You sometimes used to see students struggling to stay awake, but now they’re actively participating

Solar energy professor Arno Smets has already reached hundreds of thousands of viewers with his MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses). He has even inspired his viewers to install their own solar panels in places where there is poor electricity supply.

Admittedly, his first MOOC recording was somewhat awkward. Instead of a lecture room packed with students, Smets stood in front of a green wall, looking straight into a large camera. “It really is a completely different environment”, he says. “But we’d prepared properly and spent a lot of time on it. I’d also done a course on what you should and shouldn’t do in front of the camera if you want to appear natural. That included the tip that slightly exaggerated movements are totally fine, because it makes it look lively.”

It turned out to be just what was needed. Smets’ MOOC soon became a hit on the edX platform. Since then, the professor’s lectures have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Worldwide, his courses have been watched by more than 350,000 students. In 2016, Smets won the first edX Prize for Exceptional Contributions to Online Teaching and Learning. MOOCS enable scientists and academics to give lectures online to viewers across the world. This is how they can share their scientific knowledge.

Smets’ online lectures are popular because of his lively style of presentation. But, of course, the topic also appeals to lots of viewers. “When we started, no MOOC had been made about solar cells. We explain how solar power works and explore the fundamental principle of photovoltaic (PV) energy conversion. How do you convert solar energy into electricity? We demonstrate how the technology works and how you can build a modest system yourself. There’s a lot of interest in sustainability and this appeals to lots of people.”

Power of solar energy

Since the MOOCs have been online, Smets has been inundated by responses and has viewers across the entire world. They include one young Colombian man. The remote village where he lives used to have just a few hours of electricity every day from a dieselpowered generator. Thanks to Smets’ online lectures, he was able to build his own PV system and now has electricity all day long thanks to a battery and solar panels. “He’s now extending it to include other houses. It’s great to hear stories like that”, says Smets.

The Colombian is just one of many. In one of his MOOCs, Smets showcases all the places where solar panels have been constructed thanks to his lecture. It features lots of different countries, including Morocco, Bangladesh and Egypt. “I could never have predicted such major impact. I wanted to create MOOCs for idealistic reasons, because I want to share knowledge, promote the energy transition and reach people who can’t go to a university. I love seeing how students get down to work in response to my lectures. It gives the viewers a face for me, because I can see their videos. These are real people, using technology to build their careers and to try and solve problems. The technology is accessible. That’s the power of solar energy.”

Smets emphasises the fact that the MOOCs’ popularity also provide excellent PR for TU Delft. “It’s invaluable as a marketing tool. It really boosts our name recognition. Together with universities like MIT and Harvard, TU Delft featured for a whole summer on the edX home page, where millions of people log on every day. A good MOOC enables you to show that you are a worldwide authority.”

Besides that, students actually choose to come to TU Delft because of the MOOCs. “It’s often suggested that offering free lectures will mean fewer students applying to a university. After all, you’re just giving away the education you’ve developed! But that need not be a cause for concern. On the contrary, we’re receiving more applications.”

Smets also points out the new possibilities it opens up. Because his lectures have been recorded, his own students can also view them. “That leaves more room in the lecture room for interaction”, Smets explains.

Active students

To demonstrate his point, he grabs a folder with notes for lectures and shows some pictures of boats, trains and lorries. “In the Renewable Energies course, I work with students to calculate the energy consumption of various modes of transport, cooling and heating buildings and manufacturing our basic materials, such as steel. Initially, I thought that working so much with students might be a disaster. Professors like standing in front of a lecture room, demonstrating everything they know. But I’ve already done that in my MOOCs and decided not to repeat it. We now work together on assignments. The students ask a lot more questions during lectures. You sometimes used to see students struggling to stay awake, but now they’re actively participating.”

Smets hopes that more TU Delft lecturers will start making MOOCs and, more importantly, use them in their teaching on campus. “You have to really enjoy it, to want to motivate the viewers and be willing to invest a lot of time in it. We’ve taken great care in creating our online lectures. We’ve structured them carefully to ensure that the level increases all the time, collected great image material and created assignments to test how well students have understood it. Anyone who wants to create MOOCs needs to check what courses have already been offered. If there’s already one good lecture about the subject, there’s probably no need to make another. But you can still use existing online materials in your own lectures.”

Now Smets can see how much impact online lectures have, he would like to see more of a boost from government or international organisations such as UNESCO. “At the moment, the platforms have to be more or less selfsupporting. Since it’s a cheap way of reaching people across the world with topquality education, I’d like to see governments start funding it.”

Smets has now developed a serious taste for MOOCs. He’s still hard at work developing more online courses. He is currently working for edX on a series of five ‘Micro Masters’ courses entitled, Solar Energy Engineering, for which students can earn 18 credits. These lectures are at Master's level and are also suitable for advanced students and professionals. “They’re the same courses that we teach on campus. We hope to use them to reach out to professionals and support industry in training their staff. I can’t wait to see how these students will react.”

Text: Robert Visscher | Photo: Thierry Schut | September 2018