University of Arizona astronomer Chris Impey has gone from teaching University students to teaching the world.
Impey, a University Distinguished Professor and deputy department head of astronomy, developed a special course, "Astronomy: State of the Art" – the University's first massive open online class, or MOOC.
Launched in March, Impey’s free astronomy survey course now has more than 4,400 students enrolled, with about 40 percent coming from outside the United States.
"I’ve always taught diverse groups outside of the University where you get to present your subject in different ways,” said Impey, mentioning both NASA engineers and Tibetan monks. "I used all of those experiences teaching outside groups to figure out what I thought was the best way to teach a MOOC."
The course, delivered online through video lectures, hundreds of PowerPoint slides, discussion and live Q&A sessions, is offered in conjunction with the training platform, Udemy.
"You put up a course and people keep coming to it as they want, so our enrollment has just continued to grow," Impey says. "For the synchronous part, people are all over the world, so you can never do a live session at a time they can all be happy with, so we move the times around.”
Impey designed the course as a survey of astronomy, covering everything from planets to cosmology, with a particular emphasis on cutting-edge missions and the latest advances, like exoplanets, black holes and dark matter.
“When we started, we structured it as a half semester course, with a new topic each week for seven weeks,” Impey says. “I primed the pump by announcing the course in the spring to amateur astronomy groups and astronomy instructors at small colleges nationwide. I’m pretty sure my early core of students came from that source, so they’re obviously very interested in the subject.”
There’s little in the way of academic research about how people use MOOCS and completion rates for the classes, but Impey said 10 percent is a rough average. About 15 percent of those enrolled have kept up with the entirety of his class.
“I’m fairly happy with that completion rate, because watching dozens of hours of video is a high bar. It’s a lot of engagement,” he says. “I look at this as more outreach than standard teaching and if I’ve had 4,400 people who have engaged with astronomy video lectures and materials, that’s pretty good.”
Astronomy: State of the Art has its own presence on Facebook and Twitter and augments the standard online course materials with a series of podcast interviews with UA astronomers that highlights the university’s research strengths.
“We use social media as much as we can. For some fraction of this audience, they love that and they participate a lot,” Impey says.
In the future, Impey is considering co-convening a classic MOOC with a UA online introductory astronomy class by using the same core materials online.
The university is also negotiating an institutional affiliation with the educational technology company Coursera, which is more aligned to standard university type mission than Udemy.