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Cultural Curiosity, Cool Explosions: Meet edX Prize-Winning Volcano Course Instructors

Volcanoes are spellbinding. And the people who study volcanoes—they’re that special breed of human you can’t help but be captivated by; individuals who run toward danger so that others may witness awe-inspiring beauty.

Volcanologist Ben Kennedy and structural geologist Jonathan Davidson are those people. They recently won the 2021 edX Prize for their course Exploring Volcanoes and Their Hazards: Iceland and New Zealand, offered through the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

“Ben’s the guy with a borderline unhealthy obsession for volcanoes who goes completely mental around them,” said Davidson. “I’m the one who brought to the course an interest in visualizing field experiences in three dimensions and the more geeky side of figuring out how new technologies work.”

In this interview, hear more about how Kennedy and Davidson translated their passion for all things volcano into a truly engaging, prize-winning online course.

A Mix of Multimedia, Storytelling, and the Unexpected

“As a volcanologist and educator, I’m not only interested in volcanoes, I’m also intrigued by how people learn and improve,” Kennedy said in describing the course development process.

“It was important for us to bring that sense of curiosity and discovery when you’re on a field trip in person: interviewing experts, talking with others in your group, and interacting with the local people and natural environment around you. There’s a lot of science combined with attitudinal learning goals behind what we designed.”

All the multimedia they layered into the course played a big role in those exploratory in-the-moment activities, thanks to Davidson’s expert drone-flying skills and visualization techniques. “Some of the coolest parts of the course are these landscape models of rocks that you can navigate yourself and spin around in 3D,” Davidson said.

3d rock
“We used a lot of 360-degree videos where you can swipe the screen and look all around. We even integrated a few unexpected events that might happen during a field trip, as research shows those kinds of things can positively impact learning, too.”

“We also added real interactions with the people of the land, which in New Zealand are the Māori,” Kennedy explains. “Spending time with these incredibly spiritual people, who know so much history about the volcanic landscapes around them, was both fascinating and humbling. Building relationships with them over time—truly the Māori way—let us open up this educational experience to a whole new audience of people who can learn about the culture of these amazing places in addition to the science. It also gets students out of their bubbles and thinking about the world from other people’s perspectives.”

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Curiosity and Courage as the Seeds of Innovation

One of Kennedy and Davidson’s key goals for the course is to get learners excited enough to go see volcanoes for themselves. “There’s nothing like actually experiencing these special landscapes up close in person.”

Another goal is to show that online learning can be active learning—and designing it can be easier than people might think.

“We were experts in classroom and field learning before winning the edX Prize, and now that’s led more people to see us as experts in online learning, too,” Kennedy said. “It all just happened organically. This kind of learning experience couldn’t come at a better time. With the pandemic, there’s a necessity to deliver more quality educational opportunities online, which fits with the University of Canterbury’s goals as well as with the needs of students.”

layer "We’re constantly enhancing what we’ve created by adding more video, applying student feedback, and running experiments around the way concepts are taught.”

“Winning the edX Prize has perhaps given us a little more mana,” Davidson explained, “which best I can describe is the Māori expression for that ‘aura’ others see and know you are worth listening to. For Ben and me, that means hopefully we’re inspiring others to create cutting-edge courses with edX. We’re also inspiring ourselves: We’re constantly enhancing what we’ve created by adding more video, applying student feedback, and running experiments around the way concepts are taught.”

“We have lots of crazy ideas that we want to keep exploring with edX into the future,” Ben adds. “That’s what innovating is all about: the courage to try something different, even if at first it sounds impossible. The edX platform is good for that because it’s super-flexible and built for maintaining that childlike eagerness to learn.”

Go on a Virtual Volcano Field Trip

Experience Kennedy and Davidon's state-of-the-art learning firsthand: enroll in UCx's course to dive into the fascinating world of volcanoes. Get a preview of the course in the video below.