Skip to main content

Northwestern Launches New MOOCs in 2014

Popular massive open online courses continue this winter, start Jan. 13

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University is offering a new round of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in winter 2014, examining content strategy for professionals, life cycle environmental assessment and fundamentals of digital image and video processing.

The three new courses follow Northwestern’s first three MOOC offerings, which debuted in the fall and drew interest from more than 68,000 students around the world. To do so, Northwestern partnered with Coursera earlier this year to provide its MOOCs on Coursera’s digital platform to anyone, anywhere, for free.

Coursera’s mission is to educate millions of people by offering a digital learning experience and classes and professors from top universities online. The company has a comprehensive education platform that combines mastery-based learning principles with video lectures, interactive content and a global community of peers. The same course could be taken by an advanced high school student in Evanston, a worker in Paris or a mother in Beijing.

Here are the three new Northwestern MOOCs:

  • On Jan. 13, Northwestern’s Media Management Center will launch the first MOOC of the new year at the University: Content Strategy for Professionals: Engaging Audiences for Your Organization. It will be taught by 10 professors, eight from the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and two with joint appointments at Medill and the Kellogg School of Management. The MOOC is for professionals who work in for-profit, nonprofit, volunteer and government organizations. It will show them how they can use credible, trustworthy and transparent content to far better engage their internal and external audiences. About 24,000 prospective students have registered so far. For more, see: To see a video summary of the course, go to:
  • On Jan. 25, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science Professor Eric Masanet will begin teaching a MOOC called How Green Is That Product? An Introduction to Life Cycle Environmental Assessment. The course will train students in the mathematics of analyzing and comparing the environmental footprints of different products. Masanet argues that people should take a holistic systems view when seeking answers and use a quantitative approach known as life cycle assessment (LCA). More than 10,000 prospective students have registered so far. For more, see: To see a video summary of the course, go to:
  • On March 31, McCormick School Professor and AT&T Chair Aggelos Katsaggelos will start teaching a MOOC called Fundamentals of Digital Image and Video Processing. This course will examine how to master the use of image and video signals that might be useful for engineering/science students, software developers or practicing scientists. Digital image and video processing continues to enable the multimedia technology revolution we are experiencing today. About 20,000 prospective students have registered so far. For more, see: To see a video summary of the course, go to:

The Coursera model offers noncredit courses through a platform that allows open enrollment with no admissions requirements and no tuition costs. Because of the asynchronous course delivery, students can complete the work at times convenient for them. Elements of the procedures Northwestern faculty learn by helping develop MOOCs may be adapted over time to on-campus teaching at the University.

“One of our primary goals in joining Coursera is to give our faculty the opportunity to explore new pedagogical and course delivery methods through MOOCs,” Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer explained.

“It has been fascinating to observe how creatively faculty members teaching our first three MOOCs have applied and plan to apply their online course materials to the learning experiences of Northwestern students on campus,” he said. “Our undergraduate, graduate and professional students are gaining directly from these professors’ experimentation with new modes of teaching and learning.”

The University joined what is now over 100 international and U.S. institutions working with Coursera -- which has more than 5 million registered users from 190 countries considering more than 500 courses. See a list of all of Coursera’s global partners: (

Here is more detailed information on the three new Northwestern MOOCs coming in 2014.

Content Strategy for Professionals: Engaging Audiences for Your Organization

The 10 expert Northwestern professors teaching the unique content strategy MOOC are led by John Lavine, professor and director of Northwestern’s Media Management Center, who noted in an interview that “a tidal wave of information” is bombarding professionals in every organization -- for-profit, nonprofit, volunteer and government.

Faced with this enormous challenge, the course was created to help professionals learn how to develop and deploy more engaging content and to reach key individuals inside and outside their organization with important information.

“Content strategy is a conversation that provides thought leadership,” Lavine explained. “Regardless of their level, area of work or expertise, professionals who use content strategy have new knowledge that enables them to be far more effective with words, graphics, video, social and mobile media. They learn how to give their most important stakeholders trustable, transparent, actionable information that those individuals will value and use.”

The MOOC is free and includes more than 60 short videos in six modules over six weeks, along with learning questions and assignments. It is a rigorous program, and there is a case study that weaves throughout the MOOC, allowing the participants to build their content strategy skills and receive feedback on them.

In addition, the MOOC features videos and multimedia from companies and organizations around the world. They are best practice examples of what an effective content strategy looks like in action. The MOOC also has an electronic toolkit for the participants to use in the future to help them and their colleagues as they encounter new challenges in their organization.

“The world is getting ever more complicated,” Lavine observed. “The most important thing -- beyond your health and love -- is the number 1,440, which is the number of minutes in a 24-hour day. There is very little time, so you have to give people something they value, that makes them smarter, if your content is to be worth their time.”

