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The edX Prize-Winning “Volcano Guys”: Restoring Childlike Wonder to Learning with Cultural Curiosity and Cool Explosions

Written by Ben Piscopo on Jan 26, 2022

Related content: Diversity And Inclusion, Courses

L-R: Structural geologist Jonathan Davidson and volcanologist Ben Kennedy

No matter who you are, I think one thing we can all agree on is that volcanoes are really cool. 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 free massive online open course (MOOC) entitled “Exploring Volcanoes and Their Hazards: Iceland and New Zealand,” offered through the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Ben and Jonathan are modern-day superheroes in my book, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to learn more about what has made their course explode. (See what I did there?)

“Ben’s the guy with a borderline unhealthy obsession for volcanoes who goes completely mental around them,” Jonathan jokes over our time zone-leaping Zoom call across New Zealand, Denmark, and Cambridge, MA. “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.”

As this endearingly offbeat duo explain it, what started off in the summer of 2006 at McGill University, with undergraduate geology major Jonathan signing up to be doctoral student Ben’s field assistant, has evolved into a long-standing partnership. “We didn’t initially set out to create a MOOC at all,” Ben says. “We just liked the idea of documenting some of the fun stuff we were doing in the field and the beautiful places we were capturing on video. After meeting some edX folks at a conference a couple of years ago, we realized we could turn our virtual volcano field trip into a more broadly accessible course online. The move to edX was pretty seamless.”

“I quite enjoy working with the edX platform,” adds Jonathan. “It was a pleasant surprise to have such a well-designed learning management system that’s built open from the start.”

A Mix of Multimedia, Storytelling, and the Unexpected

Once Ben and Jonathan signed on to develop their edX course, that’s where I came into the picture as a senior learning designer. One of the many ways we support our community of partners at edX is by providing asynchronous guidance around learning at scale in the form of StudioX, which is essentially a MOOC about creating MOOCs. Ben and Jonathan used StudioX and other self-serve resources to develop a course that went well beyond static slideshows and “talking head” videos to become an immersive experience for learners.

“As a volcanologist and educator, I’m not only interested in volcanoes, I’m also intrigued by how people learn and improve,” Ben says in describing the course development process. “As part of the pedagogical methods we applied to the course, 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 Jonathan’s expert drone-flying skills and visualization techniques. “Some of the coolest parts of the MOOC are these landscape models of rocks that you can navigate yourself and spin around in 3D,” Jonathan says. “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.”

Watch an example of the course's interactive 3D lava rock modeling

“We also added real interactions with the people of the land, which in New Zealand are the Māori,” Ben 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.”

Ben and Jonathan’s respectful inclusion of indigenous cultures throughout the course struck so many of us at edX as a powerful entry point into the material. We also knew how eye-opening and inspiring their approach would be to so many different kinds of global learners; it hits that motivation button for casual volcano enthusiasts, university students, and even other educators.

Curiosity and Courage as the Seeds of Innovation

One of the duo’s key goals for the course is to get learners excited enough to go see volcanoes for themselves. As Jonathan emphasizes, “There’s nothing like actually experiencing these special landscapes up close in person.” Another goal of theirs 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,” Ben says. “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.”

“Winning the edX Prize has perhaps given us a little more mana,” Jonathan explains, “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.”


Ready for an explosive multimedia journey into the world of volcanoes? Watch the short trailer for the course below and then register for "Exploring Volcanoes and Their Hazards: Iceland and New Zealand" today.

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