New MOOCs to focus on environmental and community themes

July 1, 2014

It was Aldo Leopold — the 20th century conservationist, father of wildlife management and former University of Wisconsin faculty member, who once said, “There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other and the relation of people to the land.”

Beginning in 2015, UW-Madison will take Leopold’s words to heart by offering six Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on topics ranging from Shakespeare’s dramas and the digital humanities, to understanding Leopold’s land ethic, to the relationship between climate change and public health. A shared theme of sustainability and the environment will connect the six courses, including the course on Virtual Shakespeare, which will explore four Shakespearean dramas and incorporate environmental readings of the plays.

MOOCs are unique, online delivery systems that allow people from around the globe to participate in free, noncredit learning experiences. Building on the momentum of UW-Madison’s phase one pilot of four courses, which reached more than 135,600 registrants from approximately 141 countries and all 50 states, the university will continue its partnership with the online learning company Coursera.

The six new courses will share a variety of common threads and will explore the connections, challenges and tradeoffs that underlie our relationships to the natural world, to one another, and to communities across Wisconsin and abroad.

“Sustainability and
environmental stewardship
are subjects of great
importance and we are
uniquely positioned to
enlist science and the
humanities to address
complex challenges while
connecting to our communities
around the state."
-Provost Paul DeLuca 

MOOC participants’ desire for access to continuing education, career development and personal enrichment — which became apparent in the first pilots — will inform the direction of UW-Madison MOOCs moving forward, says Jeffrey Russell, vice provost for lifelong learning and dean of the Division of Continuing Studies.

“This year our MOOCs extended the Wisconsin Idea to learners around the world,” Russell says. “In 2015, we are continuing in that spirit to make the UW-Madison experience more accessible. We hope that by making MOOCs a free and easy point of entry for participants interested in a UW-Madison educational experience, we can help direct them to our credit-bearing online and residential postgraduate degree programs, certificates and professional development opportunities.”

The six upcoming MOOCs will launch in 2015-16, led by 10 UW-Madison faculty and staff members joined by one faculty partner from the University of Colorado Boulder.

“Very impressive teams of faculty and staff have volunteered to work on the design and delivery of these MOOCs,” says Mark Johnson, UW-Madison’s director of educational innovation. “UW faculty, academic staff, instructional designers, librarians and academic technology specialists are all connecting to make this happen.”

The new courses are:

“Faculty and instructional staff are exchanging ideas about how their MOOCs may complement one another, as well as how some of the content and learning activities might be used and inform the way they are designing other courses,” says Linda Jorn, associate vice provost for learning technologies and director of DoIT Academic Technology.

“This creative design process is definitely a reflection of the collaborative and interdisciplinary thinking happening at UW. I think this second suite of MOOCs also offers very rich opportunities to engage with new professional networks and community partners and citizens across Wisconsin.”

In keeping with the Wisconsin Idea, this collaborative approach to MOOCs will engage learners and citizens beyond the campus in many ways. Through partnerships with community organizations such as the American Players Theater and local libraries, UW-Madison plans to highlight the creativity of Wisconsin, sharing the state’s wealth of intellectual resources with a global audience. MOOCs are also an opportunity for UW-Madison to act as a convener of public discourse both digitally and in face-to-face community forums.


“I am delighted to move into the second and an increasingly important phase of our MOOC program,” says Provost Paul DeLuca. “This new program will be thematic in nature and clearly display the Madison campus intellectual breadth and scholarship.

“Sustainability and environmental stewardship are subjects of great importance and we are uniquely positioned to enlist science and the humanities to address complex challenges while connecting to our communities around the state. I look forward to this next phase and continuing to watch the development of MOOCs on our campus.”  

The phase two pilot MOOCs were selected through a campuswide call for proposals. Proposed MOOCs were reviewed and recommended to the campus’s Educational Innovation Core Team by a committee consisting of faculty, staff and a graduate student representative.

MOOCs are an example of Educational Innovation (EI), an initiative of the provost’s office that aims to provide better learning experiences for students. More information about UW-Madison’s pilot MOOCs can be found on the Educational Innovation website.