In 2016, Dutch public broadcaster VPRO invited representatives from Erasmus University Rotterdam, Leiden University, Delft University of Technology, UNESCO and newspapers in The Netherlands to attend the launch of a unique television production. The series, The Mind of the Universe, features extensive interviews with 30 leading scientists, including biologists, archeologists, geneticists, and psychologists, working at the edge of knowledge and exploration. In the documentary series, each scientist has limited air time; the challenge VPRO presented to the universities was to use the far more extensive inventory of complete interviews to create accessible and challenging learning experiences.
VPRO created The Mind of the Universe as a unique product, offering English-language open source science TV, with over 40 hours of video interviews with world-renowned scientists. Educators and other users around the world are invited to download the interviews and extra footage, including subtitles, which they can remix, re-use and edit under a Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA, meaning in any format for any purpose.
The three universities were interested in collaboration with the public broadcaster. Both the broadcaster and the universities receive public funding and yet there were few joint initiatives. Since 2013, centres for innovation at each university were exploring and implementing developments such as blended learning, flipped classrooms, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The high-quality documentary material from VRPO was a valuable learning resource; the question for the universities was how to use it. Despite this uncertainty, the universities accepted the opportunity to innovate beyond their traditional roles and approaches.
Kris Stabel, Project Manager for Educational Innovation at Erasmus University Rotterdam, acknowledged the quality of the materials made available to the university, but also two associated challenges:
- Learning designers at universities start their planning from learning goals and an analysis of the gaps a program or course can fill. In this case, the process is turned around as the learning design teams are asked to start with the content and then look for a sound learning design and teachers to work with it.
- Target groups for the learning experience move beyond their current students to include those outside higher education.
The three universities decided to make three separate MOOC-type learning experiences, focusing on different content streams within the video material. To further the idea of innovation, they decided on a social constructivist approach in which students function as co-creators, not just listening and responding to experts, but actively contributing to The Mind of the Universe.
The universities developed topics that matched their institutional specializations: Delft, as a technological university, chose robots in society and Leiden, with its focus on humanities and social sciences, looked at genetic privacy. Erasmus was the exception to this as their business and economics concentration did not match with the content of The Mind of the Universe directly. They chose a broader perspective in looking at the philosophy and ethics of science.
Each university found a professor to work as the core teacher for each MOOC and agreed to a common framework of active online learning.
Since scientific exploration starts with a question, each series also starts with helping students to define a question. In Module 1, What’s on your mind?, topics are introduced and learners are stimulated to think about their own initial suppositions, which they explore further.
In Module 2, Open up your mind, students are encouraged to go to the open access VPRO material (and other open access resources) to explore and consider what scientists think about their questions, while keeping their minds open to possible explanations and contrasts. To facilitate this, the material can be searched by keyword. In this activity, students gather responses to their questions and new ways of thinking about or understanding their issue.
In Module 3, Connect your mind, students connect with other participants in each MOOC, exchanging ideas, insights, solutions and new learning.
In Module 4, Make up your mind, students contribute their ideas or solutions on specific topics set for each MOOC. Input was peer reviewed based on a rubric and the best were featured on the VPRO website.
At Leiden, students suggest content for a policy statement for genetic privacy at Erasmus, the input consisted of better research questions that would tease the Mind of the Universe scientists to explore even better answers in their research. The approach and challenges outlined for students at the University of Delft is presented below:
While immersing yourself in the material, we ask you to consider the following question: How can AI and robots be developed, used, regulated or otherwise dealt with so that they complement and contribute to our society, instead of posing a threat?
That is the challenge for you in this online learning experience. We provide videos, articles and other materials to help you form a well-founded opinion about the developments in artificial intelligence and robotics. Then it is up to you to translate this into a concept for the future.
You are free to choose any application and any aspect of robotics as a focus for your challenge. Examples of starting points for solutions to the challenge are:
- Optimal use of robotics/AI in hospitals;
- The effects of robotics/AI on human employment;
- Robotics/AI in traffic;
- The role of robotics/AI in the military; or
- Any other topic closely related to the future of robotics and AI.
We are looking for radical, creative and new solutions. What will be your technical, policy-oriented, artistic or societal concept?
We will invite you to share your ideas on different aspects of the challenge in the discussion forum to connect with other participants who are also working on their challenge.
Once you have a solution that is well-thought-out and feasible, we would like you to elaborate on this in an essay, video pitch, podcast, infographic poster, website or any other medium that you could use to show the world what you have come up with. You will be asked to upload your work in the final module so that it can be peer-reviewed by other participants. If you would like to get a special place to shine in the Mind of the Universe online Hall of Fame, you can upload your work on the discussion forum so it can be upvoted. A jury will select the best contributions that will be added to the Hall of Fame.
The MOOCs launched in April 2018, with over 3,000 registrations worldwide. One of the MOOCs is on edX and two are on Coursera. In February 2019, the course from Erasmus continues to be accessible at https://www.coursera.org/learn/mind-of-the-universe-science-in-progress and the course from Leiden at https://www.coursera.org/learn/mind-of-the-universe-genetic-privacy. The course from Delft is accessible at https://www.edx.org/course/mind-of-the-universe-robots-in-society-blessing-or-curse.
Benefits and Outcomes
Students commented positively on the discussion forums and interaction among participants, which was one of the key goals of the MOOCs.
The learning designers and video producers creating the courses saw the use of TV content as a great benefit during the development. Not only did it offer as a new perspective, it also provided an opportunity to work with high quality video material open for re-use which is often difficult to find.
In addition, the collaboration between the three universities and the television broadcaster offered interesting insights into each others’ worlds, work processes and challenges and also resulted in new ideas on how to foster innovation.
Further research is ongoing on completion, participation and satisfaction rates, including whether any participants were involved in all three MOOCs.>
The MOOCs are used in on-campus courses. For example, the professor involved with the Erasmus MOOC is adapting it for his Philosophy of Science course, with his students using the full inventory of VPRO material. The professor at Leiden now uses his MOOC as the basis of a virtual exchange project, where a mix of Leiden students and virtual exchange students from partner universities can follow the course for credits.
Challenges and Enhancements
There was strong initial registration, with fewer participants completing the course and submitting final products. Kris Stabel suggests running the MOOCs at the same time as The Mind of the Universe was broadcast on VPRO might have generated more registrations and encouraged continuing participation in The Netherlands.
Many of the participants were not familiar with the process of social constructivism and their feedback for some of the MOOCs indicated their preference for more content and lower expectations of activity from them. There is a need for better marketing and explanation of structure, purpose and engagement strategies of MOOCs using this pedagogy.
Working from previously developed content was problematic for the universities; future initiatives would benefit from earlier involvement by universities to design the learning experiences as part of the TV experience and production.
The public broadcaster VPRO is satisfied with the series and is in preliminary talks with the universities about a follow-up series and possible affiliated learning experiences.
For Further Information
Project Manager, Educational Innovation
Community for Learning & Innovation
Risbo – Research, Training, Consultancy
Erasmus University Rotterdam