Behind the Scenes: Astronomy MOOCs

Chris Impey presenting a lecture in his most recent MOOC titled Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life.
Published: Friday, May 24, 2019

In this episode of Futures in Digital Learning, we'll explore behind the scenes production of Chris Impey's astronomy MOOCs.

"I'm totally surprised and amused to see we have two students in Vanuatu," says University of Arizona Distinguished Professor and Deputy Head of the Astronomy Department, Chris Impey as he describes the diversity of enrollment in his MOOCs. A MOOC is an acronym and stands for a massive open online course, and Impey recently launched his latest offering titled Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life. "It's not only one of the hottest topics in astronomy, but all of science," he says.

Impey feels comfortable in the MOOC environment, and he says he likes the connections he makes with the diverse student population. He says the format is transforming the landscape of informal science learning and the number of global learners is increasing rapidly. Impey's previous MOOC titled Astronomy: Exploring Time and Space, has garnered more than 59,000 active enrollments. He describes this ability to connect with the lifelong learner as a "good sweet spot," and he's eager to see the discussions develop in his latest course.


Tess Salmón: From the University of Arizona Office of Digital Learning, this is Futures In Digital Learning, a podcast devoted to the exploration of innovative approaches and pedagogy, course design, technology, and engaging learning environments.

Luis Carrión: Hi. I'm Luis Carrion. Thanks for joining us on the University of Arizona ODL's Futures In Digital Learning podcast.

Luis Carrión: Today, we'll be talking about MOOCs. A MOOC is an acronym, and stands for a massive open online course. These online courses are aimed at unlimited participation, and are open to anyone with access via the web. They're offered for free, or at little cost, and have grown in popularity on platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, and edX.

Chris Impey: It's a middle ground where you can tell stories, where you can have good production values, where you can have a lot of rich and interesting visual material rather than just slides and a few graphics and a few images.

Luis Carrión: That's Chris Impey. He's a University of Arizona distinguished professor and Deputy Head of Astronomy. His work and research has been supported by more than $20 million in grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Luis Carrión: At the time of our interview, he was on sabbatical in London, where he was working at his alma mater, Imperial College.

Luis Carrión: Today, we'll explore behind the scenes a bit on the production of Impey's MOOC on astrobiology. He says MOOCs are transforming the landscape of informal science learning, and the number of global learners is increasing rapidly.

Luis Carrión: Chris Impey's previous MOOC, titled Astronomy: Exploring Time And Space, has garnered more than 59 thousand active enrollments. He describes this ability to connect with the lifelong learner as a, quote, "good sweet spot", and he shares some interesting insights on what to consider when designing a MOOC.

Luis Carrión: Stay with us.

Chris Impey: It's a fairly new phenomenon. It's an acronym, of course, that stands for Massive Open Online Class, and there's a number of commercial companies that offer these MOOCs. They tend to be free classes. You can pay $50 or $100 and get a completion certificate.

Chris Impey: The people who provide MOOCs are gradually moving into the area of full-credit courses that charge tuition, but the classic MOOC is still free. So the audience, the clientele for MOOCs... of which there are thousands of different MOOCs now, and I think the number of people taking them in a year is 10 million or 12 million, it's a lot of people... that audience is typically older. I think the average or the median age is in the upper 30s. More than half of MOOC participants already have a bachelors degree. Many have a higher degree. So they're well-educated people.

Chris Impey: They're doing it for their own interest. You're not going to get a degree, you're not going to get a grade, you're not going to get anything on your transcript with a MOOC. You're doing it because you like a subject, or you're interested in learning about it, so it's actually the purest form of motivation. Education world, these are called "free choice learners" or "lifelong learners". And that's a great audience, of course, because they're only there because they want to be, and they're interested in your subject.

Chris Impey: The flip side, however, is that because it's not like a normal teaching situation, there's no classroom and there are no grades, no one's taking attendance, the attrition rate, or the completion rate, is very low. And that's not necessarily a problem, given the nature of the beast.

Chris Impey: The completion rate for my MOOCs, and pretty much the industry wide, is 10% or a little less. Which means that only one in 10 people who start a MOOC do all the lectures, all the assignments, and complete the whole thing.

Chris Impey: But of course, along the way, a lot of people look at a lot of videos, and they learn something, and maybe they cherry-pick what they want to see. And maybe they get busy, because these are adults with lives and jobs and families, so they're fitting it into their busy lives.

Chris Impey: So it's a different kind of learning than most university people are familiar with.

