276 – MOOC

A MOOC is a “Massive Open Online Course”. They are free to enrol in, and they are very popular, often attracting thousands of participants. I’ve prepared a MOOC on “Agriculture, Economics and Nature”, for which registrations are now open. 

About a year ago I was introduced to the CEO of Yara Pilbara, the Western Australian arm of a major international fertilizer company headquartered in Norway. He was keen to establish a partnership with the University of Western Australia and to contribute financially to a venture that would benefit the University and would be consistent with Yara’s values and interests.

After discussing some options, I agreed to lead the development and delivery of a MOOC on the economics of agriculture and the environment. Preparation of the course is now almost complete, and it will be offered for the first time starting on February 2, running for six weeks. I’m hoping that you’ll consider signing up to do the course, or perhaps recommending it to others. You can join the 1000 people from about 50 countries who have already registered.

Here are some more details so that you know what you’d be getting into if you did the course.

It doesn’t require any prior knowledge of agriculture or of economics, and is pitched at about the level of upper high school or first year university. I’m hoping that it will be of wide interest.

Each week has a different theme:

  1. Agricultural production and prices, and agriculture’s reliance on natural resources
  2. Resource and environmental challenges facing agriculture
  3. The economics of agricultural inputs
  4. The economics of land conservation
  5. The economics of agri-environmental projects
  6. Government policies in agriculture

There are 8-10 brief videos to watch each week, mostly 5 to 7 minutes long. There are two or three recommended readings each week, each of them brief and non-technical. There will be a brief online quiz each week so that you can check that you’ve understood the material, and a multiple choice exam at the end. Pass the exam and you’ll receive a certificate. The course is stand-alone and doesn’t give you credit for any other course at the University of Western Australia.

There will be opportunities to interact with other students from around the world in forums on the course web site. My assistant and I will also participate in these forums to help people with their problems and questions.

A very basic ability with maths is needed. You’ll need to be able to read and interpret a line graph, and there are a couple of optional spreadsheet exercises that you can choose to do.

I’m estimating that the work load for students will be about 2 hours per week, although you can obviously spend more time reading more deeply on each of the topics if you choose to.

For me, the aim in presenting the course is to raise awareness of the School of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UWA. Perhaps it will lead to students enrolling in our other courses.

Yara is involved to make a contribution to the community and to generate positive publicity and public relations. Yara assured me that they would not try to influence the content of the course, and they certainly have stuck to that.

For students, the potential benefits include learning interesting information about the economics of agriculture and the environment, assessing whether you might be interested in doing further study in this area, and interacting with others online as part of the course.

The financial support allowed us to pay for professional-quality production, design and editing for the videos that make up the core of the course. I’m confident this will improve the experience of students compared to some of the very cheaply produced MOOCs that are available.

For more information, or to register for the course, go to this page, or take a look at the promo video below.

If you watch the promo above, I hope you like the theme music. I recorded three different version of it in my studio (my backyard shed, actually), and they’ll be used in different weeks of the course.

275 – Grammar tip: hyphens

Many people, perhaps most, don’t know how to use hyphens with compound adjectives. It’s worth learning because use or non-use of hyphens can make a difference to how people interpret your meaning.

I remember learning about various rules of grammar in school, but I don’t think my teachers ever mentioned the use of hyphens with compound adjectives. I suspect my teachers weren’t the only ones leaving this out, because it’s so common to see writing where hyphens are needed but absent.

Perhaps it sounds like a nit-picky grammar-nerd sort of issue that people don’t really need to worry about, but in my view it is worth paying attention to. At the very least, good use of hyphens is a skill that can help make your text more readable. And in certain cases the omission of hyphens can change your meaning in serious ways.

Here are some examples where hyphens avoid ambiguity, misinterpretation, confusion or just nonsense.

A violent-weather conference is a conference about violent weather.
A violent weather conference is a conference about weather, and the conference is violent.

A small-state senator is a senator from a small state.
A small state senator is a state senator who is small.

Built-in cupboards are cupboards that are fixed into the house.
Built in cupboards describes something that was constructed within cupboards.

A first-aid post is a post that provides first aid.
A first aid post is an aid post that is, in some sense, ranked first.

What is going on? The hyphen is binding together the two words that precede the noun. When they are bound together, they apply jointly to the noun. First-aid is one thing. A small-state is one thing. These bound-together things are adjectives because they describe the following noun. (What type of senator is she? A small-state senator.) They are compound adjectives because they consist of two or more words.

grammarIf we leave the hyphen out, the two words are not bound together and the last word in the pair moves over and belongs to the noun instead. The first word in the pair remains an adjective, but it’s now on its own, describing the next two words. (What type of weather conference was it? A violent one.)

In most cases, omitting the hyphen(s) from a compound adjective doesn’t cause as much ambiguity as the above examples. However, it often does affect the reading process, as the reader has to spend at least a little bit of time working out from the context whether or not the first two words in the phrase are linked together or not. With hyphens in place, a reader can just whiz along without having to puzzle about how to interpret the words. I think it makes the process of reading more relaxing and enjoyable.

Here are some examples from academic research papers where there should have been hyphens but they were originally omitted:

diffuse-source pollution
water-use efficiency
water-quality benefits
information-collection activities
cause-and-effect relationships
land-use change
land-use policy
water-sensitive cities
policy-relevant questions
spur-of-the-moment decision
long-term planning
short-term effect
systems-level interactions
low-impact option
short-term solution
long-term projects

If you’re excited by this stuff, you might like to know about some ifs and buts related to the use of hyphens in this way.

A compound adjective occurring after the noun don’t require a hyphen.

I have a water-proof jacket (hyphen).
My jacket is water proof (no hyphen).

Sometimes a particular pair of words can be a compound adjective in one situation (requiring a hyphen) and a noun in another situation (requiring no hyphen).

This is a long-run trend (with hyphen).
This trend will continue in the long run (no hyphen).

Multiple adjectives don’t need hyphens, only compound adjectives. In “an articulate intelligent person”, articulate and intelligent are two separate adjectives, so they don’t need a hyphen.

If the first word in the compound adjective is an adverb (skilfully, happily, stupidly), don’t use a hyphen because it’s obviously linked to the next word.

A skilfully negotiated result.
A happily married man.
A stupidly designed policy.

Finally, note that hyphens are not the only way to indicate that a set of words is a compound adjective. Here are some alternatives that you might prefer in some situations.

Quotation marks: The politician flashed his “trust me” smile.
Title Case: I found the Perth City Council building. (Often used for titles.)
Italics: It was an ad hoc decision. (Often used for foreign phrases.)

In these cases, you don’t also need to include hyphens because it is obvious that the words in quotes, title case or italics belong together.