Agriculture, Communication, Economics, Environment, Latest, Natural resource management

282 – MOOC reflections

You’ve probably heard of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). They emerged in 2012 and have grown rapidly in number and popularity. Most MOOCs are free to do, are fairly short, and are provided by universities for public relations purposes. Around 2500 MOOCs have been offered on a huge range of topics. For example, I’ve participated in a MOOC on water management in cities and one on music production and recording.

In late 2013, the University of Western Australia was approached by Yara Pilbarra (a local subsidiary of an international fertilizer company), who were interested in developing a funding partnership. Various possible initiatives were discussed over some months, but eventually it was agreed that I would lead the development and delivery of a MOOC titled “Agriculture, Economics and Nature”. An agreement was signed in August 2014.

Since that MOOC was run in February-March this year, I’ve had a number of people asking about it. How much work was it? What was involved? Was it successful? Was it worth it? Here are some thoughts on these questions.

First some general background about the course. Following discussions with an expert and looking at other successful MOOCs, I decided to make it a six-week course, based around a set of brief video lectures (5-6 minutes long, on average).

Each week, the course included:

  • Between 7 and 10 brief video lectures
  • An interview with an expert who reinforced the material for that week
  • Two or three brief recommended readings, many of which were Pannell Discussions
  • Some optional readings, a few of which were a bit longer or more technical
  • In some weeks, one or two optional videos not created by me
  • A multi-choice quiz (10 questions), which was to reinforce learning, not for assessment

The assessment consisted of a final exam of 60 multi-choice questions.

It was pitched as an introductory unit covering a broad range of relevant and interesting issues. It was something of a sampler, not going into depth on any issue, but providing sufficient information to provide an initial understanding and spark interest. It required no prior background in agriculture or economics. I had in mind that it should be understandable to an intelligent year 12 high school student. Although I worried at times that I had made it too simple and superficial, the responses of participants showed clearly that I had not. Satisfied participants included at least one university professor and a number of post-graduate students.

Thanks to the sponsorship, I was able to employ an assistant to work on collection of materials, preparation of the lectures and creation of slides. I also put a lot of time into this, of course, but the assistance was great.

The money also paid for a much higher quality of video production than would have been possible otherwise. I think this made a real difference to the student experience. About a third of the videos were done in the studio, and the rest were outdoors at various locations, including on farms. Here are a couple of examples.

We put quite a bit of effort into promoting the course through various channels, and ended up with 3200 people enrolling, from the following countries (from most to least number of participants):

Australia, Vietnam, United States, Kenya, Israel, Canada, India, Nigeria, Tunisia, United Kingdom, Brazil, Germany, China, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, St. Lucia, Philippines, New Zealand, Sudan, Jordan, Algeria, Benin, Greece, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Ghana, Venezuela, Colombia, Netherlands, South Africa, Georgia, Mexico, Bolivia, Bangladesh, Spain, Armenia, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Brunei, Slovenia, Thailand, Hungary, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, Zambia, Norway, Italy, Guatemala, Oman, Ireland, Tanzania, Nepal, Belgium, Zimbabwe, France, Kosovo, Uganda, Iran, Cameroon, Pakistan, Peru, Isreal, Egypt, Switzerland, Turkey.

One general characteristic of MOOCs is that they have a high drop-out rate. Usually, the completion rate is 10% or less, so I was delighted that 23% of our students completed the final exam. And of course lots more students benefited by completing some or most of the course without doing the final exam.

The amount of work required to create and deliver the course was significant. Here are my estimates of days required over the 18-month duration of the project. Most of the work happened during the 3-4 months of creating and videoing the course and then 6 weeks of running it.

TaskDavid PannellVarious Others
Designing the course and preparing content (slides, graphs, dot points, etc.).10 days50 days
Video production8 days15 days
Selecting readings and supplementary videos, writing material to fill gaps2 days
Preparing quiz and exam questions1.5 days
Setting up the Course2Go web site and uploading all of the materials.2 days
Checking all the materials and links on the Course2Go web site. 1.5 days
Monitoring discussion forums and responding.3 days2 days
Responding to messages and emails.1 day
Project management2 days5 days
Total29 days74 days

Despite the high level of effort required, I consider it to have been worthwhile. It has certainly succeeded in raising the profile of the School of Agricultural Economics and UWA, and many people reported being very interested in the content. A highlight was being recognised on the street in Perth by someone who had done the course! We have seen an increase in inquiries about our normal courses, and many respondents to the course survey expressed interest in receiving information about related courses that we offer.

As a spin-off benefit, I have used a number of the videos in another unit I teach. The experience has also influenced my thinking about how to make regular teaching more engaging and interesting for students.

Apart from all that, I actually enjoyed it. It was a novel experience that allowed me to be creative in different ways, and got me interacting with interesting people from all over the world. It was great to get people’s feedback, which was overwhelmingly positive. For example:

  • The multi-media teaching methodology was excellent. I really appreciated it.
  • Easily accessible information, presented in a format that was informative and also able to progress at my own pace.
  • I learned that economics can be understandable.
  • This was my first MOOC learning experience although I have been involved with on-line tutoring previously. I really enjoyed the pedagogy: being presented with small chunks of information as an overview; clear slides; summaries and then the opportunity to delve deeper with videos and suggested readings. It caters to a wide range of learners’ interests, abilities and time commitments. Basic economics were well explained/revised for me
  • All the lectures were very informative. Being a student of agriculture in Bachelors and Natural Resource Economics in masters this course was very much useful for me from agricultural and environmental point of view. Looking forward to learn more.
  • The videos were well prepared and presented. This is a very good strategy of teaching which included videos, slides, interviews and reading material. The resources provided were excellent. I have learnt a lot as a teacher from Professor David Pannell.
  • The course structure builds up one’s knowledge from the very basic and progresses to more complex things. I very much liked the real life application with case studies highlighted like the Australian Wool crisis, the Gippsland lakes and also the interviews with real stakeholders. It makes one realize that it’s not just theoretical, this is something applicable to everyday life.
  • The overall course layout, starting from basic and building up to useful examples and integrated knowledge around many different concepts. Lastly the interviews really did it for me. Real examples of people practising the theory.
  • The course is well organised and I am sad because it is already finished. I would like to thank your great team.
  • Very interesting course in that it brings to your mind things you thought were difficult seem easy
  • I appreciated the extent to which the professor was prepared to involve himself in the online discussions. I have undertaken many online courses, and professors are often absent from online discussions.
  • The format and duration, not too long and not too short.

We will offer the course again soon, no later than February 2016. To receive details of how to register, email

I presented a webinar on October 13 2015, covering a similar set of issues as this blog post. You can view a video recording of the webinar here:

Further reading

There is more information about the course available here: