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U of M jumps into MOOC trend with interactive class for 17,000

Professor Jason Hill’s course on sustainable food systems is free, and you still can sign up for it.

Professor Jason Hill's “Sustainability of Food Systems: A Global Life Cycle Perspective” is among the first five massive, open, online courses (MOOCs) the U of M will offer.
Coursera/University of Minnesota

Starting June 14, University of Minnesota professor Jason Hill will begin teaching an eight-week course on sustainable food systems to a big “class” — 17,000 students located in dozens of countries.

The course is free and, despite already having an enrollment that makes it more populated than a small city, there’s room for you if you want to sign up.

If you do, be forewarned: It’s an honest-to-God class and you can expect to spend three or four hours a week completing your coursework.

Titled “Sustainability of Food Systems: A Global Life Cycle Perspective,” the course is among the first five massive, open, online courses (MOOCs) the U of M will offer. It sounds like a crazy experiment, but you might want to sit up and take notes, because it’s also a glimpse of the future.

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How does a professor design a truly interactive class for a student body he must engage virtually and whose members share only a basic, human familiarity with the topic of food? In short, how does one ensure it’s more than a TED Talk?

The backstory is the subject of a fascinating story penned by Patty Mattern, a writer at the U of M’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.    

“I’ve had to think a lot about how we can take what is an online, yet very personal course to a global audience, yet not lose the personal interaction,” Hill told Mattern.

It’s a question lots of higher education’s bigger brains are mulling right now.

Thursday’s New York Times carried an article about a partnership between Coursera, the California company that designed the MOOC Hill will use to reach his student diaspora, and 10 public universities that will use the technology to create online classes.

Sayeth the Times: “The move could open online classes to 1.25 million students at public institutions across the United States, and could help increase graduation rates by making introductory and required classes — often a bottleneck because of high demand — more widely available.”

The U of M is not one of the schools mentioned in the Times piece, which is well worth the read nonetheless. Its focus: How Coursera and its partners will apply lessons learned from providing free courses quite literally to the masses to making MOOCs work as a part of a college-readiness and –completion system.

So how did Hill’s class — which requires no prerequisite and is conceived as equally accessible to a small-town Minnesota grocer and a student in Zimbabwe — end up with an enrollment of thousands?

“I wish it was my story that created the rush to this class,” said Mattern. “But it all started with New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman.”

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Bittman tweeted about the class March 17. He was quickly retweeted by fellow sustainability advocate and “Omnivore’s Dilemma” author Michael Pollan. On March 25, Bill Gates forwarded the tweet to his 10.5 million followers.

Et voilà, a MOOC acquires true masses.