this is certainly true, we should view the whole “move to MOOCs” from another vantage point too: there are areas on this planet whose citizens never had the slightest chance to visit a Western or, in a general sense, a prestigious and accredited university. Forever steeped in ignorance and superstition they had little access to any kind of education, let alone tertiary education. The MOOC system may change all this and put the “backwaters” of Africa and asia on a level footing with those just simply privileged by “place of birth”!

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