February 4, 2013

The New, Exciting World of MOOCs

Meg Burke

Meg Burke

Sr. Academic Program Coordinator

Center for a Livable Future

Last week, the Center for a Livable Future dove headfirst into the strange new world of massive open online courseware. If you haven’t yet heard of it, you are definitely missing out!

Recently, the Johns Hopkins University partnered with Coursera, an organization that aims to provide a first-class, free education to students around the world. The Bloomberg School of Public Health currently offers eight courses on the site—CLF’s is one of them.

More than 18,000 students from around the world have enrolled in “An Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Perspectives from Public Health.” Taught by CLF director Bob Lawrence, MD, and Keeve Nachman, PhD, the course brings together experts from the fields of public health and agriculture to share and discuss stories about the food we eat every day, the path that food travels to reach our plates, and the impacts on public health. Specifically, students will hear from experts on topics like industrial food animal production, the current farm bill, alternatives to industrial food systems. In addition, they’ll take a look at the Meatless Monday campaign.

In the first week of class, students were asked to complete the Global Footprint calculator and then reflect on their scores in the discussion forums. Based on an informal poll, just over a third of students received a score indicating that we would need between 4.0-4.9 Earths if everyone on Earth lived as those people currently live. As more than 75 percent of the class received a score between 3 and 6 Earths, most students were shocked by their high score and expressed disbelief at their results.

Suddenly, threads with titles like “Yikes. 4.1 planets for a vegan bus taker in an 800 sq ft apartment!” and “I thought I would do better!” appeared on the discussion forums. Students were soon vowing to carpool more, shop locally, and use less electricity in their homes. They also began to compare their scores to those who live similar lifestyles in other countries, and they realized the implications of where they live on their global footprint. Many students soon realized that by living in the United States, their score was often higher, which began several interesting policy discussions in the forums.

Although we are only about a week into our course, we have been thrilled by the wisdom of the students enrolled. We are really enjoying the tough questions they are asking and their ability to answer each other’s questions with thoughtful and evidence-based responses. We are so encouraged by the interest in the course, and seemingly growing number of people eager to explore the complexities of the U.S. food system. We can’t wait to see how the course progresses in the next five weeks!

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