How Green Is That Product? An Introduction to Life Cycle Environmental Assessment

Paper or plastic? Hybrid or conventional vehicles? Which is better for the environment? To answer these questions, Professor Eric Masanet believes, one must take a holistic systems view using a quantitative approach known as life cycle assessment.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a fundamental method for assessing the environmental impacts of products and technologies from a "cradle to grave" systems perspective. It is an essential tool for anyone who performs environmental analyses or uses the results of such analyses for decision-making.

“I think taking this line of approach in a MOOC is a way to reach people all over the world who don’t necessarily have access to a Northwestern University education,” said Masanet, an expert on sustainability and associate professor of mechanical engineering and chemical and biological engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“This is also a great way for Northwestern University to plant its flag and demonstrate some of the great work so many people do here on sustainability,” he said, noting the course will use real-world examples to teach students how to make better decisions.

The preparation work for the MOOC, he added, included some 400 hours of work in all and taught him valuable lessons about his own teaching methods. The nine-week course includes 27 lecture videos five to 15 minutes long, multiple readings, case studies and a course project.

Students also will need to bring some quantitative skills and critical thinking to the material, which will examine green issues and quickly demonstrate that sustainability is a complicated field involving quantitative study and tradeoffs to make informed decisions about consumer behavior and consumption.

Assessing the life cycle and environmental impact of a plastic bottle, for example, involves examining a complex array of inputs, including the amount of raw material used, the manufacturing impacts, the distribution methods, product use and disposal impacts, Masanet said.

Fundamentals of Digital Image and Video Processing

Professor Aggelos Katsaggelos will teach the third MOOC of the new year, which will instruct students on the basic principles and tools used to process images and videos and how to apply them in solving practical problems of commercial and scientific interest.

Through discussion of digital image enhancement by computer, Katsaggelos will examine how to diminish degradation of images to improve them for the human eye. By examining signal processing principles, the course will reveal how video compression is a key technology behind the multimedia revolution, affecting everything from medical image processing to Facetime on your iPhone.

“The power of the MOOC idea is you can reach someone at the other end of the world, and he or she would have access to a course they might not otherwise have access to,” said Katsaggelos, who works in the McCormick School’s department of electrical engineering and computer science and is also director of the Motorola Center for Seamless Communications.

The course is designed for researchers, practicing engineers, undergraduates with a knowledge of engineering or science and even high-level high school students. Katsaggelos said to prepare the course he has had to condense material from two regular courses he teaches into a 12-week course. It will consist of roughly 60 videos of 10 to 15 minutes each, image and video demonstrations, readings and multiple-choice tests. Mathlab software with several toolboxes will be provided to students for performing various image and video processing tasks, such as analysis, object tracking or compression.

“The MOOC forced me to organize the material and to be more succinct in my lectures,” said Katsaggelos, whose students will benefit from his lectures on science knowledge, computer algorithms and real-world experience that have won him considerable media attention.

Among his many achievements was using computer analysis to help enhance the often blurred images that first came to NASA scientists from the troubled Hubble Space Telescope. Katsaggelos developed an algorithm to remove the distortion introduced by the “myopic” telescope as well as the noise and to provide the scientists with images richer in detail and information. He has also worked with the Art Institute of Chicago and McCormick colleague Sotirios Tsaftaris developing an algorithm to help colorize a 1913 black-and-white photograph of a painting by Henri Matisse called “Bathers by a River.” Their work provided important insight into Matisse’s artistic evolution.

Katsaggelos also worked with Walt Disney Feature Animation in developing algorithms for the detection and removal of anomalies -- such as scratches, flickering and dust particles -- in digitized animation film. They were applied towards the restoration of the film "Fantasia" for one of its re-releases.

Assessing the impact of MOOCs

With three MOOCs completed and three more coming in early 2014, Northwestern is already learning lessons from the process of preparing and teaching the complex, cutting-edge courses.

“We are starting to analyze data from our launched MOOCs to explore what drives student learning and engagement in various contexts, how learning through MOOCs can be most effective and what lessons can be gained from online learners that we might then apply to our classrooms on campus,” Provost Linzer said.

“There are many critical questions being asked about online learning and MOOCs, and we are pleased to be able to engage in initiatives that help address some of these questions,” he said.

Already, Northwestern professors who taught the first three MOOCs at the University this fall have started drawing some conclusions about their value and student outcomes.

Medill Professor Owen R. Youngman -- who launched the University’s very first MOOC, Understanding Media by Understanding Google, last fall -- observed, “It is possible for highly engaged students to create a supportive community within a MOOC.“

He also noted that with MOOCs, “The value of ‘passing’ -- earning a statement of accomplishment -- is individually defined today, and, generally, it is defined and valued highly.”

Moreover, Youngman wrote in an op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “What MOOCs may force us to consider is whether a particular credential -- a diploma -- is necessary to demonstrate learning, as well as who gets to decide the relative value of the possible alternatives.” For links to a number of his articles about MOOCs, visit

For more information on the MOOCs taught this fall, see: