Ohio State Offers Public Online Environmental Science Course

Earth image

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A big world calls for a really big class.

Nearly 300,000 students -- from the U.S., China, Canada and other countries, enough to fill Ohio Stadium three times over -- have accessed a massive open online course, or MOOC, on environmental science offered by Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences

“Introduction to Environmental Science,” which went live a year ago, in February 2013, ranked fourth on the university’s 2013 top 10 iTunes U list based on total number of streams, browses, downloads and subscriptions.

“I wanted to be able to teach environmental science to a worldwide audience,” said the course’s creator and teacher, Brian Lower, assistant professor in the college’s School of Environment and Natural Resources. “I don’t believe education should be exclusive to those individuals who can afford it, and iTunes U offers a great way to provide free world-class educational content to anyone, anywhere, anytime.”

MOOCs are free public online courses designed for unlimited participation. A 2012 New York Times story called them “a tool for democratizing higher education.”

iTunes U is a free Apple service for distributing and accessing online courses and similar content.

Photo: Brian Lower, right, created and teaches the online version of the course. He co-teaches the traditional, classroom version with his twin brother, Steven, also an Ohio State faculty member. (Photo by Emily Caldwell, University Communications.)

Lower’s course aims to “understand the science behind the processes and principles that govern our natural environment,” according to its iTunes description. It looks at people’s impact on the planet and possible solutions. The topics, to name a few, include climate change, population growth, biodiversity, renewable energy, ocean acidification and scientific literacy.

He said putting the course online lets him reach younger students and ones who might not have the chance to go to college.

“These are students who I would never have the chance to meet but may still be very interested in the environment and science,” he said. “It gives me a chance to reach these students, get them excited about science, and encourage them to pursue degrees in science, mathematics and engineering.”

The online content, which supplements the course’s textbook, includes dozens of handouts, slideshows, articles, documentaries and Lower’s lectures recorded on audio, which students can access free through iTunes.

Photo: The online course includes recorded lectures, documentaries, slide presentations and more. Pictured is the opening slide from the "Ecosystems and Nutrient Cycling" chapter. 

“I receive a lot of positive feedback, especially about the short lectures and documentaries that I provide, which target a specific issue or topic,” he said. “I’ve received notes from people saying things like, ‘I’m going to change the way I do this,’ or, ‘I never knew science could be so interesting and fun.’ ”

There also are links for buying and viewing recommended e-books such as Silent Spring and Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things and suggested films including “Dirt! The Movie” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” all through iTunes as well.

Lower said the online content helps his classroom students, too. The course’s traditional, in-class version, which he co-teaches with his twin brother, Steven Lower, an associate professor in the school, also has had an enrollment spike -- from 450 to 1,200 students per year.

“(The increase) makes it extremely difficult for my brother and me to connect with all of these wonderful students one on one,” Brian Lower said. “This is where iTunes U comes into play, because it allows our students to tailor the class to meet their needs and in a way they can connect with me one on one with their iPads or laptops.”

He said the online content gives students the chance to replay, for example, a difficult part of a lecture until they understand it.

“Other students enjoy the flexibility that iTunes U offers, so they can watch the lectures or complete the assignments anytime, anywhere,” he said. “It fits well with their busy lifestyles and other important commitments such as family and work.”

Photo: The course is a massive open online course, or MOOC, designed for unlimited participation. Its banner on iTunes U is shown here.

Lower said combining iTunes U with the classroom component, plus using email and Twitter as well, intensifies the learning experience. It keeps him in almost constant contact with his students. He tweets to them as @OSUEnViRo.

“Technology by itself has limitations, but when you combine technology with a classroom experience you have a much better environment to encourage student achievement,” he said.

“Introduction to Environmental Science” can be accessed at http://go.osu.edu/IntroEnvSci.

Both brothers hold partial appointments with the college’s research arm, the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

“Calculus One,” “General Chemistry” and “History of Architecture” ranked first through third on Ohio State’s 2013 top 10 iTunes U list.

In all, Ohio State offered 40 online public courses as of December 2013, a number that more than doubled from 2012, according to the university’s Office of Distance Education and eLearning. The courses drew a total of about 3.8 million accesses in 2013.

- 30 -


Kurt Knebusch


Brian Lower