One motivation for developing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) has been to democratize education by giving everyone access to knowledge often presented by leading professors. It was certainly one reason why I developed and delivered two MOOCs on ‘Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life‘ in 2015/16 and ‘Understanding Super Structures’ in 2017. The workload involved in supporting thousands of learners around the global is not insignificant and was unsustainable for me so I gave up after running them for a couple of years despite the intangible rewards [see ‘Knowledge spheres‘ on March 9th, 2016 and ‘A liberal engineering education‘ on March 2nd, 2016] . However, I incorporated the MOOC on energy into my undergraduate module on thermodynamics to create a blended approach to learning [see ‘Blended learning environments‘ on November 14th, 2018]. This paid dividends for me when the pandemic forced our campus into lock-down in the middle of semester last March and I already had a large number of bite-sized activities available online for our students. Most universities have had to move their teaching online due to the pandemic; but not all students are able to access the online materials as easily others. The Booker shortlisted novelist, Tsitsi Dangarembga has reported how one of her neighbours has struggled to access resources recommended to him by lecturers at his college in Bulawayo due to the cost and unreliability of Wi-Fi in Zimbabwe. She tried to help him by registering him for her hotspot package but, in common with many students, he studies mainly at night when hotspot venues are closed. The maps shows the global distribution of learners in one of the Energy MOOCs that I delivered and you can see the holes in Africa and South America which, at the time, we thought might be due to a lack of computer and internet access and Dangarembga’s account seems to support this hypothesis. So, we designed our second MOOC on Structures to be accessible via a mobile phone by using fewer videos and more audio clips that could be quickly downloaded and listened to offline. Unfortunately, we ran out of resources to complete the research on whether it was accessed more successfully in those grey areas on the map; however, the audio recordings were unpopular with the more traditional audience in the USA and UK who gave us immediate and vocal feedback!
As engineers, we like to draw simple diagrams of the systems that we are attempting to analyse because most of us are pictorial problem-solvers and recording the key elements of a problem in a sketch helps us to identify the important issues and select an appropriate solution procedure [see ‘Meta-representational competence’ on May 13th, 2015]. Of course, these simple representations can be misleading if we omit parameters or features that dominate the behaviour of the system; so, there is considerable skill in idealising a system so that the analysis is tractable, i.e. can be solved. Students find it especially difficult to acquire these skills [see ‘Learning problem-solving skills‘ on October 24th, 2018] and many appear to avoid drawing a meaningful sketch even when examinations marks are allocated to it [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018]. Of course, in thermodynamics it is complicated by the entropy of the system being reduced when we omit parameters in order to idealise the system; because with fewer parameters to describe the system there are fewer microstates in which the system can exist and, hence according to Boltzmann, the entropy will be lower [see ‘Entropy on the brain‘ on November 29th, 2017]. Perhaps this is the inverse of realising that we understand less as we know more. In other words, as our knowledge grows it reveals to us that there is more to know and understand than we can ever hope to comprehend [see ‘Expanding universe‘ on February 7th, 2018]. Is that the second law of thermodynamics at work again, creating more disorder to counter the small amount of order achieved in your brain?
I have been away from Liverpool a lot in the last few weeks. Teaching in Manchester and London but also visiting Taiwan. In the capital, Taipei they have yellow cabs and a succession of black limos pick up visitors from the airport. I even saw a baseball pro shop but despite the strong American influence, the culture is definitely Chinese so ordering meals and buying train tickets is a challenge if you don’t speak or read Mandarin. I am a Visiting Professor at the National Tsing Hua University and was there to meet with some PhD students and participate in a research workshop on computational modelling [see my post on Can you trust your digital twins?on November 22nd, 2016]. It wasn’t my first trip to Taiwan [see my post entitled ‘Crash in Taipei: an engineer’s travelogue?’ on November 19th, 2014] but I visited a high school for the first time. I spent half a day meeting teachers and pupils at the Taipei European School. I gave a talk based on my post entitled ‘Happenstance, not engineering?’ [see my post on November 9th, 2016] to several groups of science pupils in an attempt to explain what engineers do. The reception was enthusiastic and we had some good question and answer sessions. It was a first for me to do this in any school and the first time in the memory of the teachers that a professional engineer had visited the school. A while ago I wrote about nurturing the spirit through the exchange of gifts in the form of knowledge [see my post entitled ‘Knowledge spheres’ on March 9th, 2016]. My spirits were lifted by talking to the pupils and maybe one or two of them will have been persuaded to think about becoming an engineer. We also exchanged material gifts so that I have a beautiful vase to stand on my shelf and remind me of an enjoyable visit and hopefully prompt me to go again. Lots of young people have no idea what engineers do and are looking for a career that will allow them to contribute to society, so they are surprised and excited when they realise engineering offers that opportunity. So, we should get out more and tell them about it.
There is a well-known quote from Blaise Pascal: ‘Knowledge is like a sphere, the greater its volume, the larger its contact with the unknown’. Presumably, Pascal was eloquently observing that the more we know, the more we realise how much we don’t know and the more questions that we have. Perhaps this is also a test of whether we have acquired knowledge and understanding or only information; because the acquisition of knowledge and understanding will lead to further questions, whereas information tends simply to overwhelm us. We need to process information into some form of ordered structure in order to gain understanding and render it more useful. Of course, as in any process that involves increasing order and reducing entropy, this involves an expenditure of available energy or effort. What makes it interesting and stimulating when mentoring learners on a MOOC is that very many more of them are prepared to make that effort than in a class of undergraduate students. Some of their questions, including (or perhaps especially) the tangential ones, cause me to think about concepts in a new way and this increases my own knowledge sphere. Lewis Hyde remarks in his book, The Gift, that ‘ideas might be treated as gifts in science’ and ‘a circulation of gifts nourishes [a] part of our spirit’. I would like to think this is happening in a MOOC, both between the educator and learners and between learners. In my experience, it is a culture that has been lost from the undergraduate classroom, which is to the detriment of both educator and student.