Chris Impey:  I've been doing this since 2014, so I'm familiar with the audience. I like the audience for the MOOCs. You engage them, in addition to video lectures, with online forums. You have discussion forums, we do live session on Google Hangouts. We don't use Google Hangouts anymore because... but we put up a live session and can have, we've had up to 150 people all online at one time, trying to ask questions or emailing in questions.

Chris Impey:  So live sessions, and then the core material is, of course, video lectures and quizzes and so on.

Chris Impey: So that's what MOOCs are built of, and they're typically, it's a range of something like eight to 24 hours of video lectures chunked up into appropriate topics.

Chris Impey: The MOOCs I've been involved in are sort of nearer the high end of that range. They're quite challenging, they're quite a substantial amount of material to get through. It's a fun thing to do a MOOC.

Luis Carrión: I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about the team that you had, or how important it is to collaborate, in terms of the instructional design of the course, and putting the whole course together. If you could talk a little bit about Matthew's role, and maybe what he brought to this effort.

Chris Impey: Yeah. I mean, it does take a team. I know there are some very famous MOOCs that were done by solo professors just in their basement with a small camera or a cell phone, and they did a pretty decent job, so there's some notable examples of people who did it by themselves.

Chris Impey: But generally, a good MOOC takes a team. It takes support from the university, it takes... in our case, we had a studio, we had you, Luis, a storyteller in film and video anyway with great experience. We had editors, we had people on the technical side making sure the sound quality was high, the lighting was good. All of these things are components of a good MOOC.

Chris Impey:  So there's a technical backdrop of how you film. You don't just walk in and start shooting video. You have to be pretty well prepare and planned, but you also have to be spontaneous. You can't make it sound like it's out of a can. So there's a trick to being animated in your delivery, and spontaneous enough that it doesn't sound canned, but also having a clear narrative that you're telling and a clear amount of information you want to get across. Often there are bullet points, summary points at the beginning and the end, to wrap up a module so people know what they're going to see and what they've just seen. That helps learners always.

Chris Impey: So doing all that is more than one person's job, and Matthew Wenger, in my case, is my education manager. He's a staff member of the Steward Observatory, with the title of Education Manager, and he's been working with me for five or even six years now on all sorts of education projects.

Chris Impey: But he's an instructional designer, so he knows what it takes to build a course, whether it's face-to-face or an online course. He has experience in informal science and museum world and planetarium world, so he knows about informal learners, the kind that are the MOOC audience. So he's a perfect partner for me to pull together a MOOC, because there's a lot of detail, a lot of things to get right, and a lot of things that could go wrong.

Matthew Wenger: My name is Matthew Wenger. I am an Education Program Manager in Steward Observatory and the Department of Astronomy.

Luis Carrión: We caught up with Matthew Wenger, dressed in a NASA logo t-shirt, in his office at the Steward Observatory on the University of Arizona campus. He's at a computer where he can monitor the astrobiology MOOC as it's deployed to the first cohort of students.

Matthew Wenger: I am interested in how people learn in informal or lifelong learning settings, and in particularly, how they learn online, and right now we have a grant to study how to improve online learning. We have a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to create these online classes, and then to do research on making more effective classes.

Luis Carrión: So I see you've pulled something up here on the screen. Describe to me what we're looking at, and some of the nuts and bolts about this particular course.

Matthew Wenger: Sure.

Matthew Wenger: Right now, I have the Coursera interface for our recently-launched Astrobiology: Exploring Other Worlds course. Astrobiology is a discipline that's really interdisciplinary, so it includes astronomy and geology and biology and chemistry, and just all of these disciplines rolled together. But the idea is, looking broadly, looking for life outside of Earth, and so we use all of our knowledge about all these processes on Earth and in our own solar system to try and understand where to look for life elsewhere, or the conditions that might be necessary for life on other planets or moons, both in our own solar system and beyond.

Luis Carrión: Now, it's still early days, in terms of this course being launched. What can you tell me about the enrollment? Kind of make the scope or the spread of the student population, where are they located? Are you able to kind of break it down, in terms of where people are... from where they're tapping into the course?

Matthew Wenger: So we've got a reach, it looks like that.

Matthew Wenger: In terms of age group, we have a breakdown here. It looks like we have quite a few people who are in the 25-34, in fact most of the women who are in the class are in this 25-34 group.

