Saturday, April 20, 2013

Teaching Ecosystem Ecology On-line

This fall I led a survey of how ecosystem ecology is taught in the US. The results were stunning.

Approximately 1300 students a year take a course on the topic. 40% of the students are at just 10 institutions.

In terms of dollars, it means that about $1.5 million a year is spent on learning ecosystem ecology at the undergraduate level.

That's not much.

More courses need to be taught at more institutions. Ecosystem ecology needs to be part of a balanced curriculum.

Convincing departments of the merits of this is not easy. It requires influencing hiring decisions and allocation of effort.

Beyond that, we need more opportunities for non-traditional students. High school teachers and practicing ecologists need the opportunities to continue their education.

It seems like an online course is the best way to making ecosystem ecology available to more people.

For about the past two months I've been working on doing that.

I'm working on putting together a full on-line course on ecosystem ecology based on the Chapin, Matson, Vitousek textbook. The course can be taken by anyone for credit through KSU's Division of Continuing Education. It's being offered starting in the Fall.

A few thoughts on the process of putting together an on-line course.

An on-line course is a good way to deliver content compared to a typical lecture. All the lectures are narrated slide shows with more interesting videos interspersed. The course gets broken up into 5-10 minute chunks which don't strain attention spans. The quality of the material is often better, too. As an instructor, I can edit out mistakes and do retakes. No one has a bad seat. You can snack and talk. You don't have to look at me.

It's easy to weave in multimedia content. I can break up lectures with videos of me in the field or animations of global atmospheric circulation in ways that are difficult in the classroom.

Lecturing to a computer is not as strange as I thought. I become hyper-aware of short pauses though. I've said the word "um" three times so far and each time it's like nails on a blackboard.

Once the slides are done, it takes me about 2.5 h to put together an hour of lecture. That includes reading through the chapter again, looking over and fixing slides, narrating the video, renarrating when I mess up, and editing things into smaller chunks.

I give my lectures in my home "study-o". It's quiet there, but sometimes the doorbell rings.

There are certainly drawbacks compared to the ideal--a field course with 10 people and an instructor--but its not meant to replace that.

I'll write more when things get further along.

In the meantime, a course website is up at It'll have a sample lecture and some other information.

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