Advice on using MOOCs

Harwich U3A

The Harwich Pennisnsula Astronomy group have followed FutureLearn courses. Not everyone in the group does every course and some joined for one term to follow a course advertised as the next subject through the local quarterly U3A magazine and website. Those not following the current course continue as associate members, informed by email of meetings but not attending. Most members find keeping to the course plan and keeping up each week is a good plan. Those who fall behind tend not to finish but are aware they could rejoin the online course. The group email each other locally about tangents or books or helpful websites as well as joining course discussions. At monthly meetings the group have presentations giving a summary of "the course so far". There is some competition on the assessment scores but sharing these is voluntary and some don't mention their scores.

The courses the group have followed are described below:

Gravity is with Paris Diderot University but it is in English (although the professor's French accent seems to be setting some hearts a flutter!) No maths and no previous science required. The first week takes you through early understandings of gravity and concludes with Einstein's theories of relativity. Much of the teaching is done with video or on screen questions. Visual and thought experiments are used to explain the concepts and train the mind and there's a quiz every step to check you have got the point. Thankfully you can go back and do the quizzes again and again after re-reading or re-viewing the previous lesson...some members have done so several times - necessary to get a "creative writing" mind into science mode! The change of use of words from common parlance to a strict meaning:- words like "time" "space" "weight" "inertia" "star" initially being a tripping up issue in the first week.
In later weeks the course covers the implications of the new research tool of gravitational waves and black holes etc. The news of the first proved reception of gravitational waves was announced during the course. This was quite exciting and added lots of interest to the live interview to which members could add their own questions with the inventor.
Expect to set aside about 2 hours a week for this course and a bit more if you have to keep going over things. In addition there's the opportunity to online chat and exchange questions and answers with the other students around the world. Not all the chat is about gravity (hence the comment about the prof's accent setting hearts a-flutter).

This was the group's second MOOC, as in the autumn some members had followed the Open University MOOC on Moons of the Solar System - seeing many of the latest photographs from space exploration of moons quite unlike our own dry dusty Moon. Farther away from the sun are frozen moons where water and other gases form ice as hard as rock on earth. To the surprise of some scientists as well as students some moons are volcanicly very hot places even though they have a frozen surface. Few moons have a dense atmosphere but storms and rain do happen on one or two.
That course required 3- 4 hours a week for 7-8 weeks. It included use of an online microscope to look at the international collection of moon rocks. Some weeks were spent learning quite of geological language, (those who have already done some geology smiled patiently at the rest).
One member completed the end of term assessment with a pass mark of 94%.
After finishing the course the January 2017 meeting and took advantage of clear night to look at our Moon through a telescope and members were able to identify some of the different crater forms of which had been learnt.

Also in January 2017 the group began another OU course on Orion (visible over the sea from Dovercourt during the evening in the early months of the year). In the first week the group learnt that not only are there different coloured stars but on Orion’s sword, that hangs from the bright 3 star belt, the Orion nebula, a star creche where baby stars begin their first millennia. This course of four weeks includes more practical tasks and the group think they may need to ask one of the photography groups to assist, should there be another night when the clouds clear.