… and finally

I’m very glad I studied this course, even if I depressed myself too much.  It might just be heightened awareness but it feels that climate change issues are becoming more frequently discussed in the media.  No doubt the flooding in the UK helped to bring the issue to front pages, but it seems that I do see articles on sea level rise, carbon capture, why not to frack etc quite frequently. Also, as I talk, write and email around the world I receive increasingly sympathetic feedback: most recently a correspondent mentioned the Wilkinson/Pickett book on Inequality “The Spirit Level” which makes some of the most necessary points.  I had not read it, but now have (together with its debunking rival “The Spirit Level Delusion”).

I was also heartened to listen to Ray Allen speak in Sheffield last week about making use of CO2 (CDU – carbon dioxide utilization).  He claims that it is thermodynamically feasible to create fuel (mainly CO) from CO2.

So my future intention is to keep talking about non-fossil energy, economic shrinkage (as opposed to growth), eating less meat and flying less.

So far, so depressing

Mid-way through week 7 (of 8) I reflect that I have learned a lot, mainly qualitative ideas and impressions.  The task of making the planet habitable for my grandchildren seems harder than ever.  Globally the necessary actions seem abundantly clear – reduce population, use much less fossil fuel, shrink the developed-world economies, act on several adaptation strategies ….  However the prospect of action – either in the developed or the developing world – seems remote.  The key question for the individual (e.g. me) is what is the most effective thing to do?  I have already bored my wife and several friends by starting discussions on climate change and its impact.  I publish articles pointing out the folly of growth and the burning of fossil fuels, but beyond this I feel helpless. I fear that things will have to get a lot worse – for a majority of individuals – before acceptance will win over denial (or simply inertia).

Thoughts on reaching the half-way point

The content is relentlessly general, but contains about one issue per week which I have not previously considered.  Several irritations persist: the huge numbers of similar postings in the discussion threads; the mind-numbing jingle at the beginning of each video; the difficulty of finding in formation again when you have finished viewing videos and reading web sites; the relentless hand-waving of the presenters; the feeling that one’s comments are not being read by anyone (and for the most part – why should they?); the frustration of not being able to quiz the lecturer face-to-face (or even email-to-email).  I am a staunch opponent of the lecture, but I begin to realise that there are some advantages to taking notes and challenging the lecturer!

On the positive side, I think that the end-of-week feedback videos are excellent.  They enable the team to recap important points in a viewer-friendly way.

Thoughts on models etc

I agree (with Daniel Muir in week 3) that the content actually presented is thin, and the potential for a lot more reading is vast.  However I think we should have some sympathy for Exeter: The course is introductory in the sense that it introduces a lot of things which *some* registrants have not been familiar with. I have been startled by the lack of prior knowledge revealed by some of the posted comments.  My principal frustrations are two-fold:  (1) The links to really good data or analyses are sprinkled throughout the video and textual material and I would find it useful to have them collected in a single place to which I could refer. (2) We have not explored any topic in depth, and therefore at all stages of a very complex argument we effectively have to take someone’s word for it.  I cannot personally challenge the albedo experts or the aerosol experts or the jetstream experts or the storm experts or the CO2 measurement experts or the tree-ring daters.  All I can say at each stage is “OK, so that’s the approach they take – I’ll have to believe their conclusions because I cannot do better.” It might be interesting to get us to construct (via a spreadsheet perhaps) a simplistic predictive climate model.  We could then explore its sensitivity to the input parameters, which could be very revealing.

Learning from discussions

Whole-cohort discussion groups are useless for three main reasons:

You cannot relate to thousands of people;

You cannot post anything original unless you are among the first dozen to post;

You cannot read (or even find) any particular post among hundreds.

Students must be broken up into groups of maximum 100 (at the beginning) falling to (probably) less than 20 by mid-course.

Finding stuff

I find it difficult to recall where I read something, when I need it later.  It is extremely difficult to browse old videos, web sites, etc. It would be highly desirable to have a compendium of useful stuff, available from the front page of the course site.  As a current example, the term Pliocene is used in the question I am now reading, but where can I find a chart showing the names and ages of the various geological periods?

Learning methodology

So far I have watched 3 (or is it 4) videos. The introductory music is already irritating me, as is the narrow range of hand gestures employed so frequently by Tim.

I am wondering about the best way to learn from all this on-screen stuff:  As with a lecture, I can understand the material presented in the videos and articles, but am not sure I will retain it for long.  Nor has my understanding been tested yet.  When I studied for my degree (many, many years ago) I reinforced my understanding of lecture and text-book material by taking notes (and, in the case of lectures) re-writing them afterwards.  I have seen no encouragement to take notes, but I have started to do so for myself.  The assimilation of difficult bits was helped as an undergraduate by discussion among my peers, and I suppose the discussion threads allow us to do this. I have read one or two useful comments, questions and answers.  I am less convinced about the utility of personal blogs (like the one I am writing now).  No-one else is likely to read it, so it’s only for me.  Should I use it as a form of note-taking? Or simply, as I am doing, as a way of remembering what it was like when my colleagues ask me whether learning by MOOC is any good?

End of week 1

So far all the material is very simple, and factual.  The test was pure recall of factual knowledge, and did not test understanding at all. I hope we are introduced to more sophisticated models, with quantitative development soon For instance we were (very briefly, in passing) shown the Stefan-Boltzmann equation but the important dependence on temperature was not even mentioned.

On a positive note, I thought that the diagram showing the various in/out energy balances was very good, as were a few of the earlier graphics.

Impressions on starting the MOOC

I felt that the opening information was rather minimal. I could start watching / listening to the videos but there was nothing to indicate how to get back to the rather useful opening screen with the overview of the week’s tasks.  I was also surprised to see no information about the course: – who is registered? Who are the staff? What knowledge is assumed? What is the ostensible level of the material to be presented? What are the learning outcomes?

The first two videos are pretty simple.  I hope that answers to my questions emerge soon.