Editor’s note: Professor Jonathan Tomkin from University of Illinois recently finished his Introduction to Sustainability course. The course will run again starting January 14th. We caught up with him and asked him a few questions about his course and his experience teaching it.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself.
A: I’m an Aussie living in the Midwest of the United States. My research interest is glaciers and ice sheets, so I’ve always travelled far from home for work. I miss the beach, but I love the people, and the craft beers are pretty good too. It’s a huge blast to be working at the University of Illinois – the folk here are enormously talented, and the opportunities are incredible – such as teaching a course with tens of thousands of participants!
Q: What course are you teaching?
A: I teach “Introduction to Sustainability ”
Q: Why should students be interested in this course? What is the one thing that you hope students will take away from your course?
A: This course addresses the biggest question of society today – what will the 21 st century be like? Do you ever wonder what world your kids and grandkids will inherent – will there be energy, water, food for all? I take an academic approach, not an activist one, but I think many people take away a very positive message from the course. We have everything to meet the challenges of the future already in hand, if we choose to use them.
Q: What excites you about teaching a MOOC? What has surprised you?
A: One of the most gratifying elements of leading a MOOC is that many of the participants are accessing higher education for the first time, or for the first time in a long time. I received many emails from students who were surprised – in some cases couldn’t quite believe – that they could enroll for free. I think when a mother in the Philippines thanks you for making her feel like a schoolgirl again – well, that’s not an interaction you get in a normal course.
I love the community that builds up. The Facebook site, set up by course participants, has over 2000 members. Taking this course is like being part of a big sustainability community.
Q: Can you tell us about your favorite teaching MOOC moment?
A: We crashed the NASA climate webpage (http://climate.nasa.gov/keyIndicators/: it was needed for an assignment, and wasn’t able to handle the sudden jump in traffic). But participants posted archived copies of the site, allowing everyone to complete the assignment. A great example of the awesome power of the MOOC!
Q: What lessons from your MOOC experience will you bring back to your live classroom?
A: I’ve “flipped” the classroom. Not only do my face-to-face students get to take advantage of the fantastic materials that the Illinois education team built for the MOOC (such as the lectures, the slides and graphics) they also get to interact with the global community. Last week a course participant sent me a link to energy efficient housing in Alaska – and we used it to launch a discussion on embodied energy.