After the success of its first MOOC (massive open online course), the TU Delft Faculty of Aerospace is preparing to launch a brand new one. Introduction to Aerospace Structures and Materials, a seven week interactive course, went live on 28 August 2018. 

Making quality education accessible

The first TU Delft aerospace MOOC, Introduction to Aeronautical Engineering, went online in 2014. It was based on an existing in-house course that Assistant Professor Mark Voskuijl helped to create. “Originally, the vision was ‘we want to educate the world’, which is a bit of a bold statement,” he said. “But the general idea is that everybody should have access to high quality education, and with MOOCs you can provide that on an introductory level.” MOOCs, by definition, are online courses that are open to anyone at no cost.

The process of creating a MOOC is quite different from an in-person course. There is a lot of up-front development work, according to Voskuijl, but once it’s done the material can be used for a long time. “You don’t have a 90-minute lecture, you have to create short pieces of video followed by exercise material,” he said. “And we get thousands of students through the course which makes communicating difficult. We develop a lot of interactive exercises so they can check whether or not they have mastered the material.”

As for the quality of the faculty’s first MOOC, Voskuijl thinks it’s quite good. “In some ways the videos are much better than a traditional lecture because you really thought about it well in the preparation and you have all of the information condensed in a good way,” he said. In fact, he now uses some of the videos from the MOOC in his in-house course to include things like interviews with pilots or tours inside an aircraft, which you can’t do in a live lecture.

Broad reach

Since its inception, more than 60,000 people have registered for Introduction to Aeronautical Engineering. Although not all of them complete it, that number certainly reflects a high level of interest and the potential reach of courses like this one. Lecturers can access an interactive map during the course to see where participants are located. And Voskuijl noted that some students in places like India actually meet up and sit together during the MOOC. “It’s really all over the world. I once went to a scientific conference and someone from MIT came up to me saying he knew me,” said Voskuijl.  “I was quite surprised that he took my course. He was a professor in a slightly different field, but needed to know a bit more about aeronautical engineering.”

Voskuijl also noted that an increasing number of international master’s track students have taken the course prior to coming to Delft. “It’s good for them to see our style of teaching and how we do things, because it can be quite different from other countries.”

A new MOOC with a long history

The second MOOC, which focuses on how aircraft and spacecraft are designed and manufactured, started on 28 August. According to Associate Professor Gillian Saunders-Smits, one of the course creators, it fills a gap in the online course offerings for the Faculty of Aerospace. She noted that about five years ago, the Aerospace Structures and Materials department started a pilot developing online master’s courses. “But we always felt that there was something missing, the introductory step,” she said. “Plus we really liked the idea of making a MOOC, the fact that you can share your passion for aerospace structures and materials with anyone, no matter where in the world they are based or what their previous education is.”

The origin of the course itself dates back much further than five years. Introduction to Aerospace Structures and Materials, one of the oldest courses at the Faculty of Aerospace, was introduced in 1945 when the first professor in aerospace structures was appointed at TU Delft. The content of the course has obviously evolved over the years and is about the meat and bones of the aircraft, as Saunders-Smits describes it. “We really feel that it is should be sort of a showcase of everything we do here at aerospace with structures and materials,” she said. “We want to explain why airplanes work and why they break, and safety is also a part of it.”

Making online learning engaging

Giving MOOC participants a conceptual understanding and a foundation for the topic is important to the course creators. And there are many differences between learning in person and online. “The most important one I think is to ensure you keep the attention of the participants,” said Saunders-Smits. “You make sure that the videos are engaging and varied. We don’t want just talking heads or voiceover PowerPoints. We try and intermix many different things like movies, animations, and activities that are different all the time.”

There will also be some unique learning approaches used during this online course. Saunders-Smits explained that they will include a variety of experiments that anyone can do individually using materials they already have at home. “This will help them have a better idea of what we’re talking about,” she said. “They can not only see it, but they can have something tangible to learn from.” In addition, students will be asked to identify their favourite aircraft or spacecraft, and weekly assignments during the course will be centered around that as much as possible. Participants will have to think up new design options or explain why or how a certain design issue can be solved, which will help them understand more about their favourite aircraft for spacecraft.

Enrollment opportunity

Although the content of Introduction to Aerospace Structures and Materials will be available for many years to come, the first offering is unique as it allows for more interaction between participants and instructors. And with the start date approaching, enrollment activity has been very encouraging. “Since registration opened in February there has been a steady increase and we have about 4000 so far,” said Saunders-Smits. “That’s more than I’ve taught in 10 years together here at aerospace!”

Although this is only the second MOOC from the Faculty of Aerospace, there are many more paid courses available for both course credit and professional development. Click here for or more information on the entire portfolio of online learning opportunities at TU Delft.