Matthew Wenger: So we have a gender breakdown on the right, so 68% male, 30% women. Which is slightly higher than the Coursera average, which is 60% men and 39% women. But then when you look at the age breakdowns, you can see that we've got 20% in all the different categories of men, and then for women, we have 20% that are 18 to 24, and then we have over 40%, 47% of the 25 to 34 age group is women.

Luis Carrión: That's interesting, yeah.

Matthew Wenger:  Which is a very interesting breakdown.

Matthew Wenger: So then we have the learner location breakdown. If we look at the learner location breakdown, we have people sort of organized by continent. There's Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and South America. Unsurprisingly, the highest percentage is folks from North America, which comprise... 42% of the learners in our course are from North America. Around 30% of learners are from Europe, which is higher than the Coursera average. So is the percentage from North America, our percentage is higher than the Coursera average.

Matthew Wenger: Our percentage of students from Asia is 13%, which is lower than the Coursera average. The Coursera average is around 30%. We're doing a little bit better in Oceania than the average, not as good as the average in South America and Africa.

Matthew Wenger: But Asia is where I see the biggest difference in these graphs.

Luis Carrión: Right.

Matthew Wenger: And if you look at student status, our course... about 30% of the people are employed full-time. 24% are retired, which is higher than the Coursera average. Unemployed part-time for our class is 13%.

Matthew Wenger: And these are things that kind of match well with the research that we've done, so when we've conducted surveys on our previous course, a high percentage... I don't remember what the percentage is, but a high percentage of the students is retired, the people who respond to our class.

Matthew Wenger: And that makes sense for something like this. Astronomy is generally a subject that if you're going to take a MOOC about astronomy, it's not because you are trying to pursue this as a profession, it's usually because it's a hobby interest. When you look at amateur astronomers, a large percentage of them are retired adults.

Luis Carrión: Right.

Matthew Wenger: And in particular, men.

Matthew Wenger:  So it matches well with the data that we've collected from our surveys, which is a self-selected data set, so you can't... you wouldn't expect it necessarily to match what we see on Coursera, but it does seem to match pretty well.

Luis Carrión: Yeah, one of the things that Chris was talking about is how much he enjoys working with the student population. He talked about how they're very self-motivated, the lifelong learners, are not necessarily doing it because it's required for some career advancement or some profession, they're doing it out of a genuine interest in the topic. That self-motivation is something that he enjoys tapping into, and that's what I'm seeing here and what I'm hearing you describe as well. It's a different student population that is looking at it as a hobby.

Luis Carrión: Chris also talked about how, when designing these courses, the subject can be very math-intensive, so it's a different approach that you have to take to address this population. He described about the more filmic approach, more entertaining and engaging. Not necessarily edutainment, but kind of moving in that direction and finding that sweet spot between, say, a PBS documentary, NOVA or science documentary, with a little bit more substance in terms of the educational content, but also being engaging in that regard. So it sounds similar to what you're describing here.

Matthew Wenger:  Yeah, and then a lot of the participants have college degrees already.

Luis Carrión: Right.

Matthew Wenger: So we see a lot of people with masters and bachelors degrees in the class. And you're right, these students are intrinsically motivated to do these things, and we've structured this course a little bit differently than we did before, than we did with our last class, so we've made several changes from our previous course. We learned a lot from our early days with Coursera. So not only have we changed, but Coursera itself has changed. A lot of the things that we did in our last course have informed what we are doing with this one.

Matthew Wenger: The first change that we've made was, the original course was Astronomy: Exploring Time and Space, and it was 11 weeks long. Which we found was way too long for one of these classes. People don't have that kind of time. As you saw from the graphs, a lot of them are working. Not the majority, but many of them are still professionals who are working, and trying to make it through an 11-week course is a lot.

Luis Carrión: Yeah, yeah, that's super challenging.

Matthew Wenger: So our latest course is six weeks long, and we do not have a writing assignment the first week, but we have writing assignments... I think all the rest of the weeks we do, and then we have a final project. We try to walk students step-by-step through each of these modules, and we don't have a lot of math... To get to your point in question is, we don't include a lot of math in the assignments, but we do have a little bit of math in our final project.

Matthew Wenger: Unfortunately, we've changed too many variables to get a really direct side-by-side comparison. The course is shorter. There is a little bit of math in it. I would say this course, it's not necessarily more technical, but we don't start from completely first principles. The last course, we talked about some very basic physics and chemistry principles, whereas this class we start with the solar system and we just kind of go from there.

