Big World Needs Big Class

Ohio State's Introduction to Environmental Science pulls in nearly 300,000 students from around the world.

Published on: Feb 26, 2014

Nearly 300,000 students -- from the U.S., China, Canada and other countries, enough to fill Ohio Stadium three times over -- have accessed a massive open online course, or MOOC, on environmental science offered by Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences

"Introduction to Environmental Science," which went live a year ago, in February 2013, ranked fourth on the university's 2013 top 10 iTunes U list based on total number of streams, browses, downloads and subscriptions.

WORLD TEACHERS: Brian Lower, right, created and teaches the online version of the environmental sciences course. He co-teaches the traditional, classroom version with his twin brother, Steven, also an Ohio State faculty member. (Photo by Emily Caldwell,OSU.)
WORLD TEACHERS: Brian Lower, right, created and teaches the online version of the environmental sciences course. He co-teaches the traditional, classroom version with his twin brother, Steven, also an Ohio State faculty member. (Photo by Emily Caldwell,OSU.)

"I wanted to be able to teach environmental science to a worldwide audience," says the course's creator and teacher, Brian Lower, assistant professor in the college's School of Environment and Natural Resources. "I don't believe education should be exclusive to those individuals who can afford it, and iTunes U offers a great way to provide free world-class educational content to anyone, anywhere, anytime."

MOOCs are free public online courses designed for unlimited participation. A 2012 New York Times story called them "a tool for democratizing higher education."

iTunes U is a free Apple service for distributing and accessing online courses and similar content.

Lower's course aims to "understand the science behind the processes and principles that govern our natural environment," according to its iTunes description. It looks at people's impact on the planet and possible solutions. The topics, to name a few, include climate change, population growth, biodiversity, renewable energy, ocean acidification and scientific literacy.

Putting the course online lets him reach younger students and ones who might not have the chance to go to college.

"These are students who I would never have the chance to meet but may still be very interested in the environment and science," he says. "It gives me a chance to reach these students, get them excited about science, and encourage them to pursue degrees in science, mathematics and engineering."

The online content, which supplements the course's textbook, includes dozens of handouts, slideshows, articles, documentaries and Lower's lectures recorded on audio, which students can access free through iTunes.