Classroom of 11,000 Awaits UA Professor
Chris Impey will use a variety of online and social-media tools in teaching "Astronomy: Exploring Time and Space," the University's first collaboration with the educational technology company Coursera. The course starts on Feb. 15.

University Relations - Communications
Feb. 4, 2015


University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy Chris Impey says his new online course will have students representing 150 countries.
University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy Chris Impey says his new online course will have students representing 150 countries.

It makes sense to have an astronomy professor teach a class that is expected to be attended by thousands.

No one knows the meaning of "vast" quite like someone who studies outer space, right?

The free, six-week class is "Astronomy: Exploring Time and Space" and the instructor is Chris Impey, a University Distinguished Professor who is no newcomer to online teaching. For the past two years, he has taught "Astronomy: State of the Art," the University of Arizona's first massive open online course, or MOOC. That course, delivered online through video lectures, PowerPoint slides, discussion and live Q&A sessions, has been offered via the training platform Udemy. 

The new class is the University's first with Coursera, an educational technology company that has been partnering with U.S. colleges and universities since its launch three years ago. Impey expects enrollment to hit 11,000 by the time the class launches at midnight on Feb. 15.

UANews asked Impey about the class and his preparations.

What has been the biggest challenge in pulling this together? How did you go about it?

It was a long road to get here, not counting creating the course. I first approached Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng at Coursera in April 2012 with the idea of the UA joining the partnership, but they said they were a small company with limited capacity. In January 2013, I got the green light from Koller to start the negotiations and it took nearly two years to get us signed on. When I saw that the deal was going to happen, I started working on my course, shooting video to make a greatly enhanced version of my testbed course on Udemy. Coursera has a far superior data environment to Udemy, so it's much easier to track and motivate student engagement. And many lessons have been learned by their large instructor community.

Who do you think will be attracted to the course?

It's well known that most of Coursera's clientele is older students with bachelor's degrees, rather than 18- or 19-year-old first-time students, so I expect a mature and motivated audience. The word of mouth among amateur astronomers will lead many of them to sign up. Pre-enrollment right now shows that half are outside the U.S., with 150 countries represented. The ability (of MOOCs) to serve worldwide audiences with high-quality content is one of their greatest strengths.

How will you teach to 11,000 students? What do you hope they will take away?

The core material is video lectures and online quizzes. Completing and doing well on the quizzes is required for a completion certificate. I also have three outside projects and three peer-reviewed writing activities that they will do. I'm intrigued to see how peer review of written work by that many students will work! We'll be using live sessions, the course discussion threads and social media — Facebook, Twitter — to keep an active presence in the course. I hope the students take away the extraordinary progress being made in astronomy on a wide spectrum of topics — exoplanets, black holes, star birth, distant galaxies, dark matter — and see how the complexity of the universe is underpinned by a small set of physical laws. 

How will this be different from the Udemy course?

The Coursera course has about 18 hours of video, almost twice as much as used for Udemy. The Udemy class has no quizzes or activities or other assignments, so it is much more basic. I can get much richer data from Coursera and intend to publish research on what aspects of course design facilitate greater engagement and higher completion rates. The Udemy course is continuing and has 23,500 enrolled, so my online total will be approaching 35,000.

What do you see as the benefit to the University?

The benefit to the UA is partnership in a vibrant community of online instructors and peer universities learning important lessons about how to teach online. My course is the first, but there will be others. I view the Coursera experiment as a transition to a fully featured online course that could eventually be taken for a fee, with transferable college credit earned.

Extra info

For information about "Astronomy: Exploring Time and Space," the UA's first online course via Coursera, taught by Chris Impey:


For a 2013 UANews story about Impey's first online course:


Resources for the media

Chris Impey