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May 15, 2013 / Damien Irving

Taking advantage of open education resources

As weather/climate scientists, we are all aware of the profound impact that open access journals are having on publishing. The White House recently announced that publications from taxpayer-funded research should be made free to read, Princeton University have established a policy that prevents researchers from giving the copyright of scholarly articles to journal publishers, and thousands of researchers have boycotted publisher Elsevier due to the exorbitant fees they charge for access to scientific publications.

What you might be less aware of, particularly if you don’t work in the university sector, is a somewhat similar revolution that is taking place with respect to online open education. The movement started in the late 1990s with the advent of OpenCourseWare, and began to take off in 2002 when MIT established MIT OpenCourseWare. At this website, anyone can get access to virtually all MIT course content (i.e. the syllabus, lecture notes and reading lists for nearly all of the subjects they teach). There are now hundreds of universities that offer similar access to at least some of their teaching materials (see the OpenCourseWare Consortium for details).

While free access to university teaching materials was an amazing development, it’s kind of like spying on a class from the back of the room. You can watch, but you can’t join in the learning process. This lack of any real participatory element led to the idea of delivering free university courses online, complete with lectures, assignments and exams. These are commonly known as Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) and their popularity exploded in 2012, when several prestigious universities like Harvard, MIT and Stanford got involved. In fact, the New York Times dubbed 2012 The Year of the MOOC, while a similar article in Time magazine said that free MOOCs open the door to Ivy League for the Masses. The three big players on the MOOC scene are Coursera, EdX and Udacity. They currently offer about 250 courses between them, mainly in technical subjects like computer science and maths (because these have the most straightforward content in terms of grading and assessment).

While this pursuit of free education for the masses obviously sounds great, what does it mean for those of us working in the weather/climate sciences? Well, it means that picking up new skills and knowledge post graduation is now easier than ever. One of my office mates is running a global climate model as part of his research, so he recently enrolled in a high performance computing subject with Coursera. Similarly, another office mate is keen on switching to Python, so he has enrolled in an introductory course (as well as a beginners course in guitar playing, but that’s probably not so relevant here). The latter is doing all the lectures and assignments in accordance with the subject deadlines (at an estimated time commitment of 5 hours per week), while the former simply enrolled in order to get his hands on the course content, which he will watch/read some other time. These examples are fairly representative, in the sense that most MOOCs are introductory in nature and that many people enrol in a course but don’t formally complete the assessment. The scope of the teaching material will obviously grow as the concept matures, but in the meantime OpenCourseWare represents a great alternative if there isn’t a MOOC for the subject you’re interested in. In fact, over the past few months I’ve made frequent use of the lecture notes from an MIT subject called Atmospheric and Ocean Circulations.



Leave a Comment
  1. drclimate / May 16 2013 07:53

    If you’re interested in learning more about MOOCs, Sir John Daniel has given some great speeches and presentations that are available at his blog:

  2. drclimate / Jul 22 2013 14:01

    A complete listing of MOOCs courses (across all of Coursera, EdX, Udacity, etc) can be found at

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