Chris Impey:  I like reaching the general public. I mean, I write popular books and give probably 30 public lectures a year, maybe more. So I like reaching people in broader public audiences, and a MOOC is a very wide reach. Coursera has a marketplace that is worldwide, and they have... MOOCs are built in other countries, not just in the US and Europe, and their audience is pretty wide. So I expect a new MOOC will have similar demographics, but my two existing MOOCs... one with Udemy, one with Coursera, which have enrolled a total of 130 thousand students, which is a vast number... Now or course, that small fraction of them totally completed the class, but still over 10 thousand. That's a lot of students to have online.

Chris Impey: They were in, I think last time I checked, 161 different countries. And you can see breakdowns of the countries.

Chris Impey: 40%, roughly, are in the US, so a large number, but not the majority. The next largest contributions of students come from India, actually, is second. China is a significant country. Brazil, and then a set of European countries. So the list is a little surprising, some of the countries that rank highly in the list. Not all English-speaking, even, so they're taking a MOOC in English.

Chris Impey: So that's a very wide region. I occasionally just, I'm totally surprised and amused to look down that list and say, "Oh my god, I have two students in Vanuatu," which is a tiny atoll in the South Pacific, which I didn't even know they had internet. So occasionally in these, out of 160 countries, there are going to be some pretty poor countries and some obscure countries, and it's amazing to think of these people that far away, learning about astronomy online. So that's kind of cool.

Chris Impey: And that's a motivation, of course, just to reach people that far away. If they can call in, any of these people can be in a live session and ask me questions about something that happened in the news, because astronomy is very news-worthy, a lot of research happening every week, so we have basically bi-weekly live sessions an hour long where Matthew and a couple of students field the questions and sort of curate them, if you like, so we cover a range of topics and I answer them in real time.

Chris Impey: We put those sessions up on YouTube afterwards, all of them. There's 100 or more of these hour-long sessions now on YouTube, and bizarrely to me, some of them have hundreds of views. It's hard to imagine why someone would look at a video of randomly-ordered questions about astronomy for an hour. That's someone who's very interested in astronomy, or has a lot of time on their hands.

Chris Impey: So the live sessions are also part of the outreach as well..

Luis Carrión: That's really fascinating to me. Yeah, I mean, I really think that the MOOC has been able to leverage this inter-con activity, this new world that we live in, with inter-con activity being so accessible just across geographical barriers, barriers between nations. For you, it must be very gratifying to be able to reach out to these people and vice versa, for them to be able to access this information, this knowledge that you are able to distribute. I think that's super cool, and it's great to hear you talk about that.

Chris Impey: The MOOC space, to me is interesting, because it's a sort of middle ground between conventional lecturing in a classroom... which all professors know how to do, that's how they do most of their teaching... and the more sort of media-oriented entertainment or edutainment, if you like, which has a more filmic quality and it's obviously there, it's about scripts, it's about production values, and often very professionally produced animations and simulations and writers who are highly-trained and so on.

Chris Impey: We're not trying to compete with NOVA, for instance, when we do a MOOC, but we're also not doing cheesy and corny and shaky handheld camera stuff, the kind of things you see at the low end of YouTube. It's sort of a middle ground, and it's a good middle ground, because it's a middle ground where you can tell stories, where you can have good production values, where you can have a lot of rich and interesting visual material rather than just slides and a few graphics and a few images. So I kind of enjoy that middle ground, because it sort of challenges you to take it towards the end of high production values and make it a little bit more TV or movie-like, while still being instructionally oriented. You're giving information, you're talking about facts and science, and that's what the audience wants, too.

Luis Carrión: Chris, thank you very much. Unless there's anything else that you'd like to add, I think [crosstalk 00:22:38]

Chris Impey: Yeah. No. Obviously, the last I would say is just an invitation to anyone who's interested in astrobiology, which is the search for life in the universe, one of the hottest topics, not just in astronomy but in all of science, check out our new MOOC on Coursera.

Tess Salmón: The Futures of Digital Learning Podcast is a production of the University of Arizona Office of Digital Learning. The ODL Studios creates innovative media, captivating stories, and compelling course content for interactive online classes.

Tess Salmón:  This episode was produced by Luis Carrion. You can find this episode, along with all future episodes, on the ODL website at, and on SoundCloud or your favorite podcast platform.

Tess Salmón: If you have any questions, comments, or ideas you'd like to share with our office, go to the Contact Us link on our website.

End of Transcript

For information on how you can join Chris Impey’s Astronomy MOOC’s, visit Astronomy: Exploring Time and Space and Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life.

Authored By:

Luis Carrión

Luis Carrión
Videographer/Producer, Lead