Increase teaching impact with online content – astronomy case study

I’ve spent much of the last year developing a purely online astronomy course. Which seems odd – most of us are happily abandoning our COVID-enforced online classes and going back to in-person teaching. I thought I’d explain why someone might want to teach online and create online video content, even without a pandemic forcing it on you.

My interest in online education started back in 2010 when I was giving a public talk called “Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe“. Like many astronomers, I give a lot of public talks, and at the time this one felt fairly standard. The difference was this one was recorded and put online on the ANU’s YouTube channel and has since been viewed more than a million times!

This got me thinking – even if I gave ten public talks a week for the rest of my career, I wouldn’t reach 5% as many people as did this single video.

The attraction of self-paced courses

In 2015 I converted my introductory astronomy course ASTR1001 into a set of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and released them for free to everyone in the world. They have been running ever since to rave reviews and have been taken by 400,000 plus students: more than the ANU has graduated in its entire history.

But the real surprise was when we offered a version of these MOOCs to our on-campus students. I hadn’t imagined that any on-campus student would want to take a purely online course. But, in fact, our enrolment increased eightfold, and the SELT evaluations were spectacular. Why? Partly because these online courses are self-paced and asynchronous i.e. students can watch the videos and do the homework to their own schedule. This is valuable to students who need to support themselves by working. It also means that we can offer these courses multiple times per year – including the winter/summer semesters; popular sessions for students who need to replace a failed unit or catch up on underloading. 
And so, over the last year I’ve been developing a new set of purely online astronomy courses, working with my colleagues Dr Brad Tucker, Karlie Noon and Pete Swanton, and with the technical and production assistance of CLT’s AV team, Rafael Florez and Tangyao Zhang. These courses cover topics we had skipped in our previous MOOCs, such as Indigenous astronomy and practical aspects of spaceflight. A bonus extra can be viewed below.

Developing a course purely to go online has many advantages, compared to recording traditional lectures. The videos are short (5–10 minutes) and interspersed with quizzes. We normally have two presenters in each video, chatting back and forth, which makes them more natural and engaging. Some clips use green screen, so it can appear that we are on the Moon or Mars. Or we can record on-site, at an observatory or lab, and include interviews with experts, who may not be able to come to your class every year.

Pre-recorded video in traditional classes 

Within an existing in-person course, adding some ‘videos classes’ can also be very worthwhile. I’ve had success with recording worked example videos using a tablet and whiteboard – demonstrating the basics that someone might be too embarrassed to ask about. I’ve also used ‘video pre-labs’ to prepare students for in-person labs. Creating a pre-recorded video interview with an expert allows them to be part of your class for future editions of your course. 
Videos are more compact than in-person lectures: the content of a 50-minute lecture can be covered in about 15 minutes of video footage, which fits with the audience’s attention span without becoming tedious to watch. 
Everybody has a different style when recording video: some prefer to talk straight to the camera, while I prefer to have a conversation with a colleague as to me it feels more natural to explain things to someone who is physically there. Some like to talk fully scripted, others like to improvise. I prefer something in the middle where my co-presenter and I have a detailed idea of what we want to cover, but apart from the first line we don’t use a script. I find filming is much easier if you do a whole bunch of separate five minute videos, as I can usually avoid stuffing up for that long. 
While it is a lot of work producing a fully online course, once it is made you can easily use it many times for different audiences. The same applies to video content created for in-person classes. The academic workload per student reached, spread over multiple years, is much lower than for traditional courses. 

CLT’s support for the new online course was invaluable, and can be requested here. More support can also be found with the ANU’s college education support teams.  

The production team: Brad Tucker, Rafael Florez, Pete Swanton, Paul Francis, Karlie Noon and Tangyao Zhang

July 2022

Professor Paul Francis is an ANU Distinguished Educator and Astrophysicist at the Research school of Astronomy and Astrophysics