Creating a Richer Learning Environment

When McCormick professor Eric Masanet’s massive open online course How Green Is That Product? An Introduction to Life Cycle Environmental Assessment first launched on Coursera back in 2013, he didn’t initially consider using the MOOC’s materials as part of his class at Northwestern. His intentions were always to offer it free and open to the world. Two years, 25,000 students from across the globe, and a great deal of research into flipping the classroom later, Masanet realized that he could repurpose much of the in-person class time usually spent lecturing on theory by requiring his students to engage with the MOOC content on their own time, freeing up valuable face time for the hands-on portion of the class.

Eric Masanet
Eric Masanet

“In previous versions, the project component was very tough to do in only 10 weeks,” said Masanet. “As I learned more about flipping the classroom, it seemed to be the perfect way to enable more of our time together to be spent reinforcing the finer points and expanding on the material with projects designed to examine how life cycle assessment actually works in the real world, which is the best way to learn this material.”

How Green Is That Product is an introductory-level course intended to help learners understand the various environmental impacts of different types of products – beef burgers versus veggie burgers, for example – to inform decisions around how they can be sustainability improved to reduce impacts like their carbon footprint or water consumption.   

Flipping the Script

Building on the success of a previous experiment where he ran a cohort of the MOOC concurrently with his McCormick class, Masanet recently tried a fully-flipped version of the course for the first time using a closed version of the Coursera platform for only his in-person students – “closed” meaning that while the online portion of the course is the same for the Northwestern students as it would be for anyone on Coursera, discussions and comments came only from their peers in the on premise class.

“The students watched the MOOC’s lecture videos and did the homework outside of class so they were coming in prepared for more meaningful discussions. It really allowed us to spend more of our time together working on the class project, which this year looked at how drip coffee makers compare to pod (Keurig-style) coffee makers. The students actually took machines of both styles apart, assessed all of their various parts, and ran studies on them that we developed as a class to determine their environmental impact. It was a nice balance.”  

While the balance of class and self-directed time was better from an instructional perspective, Masanet also felt that the lack of outside influence from the Coursera students was an important component of the previous version absent from the most recent offering.

“I think there’s definitely a benefit to the open Coursera platform because there’s a massive community of other students studying the same thing. They are asking or answering questions my students might not think of and provide links to outside resources. I think the students this time were missing out on a bit of that broader exposure.”

Following the class, the student survey results (CTECs) showed that the students were largely quite comfortable with the flipped format, and thought that the increased in-class time for projects that the flipped model provided was beneficial. 

Reopening to the World

For anyone interested in taking the course, opening it back up to the world is indeed an active part of Masanet’s plan.

“When I returned to Northwestern last fall after two years overseas at the International Energy Agency, Coursera had changed their format to make MOOCs on-demand, not in cohorts as they were previously designed. So as a practical matter, I have to redesign it before it can run openly again in the new format. I also designed the course in 2013, so there are opportunities to incorporate more contemporary examples like the pod coffee maker project.”

In the rest of 2018, Masanet plans to redesign the core of the course so that it works in the new format and is planning to relaunch open on Coursera in 2019.