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Granite Geek: Dartmouth MOOC Uses Cartoons To Teach Engineering Basics


Massive Open Online Courses, also known as MOOCs, have become a popular way in recent years to take a course at a prestigious university without having to pay for it. You can view the course material online and follow a lesson plan. Some of these require payment for any kind of official certification, but the lessons are free, and several universities, including MIT, Harvard, and Dartmouth, are offering these. A MOOC at Dartmouth uses illustrations made by the Vermont Center for Cartoon Studies to help teach basic engineering concepts. David Brooks is a reporter for the Concord Monitorand writer at Granitegeek.org. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

NHPR: What is this course designed to teach you?

It’s not really an introduction to engineering course. It’s kind of an “engineering for poets” approach for bright highschoolers or journalists or other people. Just basic engineering principles used in designing and building structures. Things like tension and compression.

And this MOOC is using customized illustrations to make each lesson extremely clear. How’s it going about that?

That’s how I got into the story, actually. I was doing a story about the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. It’s an interesting school. It offers a master of fine arts in cartooning. And it was an example of how cartooning has been used.

The idea is, basically, if you want to make principles clear to people, frequently an illustration is the way to do it. You’ll see these technical illustrations in text books. So why not make it a little more accessible? Professor Vicky May got together with a graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies, Katherine Roy, and they came up with this Owl character. Basically, during the course, while you’re working through the different levels, the Owl builds things to solve the problems that you keep encountering.

I think it’s an effective way of doing it. You talk about MOOCs—which is just an awful name, but anyway—these massive free online courses were really hot three or four years ago and now people aren’t sure what to do with them. And because most people who start them don’t finish them—that’s been my experience—but having this illustration and this narrative really made it easier to keep going in the course.

How many people are enrolled in this MOOC?

Well over 10,000 have enrolled at some point. It’s been around for a couple of years. She’ll be upgrading, doing a 2.0 version of it. I don’t know how many of those have finished.

For a while, it was online and you could follow along with a professor and there were certain materials that were available. Some of those materials are no longer available because it’s not live, but all of the materials are there in the archive. In fact, one of the things Professor May talked about is that she thinks of MOOCs not as a class so much as a text book. It’s designed to do the same thing a textbook does: to help guide you. It might be enough sometimes, and sometimes it might not, and when I look through her course with that thinking, I learn some things I’d always been slightly confused about and have been embarrassed to admit to my engineering friends. I was able to pick it up, partly because of the cartoons, partly because of the material.

And like a textbook, you can pick it up at any time, on your schedule.

And you can flip through it, and jump ahead. That may or may not work—you may have to go back. But it’s all there, you can do it any time.

This particular MOOC is not a replacement for engineering 101, but are there MOOCs that could replace basic level courses out there?

That was the thinking, and still is, to an extent. Particularly for entry-level courses. A free online course might be a way to get higher-level college education to more people, particularly the third world or people who couldn’t otherwise afford to go anywhere. I’m not sure that’s entirely worked out, and my own experience—when I’m taking a MOOC, if I don’t have a teacher yelling at me, I don’t do the work, so I end up dropping it. It’s more human nature. It’s not a function necessarily of the material.

So what has happened with most MOOCs and the business plan around them is to turn them into professional certification programs online, or business certification, so you can go in and get a certification, which requires payment, as you mentioned. It would say, “Yes, I’ve taken a course from this particular online course that taught me this one specific thing.” It’s not the same as taking an English class, but maybe you’ve gone and taken the course to learn a particular type of software or something like that. And that seems to be where they’re most effective—at the moment, anyway. 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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