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Maine professor teaches chaos to 5,000 students

Students in David Feldman’s “Introduction to Dynamical Systems and Chaos” course  — a  Massive Open Online Course that drew more than 5,000 students from 90 countries — learned how designs such as “Atractor Poisson Saturne” by Nicolas Desprez are created. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons http://www.chaoscope.org/gallery.htm.
Students in David Feldman’s “Introduction to Dynamical Systems and Chaos” course — a Massive Open Online Course that drew more than 5,000 students from 90 countries — learned how designs such as “Atractor Poisson Saturne” by Nicolas Desprez are created. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons http://www.chaoscope.org/gallery.htm.
Posted July 16, 2014, at 3:12 p.m.

College of the Atlantic’s Feldman delivers ‘massive open online course’

BAR HARBOR, Maine — Continuing the school’s tradition of educational innovation, College of the Atlantic Professor of Physics and Mathematics Dr. David Feldman recently completed his — and perhaps Maine’s — first “Massive Open Online Course.”

The eight-week course, “Introduction to Dynamical Systems and Chaos,” drew more than 5,000 students from 90 countries, ages 13 through 80. More than 900 students completed the class, an 18% completion rate — more than three times the average for similar so-called MOOCs, according to a recent University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education study.

The course was offered through Santa Fe Institute’s Complexity Explorer Project, which provides online courses and educational materials in complex-systems science. The class was funded by a grant to the Santa Fe Institute from the John Templeton Foundation and donations from participants. The archived course is available at complexityexplorer.org.

From online universities to virtual charter high schools, distance and online learning has been on the rise but MOOCs — open-access, online courses aimed at unlimited participation — are relatively new. A 2012 course on artificial intelligence at Stanford University taken by more than 150,000 students was one of the first. There are now several organizations, including Coursera, Udacity, and edX that offer thousands of MOOCs a year.

According to Feldman, Maine institutions have had limited involvement in MOOCs.

“We couldn’t find any other course at a Maine college or university at this scale,” he said. “If it’s not unique in Maine, it is close to unique in Maine.”

The topic of Feldman’s MOOC was dynamical systems, also known as chaos theory — an interdisciplinary field of applied mathematics that studies systems that change over time. Phenomena encountered in dynamical systems include “the butterfly effect” and “strange attractors.”

Feldman is the author of the recently published textbook “Chaos and Fractals: An Elementary Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2012). His MOOC and his book both were based in large part on a course he developed at College of the Atlantic.

Registration and all course materials were free. No course credit was given. Students who completed all quizzes with a grade of 70 percent or higher received a certificate of completion. The only math required was basic high-school algebra.

Feldman recorded, edited, and uploaded video lectures to the course website, with 17 hours of video spread out over 10 units. Quizzes were interspersed between lectures. There were also optional homework problems assigned weekly. Feldman posted solutions to quizzes and the homework, and students could ask questions or share ideas in an online discussion forum.

There is little agreement on where MOOCs are headed and what their overall impact will be.

“I see MOOCs a great complement for traditional classes,” Feldman said. “The material available in MOOCs can be used as part of a traditional course, and some students will be able to use MOOCs to pursue advanced or specialized topics not available to them otherwise. And, of course, MOOCs make courses available to those who are not enrolled in a university, increasing access to ideas.”

Feldman anticipated offering “Dynamical Systems and Chaos” again in Winter 2015, and subsequently hopes to develop MOOCs on additional topics.

“Some people think the groundbreaking work David is doing online competes with or degrades the kind of hands-on, place-based work in small classroom settings for which College of the Atlantic is known,” College President Darron Collins ‘92 said. “To the contrary, we find it a great experiment in engaging nontraditional learners that will increase the possibility of finding global solutions to complex challenges.”

About College of the Atlantic

College of the Atlantic was founded in 1969 on the premise that education should go beyond understanding the world as it is, to enabling students to actively shape its future. A leader in experiential education and environmental stewardship, COA has pioneered a distinctive interdisciplinary approach to learning—human ecology—that develops the kinds of creative thinkers and doers needed by all sectors of society in addressing the compelling and growing needs of our world. For more information, visit www.coa.edu.

About Sante Fe Institute

Founded in 1984, the Santa Fe Institute is a private, independent, nonprofit scientific research and education center located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Its scientists collaborate across traditional disciplines in pursuit of theories that describe and explain the complex adaptive systems most critical to our future — economies, ecosystems, conflict, disease, human institutions, and the global condition, for example. SFI’s missions are supported by philanthropic individuals and foundations, forward-thinking partner companies, and government science agencies. www.santafe.edu

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