A few months back I presented with a colleague about motivations for university academics to engage with ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs). This was at the Coursera Partners Conference in Newport Beach, California (Coursera is the platform we worked with to share our water and sanitation MOOC at the University of Manchester) and this was their annual event for instructors, media teams, instructional designers and course administrators to meet and share insights with each other. It was also where Coursera presented some new platform features, mainly helping with their apparently desired transition to more courses being available at any time, ‘on demand’ to learners all around the world.

Photo: Presenting on motivations for academics to engage with MOOCs, Coursera conference 2015, California. Source: Coursera.
Photo: Presenting at the Coursera conference 2015, California. Source: Coursera.

I found the event and setting very inspiring. By its very nature it was a magnet for some fascinating, passionate people – academics committed to ‘universal access to the world’s best education’ at low or no cost – and innovators in instructional design, course delivery, crowdsourced ‘citizen science’ and many were thought leaders in their fields. It was the largest, most concentrated gathering of creative, energetic and optimistic academics I’ve ever attended.

Photo: Audience at the Coursera conference.
Photo: Audience at the Coursera conference.

For my panel I shared the floor with several ‘star’, early-adopter, near-evangelist MOOC instructors, including the legendary ‘Dr Chuck‘ (Charles Severance) who’s delivered software/programming courses on Coursera since it launched, and even has tattoos of each of the platforms he’s on!

Photo: After-panel Q&A with MOOC star, Dr Chuck.
Photo: After-panel Q&A with MOOC star, Charles Severance (a.k.a. Dr Chuck). Source: Coursera.
Photo: Dr Chuck's platform tattoos! Source: Coursera.
Photo: Dr Chuck’s platform tattoos! Source: Coursera.

The whole event was bursting with a ‘can do’ attitude and outlook. I haven’t re-adjusted since returning to the UK. (A close friend who spent much time in California captured how I feel by likening returning from California’s disposition and climate back to the UK as being like ‘swimming through treacle’!)

Photo: Venue for the Coursera conference, Newport Beach, California.
Photo: Venue for the Coursera conference, Newport Beach, California.

I’ve spent many years researching and teaching sustainability issues. I thought I’d positively loathe Los Angeles and its infamous urban sprawl. I also now drive an electric car so felt even more alert to be headed to the ‘car city’, expecting smog and over-the-top consumer culture… The reality was anything but. I was positively entranced by the beauty of the place and approachability of the people, and can’t wait to go back.

Beyond all the palm trees, blue skies, expansive Pacific ocean vistas, immaculately manicured verges, positive people and shining facades though are the looming contradictions between population, climate and water resources in California. Other than a brief mention in an opening address, no one I met or heard speak at the Coursera conference mentioned the state’s daily-worsening drought conditions…

Photo: Romantic water aesthetics in California, overlooking the magnificent Pacific and Ocean. Photo: Scot Corrie.
Photo: Romantic water aesthetics in California, overlooking the magnificent Pacific and Ocean. Photo: Scot Corrie.

The collection of videos below show the dramatic challenges for water resources for the ecosystem, the landscape and amenities; show celebrities being ‘drought shamed’ for their profligate water use; and discuss conflicts between agricultural, industrial and domestic water users that new policy efforts are trying to mitigate…

The story below about wealthy residents in Montecito bringing in truckloads of water in the dead of night – ostensibly oblivious to the socio-environmental situation around them – really struck me the most though; I wonder if these residents next visit nearby Butterfly Beach and try to hold back the tide…?

Voluntary, grant-supported replacement of water-thirsty grass lawns with sparser, drought-tolerant shrubs is one positive response to the drought in California, as seen in this National Geographic clip:

However it’s worrying to see a lack of awareness of the sky-high cost of building long pipelines across the country to try to address the drought. Actor William Shatner has been in the news promoting this idea, a costly approach with which China and Australia have also toyed in recent years:

What’s certain is that the coming year will be a challenging and revealing time for water policy in this part of the world, if indeed California has only ‘a year’ of water left as these sources above seem to suggest…

Duncan Thomas

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