Artificial intelligence and climate change among the topics examined in free online courses

Even those not pursuing an entire degree can compete studies at the University. Open online courses are available to supplement one’s skills or try out a new field.

Entrance examinations or courses completed in the Open University have been the traditional paths to studying at the University, the former requiring commitment, the latter often money and scheduling.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, bring university education within the reach of everyone. Being offered online, they can be completed wherever and whenever possible.

A perfect example of open online courses is Elements of AI, a general course on artificial intelligence. Its organisers had the aim of one percent of all Finns taking the course. By December, over 10 000 people had taken the course and 100 000 had enrolled to the course, which requires something between 30 and 60 hours of work. The participants are from all around the world. In fact, Elements of AI is probably the most popular individual course of 2018 in Finland.

The course on AI was not the first massive open online course organised by the University of Helsinki, nor are technology and programming the sole topics of its online courses. For example, such courses available last year focused, among other things, on climate change, chemistry and Finland’s political system.

Who are open online courses for?

International universities have been offering MOOCs ever since the turn of the millennium. At the University of Helsinki, they were introduced as part of the offerings in 2012.

In addition to individuals studying and working at institutions of higher education, course participants include upper secondary school pupils, professionals and pensioners.

Kalle Langén, a group manager at the technology company Fujitsu, and Heini Ryssy, a team leader at the energy company Fortum and a student of the Open University, have both taken MOOCs. Neither of them is pursuing a degree at the University.

Langén was among the first to complete the popular Elements of AI course. He has a bachelor’s degree in electricity and telecommunications as well as a master’s degree in industrial management from a university of applied sciences. However, neither of his degrees touched on artificial intelligence, while coding also received little attention, which is why a general course on the topic fit the bill.

“We agreed at work that the 24 extra hours of work required by the governmental competitiveness pact was to be spent studying, a quota I thought Elements of AI would fill just perfectly.”

The competitiveness pact came into force in 2016, obliging employers to extend the working hours of their employees by 30 minutes per week.

Heini Ryssy has taken several open online courses, as she finds them to be a good way to familiarise herself with different topics.

“Introduction to Environmental Economics initiated me into the world of emissions trading and the assessment of environmental values, while Introduction to Circular Economy seemed extremely topical, thanks to sections focused, among other things, on forestry and topics related to transport and energy policy.”

Ryssy has attended courses focused on the environment in particular, as making a difference in the environmental sector is of interest to her. She also believes that the knowledge gained from such courses can boost her career.

One of the courses she completed last autumn was the Leadership for Sustainable Change MOOC, which examines sustainable development, climate change and circular economy, as well as the related management of change.

“I registered for the course since I wanted to learn how to manage sustainability transformation. It’s an extensive course dealing with environmental issues as well as social and economic relations. In other words, the management of sustainability change is very comprehensive in nature.”

In addition to research-based knowledge, Ryssy was interested in how the activities of customers, partners and other interest groups are reflected in organisational culture. She also wanted to find out how logic in early childhood education, later education and decision-making could promote the achievement of sustainability goals.

Why take an online course?

Open online courses are available to everyone, regardless of location or educational background. Thanks to the easy registration process, dropping out is also straightforward should interest in the topic wane.

Common to all open online courses is that course materials are accessible around the clock and that lecture attendance is not dependent on time and space. Most courses are open all the time, making it possible to embark on one whenever feeling like it.

Since each course is different, there is a wide range of reasons for taking them.

Ryssy hopes that open online studies will in the future open new career opportunities for her in the field of climate and environmental communications. As for Langén, his reason for studying is the importance of being up to date with topical phenomena, especially those associated with his field. 

“I’m one of those people who are interested in pretty much everything. You can complete open online courses alongside work, which advances your skills and knowledge.”

Open online courses are particularly well suited to introducing new topics.

“Currently I’m taking an online course on the Unity game engine organised by Zenva Academy, an Australian coding school,” Langén says. 

Ryssy thinks MOOCs come into their own in providing overviews, as they make it possible to try out whether you might be interested in a topic to the extent of studying it further.

“I think MOOCs are suited to anyone proficient in the basics of computers and interested in new things.”

Ryssy’s wish is for as many people as possible to take, for example, the Leadership for Sustainable Change course to spread environmental values and operational procedures based on them among businesses and organisations.

“The course is great for teachers, engineers, journalists and lawyers, among others.”

What good are MOOCs? 

Open online courses are university-level courses made available by their organiser to participants from outside the University. As with other university courses, MOOCs are designed and implemented by researchers and university lecturers.

“I gained more from the Leadership for Sustainable Change course than I ever dared to expect. Even though I'm familiar with the topic and have been interested in it for a long time, I got plenty of tools and guidance for making sustainable changes,” Ryssy praises the course.

Despite being an online course, Leadership for Sustainable Change also includes a project assignment during which participants put their learning into practice in an organisation of their choosing.

“The course content with its extensive range of source materials constitutes an impressive databank. Thanks to its clearly structured sections, the course is easy to follow, even with a schedule made busy by working at the same time,” Ryssy says.

Langén, too, was happy with the Elements of AI online course he took.

“The course was brilliant and very topical. It provided a comprehensive overview of artificial intelligence and a general idea of neural networks.”

Both Ryssy and Langén consider online education important, as it makes targeted training and self-improvement free of charge possible.

“For instance, these kinds of open online courses can make it easier for upper secondary school pupils to find a field of their own through trying all kinds of courses and getting a feel of various topics,” Ryssy points out.

Where to read more about online courses

Information on the MOOCs, or massive open online courses, organised by the University of Helsinki is available in concise form on the University website.

Ryssy found the Leadership for Sustainable Change course in spring 2018 through the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra and Twitter discussions, while Langén noticed Elements of AI on Facebook.

The University’s Educational Technology Services offers a learning environment mooc.helsinki.fi, in addition to which the Department of Computer Science employs the mooc.fi platform.

Elements of AI is also listed on Class Central with good reviews.