Thursday, May 2, 2013

MOOCs and geology

Janet Stemwedel has a new post up regarding the use of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in (replacing) university classes. Would MOOCs work for teaching geology?

I doubt it.

Geology is an applied science of observation, of going outside and looking at stuff (rocks, soil), and trying to piece together what happened. Often, you need to use most of your senses (ok, don't try tasting stuff in the environmental biz). Taped lectures will have examples of what to look for, but you really need to be given a bunch of samples or to go out and ponder road cuts and learn how to figure things out on your own. Is that a natural fracture, or did someone manhandle the sample? Which direction is "up"? How did those rocks get smushed together like that? How can I get a reliable indicator of fracture orientation in this mess? Being a good geologist is only partly about learning facts, and is more about developing an eye for important observations.

And being a successful environmental consultant is about more than just knowing your facts. It's about being able to use different lines of evidence to determine what's going on out there, and to evaluate other folk's theories. It's about writing reports that don't actively piss off the target audience. I've harped on this before, but the critical evaluation and writing skills I got from my small liberal arts college (SLAC) were what allowed me to progress quickly from where I started as a field tech. And my expensive, labor-intensive SLAC must have done something right according to my management, because my office hired a succession of new grads from that same program for years after I paved the way.

If I had no ability to access good teachers and relevant samples, then a MOOC would help to get some of the basic science down. So would a good textbook. But I'd have a serious deficiency in my understanding of geology if I didn't have someone to call attention to my bad habits and show me where my interpretations were going astray.


Lockwood said...

Agree. Some topics require more interaction with other people- including fellow students, not just faculty- and with the "real world" than others. Geology is one of them. I could imagine getting quite some distance, for example, in mathematics or physics before needing more than (virtual) classroom interaction, but I can't imagine trying to learn more than I'm explicitly told- which should be a goal, "What can I figure out on my own-" on a virtual field trip.

C W Magee said...

A well thought-out planetary science MOOC could work really well, because planetary science is all done remotely anyway.