Earth and Mineral Sciences

Open education website connects teachers, learners with quality resources

Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A parent in Philadelphia needs information to help her daughter with a class project on wet weather pollution control in the school yard rain garden.

Elsewhere in the U.S., a furloughed government worker seeks professional development during a shutdown. In Brazil, a woman is interested in learning more about the changing climate, and in Zimbabwe, a GIS technician wants a reliable source of professional information.

They all turned to OPEN.ED, a website hosting high-quality learning materials written by faculty in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. The content, created though the Open Education Resources (OER) initiative launched in 2007 by the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) at Penn State, is free for educators and learners under a creative commons license.

“Not everyone can afford a formal education and not every teacher has the resources to put together from scratch high quality online course materials,” said Ann Taylor, assistant dean for distance learning in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and director of the John A. Dutton E-education Institute. “This initiative is a great way to help those who don’t have access to these kinds of resources and to show off some of the many amazing teaching materials that EMS has put together over the years.”

The website offers more than 80 courses ranging from GIS programming and software development to advanced energy policy to the fundamentals of atmospheric science. More than 1,715 topics are covered, including many that touch on current issues, like how food, energy and water will be impacted by a changing climate.

This spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded around the world, another use for the website emerged. The website saw a surge in interest in March as educators worked to rapidly transition classes to an online environment, said Anthony Robinson, associate professor of geography and director of online geospatial education at Penn State.

The OER resources showcased how higher education can be resilient in moments of crisis, he said.

“I think we have a unique opportunity in EMS to share OER and support remixing and reusing materials in a wide range of settings,” Robinson said. “In an era where hybrid and flexible teaching approaches are vital, we’re putting our work out there and making sure it has an impact beyond the traditional confines of our classes.”

Two years ago, the website received a major upgrade that better classified courses and topics, added a search function and other usability features, and provided new ways to track how the materials are being used around the world.

“We’ve always had great content, and we wanted to create a system that allows users from around the world to easily search and access that content,” said Jennifer Babb, a learning designer in the Dutton Institute who worked on the website upgrade. “For example, if someone is looking for information on volcanoes, they can now find all the relevant, available courses.”

The Dutton Institute oversees all EMS online content offered through Penn State World Campus and University Park, including the OER website.

Since the update in 2018, 28,000 people, including users from all 50 states and 189 countries, have viewed at least one page. College students and professors, primary and secondary school teachers and others have accounted for nearly 6,000 downloads of 82 unique courses.

“Having that insight has been tremendous,” Taylor said. “Now we can see exactly how it is being used and where it’s being used. We can see popular content areas. All of this information helps us make decisions on how to continue managing the website in the future.”

Last Updated July 28, 2020