Natural Hazards Project Update

A New Massive Open Online Course on Natural Disasters

Two professors put their college course online. Enrollment jumped more than 20-fold, and a forum for exchanging ideas with a multigenerational international community was born.

By , John Gyakum, Karolane Caissy, Angela Guadagno, Alexander Steeves-Fuentes, Wei Wei Yan, Frank Roop, Pierre-André Vungoc, Claire Walker, Adam Finkelstein, and Laura Winer

Since 2000, McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, has offered a course with the simple title of “Natural Disasters.” The course, which teaches students the scientific principles underpinning hurricanes, tornadoes, avalanches, and more, has proven quite popular among the students; attendance has grown from about 50 to more than 600.

But that number pales in comparison to the 12,345 students who enrolled in this course after McGill University selected “Natural Disasters” as one of a small number of courses to develop into a high-quality massive open online course (MOOC) in 2013.

MOOCs have gained popularity since 2012. These courses allow anybody anywhere access to learning opportunities that were formerly restricted to small numbers. MOOCs typically attract thousands of students, at little or no cost to the students.

We planned and designed the original course as well as the MOOC. For the MOOC, we kept a set of objectives in mind. First and foremost, we wanted to reach out to the largest number of people possible, from all regions of the world, who were interested or involved in some aspect of natural hazards and natural disasters. In particular, we wanted to reach people in remote regions and developing countries who would not otherwise have been able to participate in such a course.

We believe that by providing these participants with information and educational tools, at no cost to them, they can better understand how, where, and why natural disasters occur. Because better understanding can lead to empowerment and change, the MOOC participants could use this knowledge to help reduce and mitigate the effects and consequences of natural disasters in their own communities.

Assembling the MOOC

Our vision was a MOOC that would be highly dynamic for the students. That is, we wanted to make sure that the professors’ lectures would be only one of several elements in the course. The diverse range of activities included student polls, discussions, and short assessments that tested the students’ comprehension. The assessments included multiple choice questions, calculations, and geographic system pattern recognition: elements that actively engaged students in their learning.

This approach required a team of instructors and support staff with different and complementary skills. The two professors were the visual interface for the students: in essence, they were the “front end” of the course. The design team comprised a coordinator, an active learning specialist, a videographer, a programmer, and a group of student assistants who had taken the McGill course and were familiar with its content.

The course components contained lectures, student activities (including three hands-on lab experiments), demonstrations by the professors, assignments, case studies by the students, and two multiple-choice exams.

MOOC Content

The course covered a range of topics, including hurricanes, tornadoes, El Niño, ice storms, avalanches, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanoes. We synthesized many course topics with a series of lectures on climate change (alternatively, global warming) and its consequences. Practical demonstrations embedded within the lectures illustrated the principles behind each particular phenomenon. Here we drew on our experience doing live demonstrations for the on-site students in the McGill course. For example, we simulated a volcanic “eruption” using diet cola and Mentos candy (see video below).

Professor John Stix of Montreal’s McGill University simulates a volcanic eruption using diet cola and Mentos candy during his class “Natural Disasters.” This class, now offered as a MOOC, has reached students around the world. Credit: Ben Stix

We built social science into each topic. For volcanoes, we showed the dual importance of hazard maps and the need for people to communicate and take action when necessary to stay out of harm’s way. As an illustration, we discussed the disastrous 1985 eruption of Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz volcano. Because of poor communication, people failed to flee from a volcanic mudslide, even though hazard maps were available showing safe and unsafe areas. For earthquakes, we examined the role that efficient communications, such as rapid text messaging, could play in public safety efforts.

We also examined climate change as a moral issue, comparing and contrasting greenhouse gas contributions and impacts between developed and developing countries. Finally, we discussed urban growth and human activities, looking at intelligent and not so intelligent choices people make in terms of where they live and how they build.

For each topic, students were required to complete an assignment that tested their knowledge and allowed them to apply the principles they’d just learned. Students also completed two multiple-choice exams during the course, one halfway through and another at the end. In addition, we designed a “mini case study” where students chose a topic or event that interested them, researched the topic, wrote up the essentials in roughly a page, and then submitted their written product to the scrutiny of three of their peers.

In addition, students collaborated to create interactive global hazard maps using a third-party tool called ZeeMaps (Figure 1).

MOOC students mapped and described their personal experiences with natural disasters.
Fig. 1. Students in the MOOC were asked if they had had a personal experience with any of several types of natural events or disasters. (top) If so, they could mark the geographic location, write a brief description, and post a photo of the event or disaster. (bottom) In this way, the course compiled a remarkably diverse range of experiences that could be viewed by everybody using the maps.

Students also competed in Stop Disasters!, an online disaster simulation game from International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, an effort organized by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (Figure 2). A display on the MOOC interface gave high scores and invited students to challenge and beat their student assistants.

Flood preparation scenario from the computer simulation game Stop Disasters!
Fig. 2. Students could run a number of disaster scenarios using the computer simulation game Stop Disasters! (top) In this example, a player is given a fixed budget to develop land and install protective measures for a flood scenario. (bottom) The flood is in progress, inundating trees and land that had been developed for housing. Credit: UNISDR

Launching the MOOC

The initial offering of the course ran from late May to late August 2014, with 12,345 students from 178 countries enrolled. We located these online students using their IP addresses and found that at registration, the four countries with the most students were the United States (24%), India (11%), Canada (5%), and the United Kingdom (4%; Figure 3). The median age of participants was 29, with 34% aged 25 years or younger, 37% aged 26–40, and 20% aged 41 years or older (10% of participants did not indicate their age).

Global distribution of 2014 course participants.
Fig. 3: Global distribution of 2014 course participants. Credit: McGillx

We offered our course through edX, a nonprofit entity that offers MOOCs from a large number of universities and other organizations. The course layout included a detailed syllabus, the courseware containing the material for the different topics, a page where students could view their results and progress, and a help section including frequently asked questions.

Fostering Discussion

In addition to instructional content, the course layout also contained a discussion board for students and student assistants and “screenside chats,” in which the professors could answer students’ questions and address any events or topical points of interest, including natural hazards or natural disasters currently in progress.

Two student assistants were tasked with addressing the many questions and concerns raised by the students as quickly and efficiently as possible. Over the span of the course, each student assistant contributed some 500 comments on the discussion forum. We received overwhelmingly positive feedback from students regarding this thorough and reliable discussion monitoring system.

In addition, many students had an exceptional understanding of the course material, enabling them to respond to questions as well. When a student correctly responded to a question, staff endorsed the post and added any relevant additional information, thus indicating to all students that the response was correct.

Student participation in the Stop Disasters! game was especially impressive; several students managed to surpass the high scores of the assistants, and they gave each other tips and tricks on how to improve their game score. Online gaming appears to be an increasingly valuable learning resource in today’s connected society [see, e.g., Mani et al., 2016].

As part of their final project in the course, students shared their mini case studies, on a topic of their choice, with their peers on the discussion forum. The assistants read most of these case studies and found that generally, the quality of the research performed far exceeded expectations.

A New Way to Learn

We offered the MOOC again in 2015 and 2016. There are plans to license the course in China, and we are also thinking about developing specialized natural disasters MOOCs that would address, for example, the polar regions or the tropics.

No person on Earth is immune from the risk of natural disasters. Our course can make an important contribution to understanding and mitigating this risk. The course is accessible to a broad range of learners, from high school students to adults and seniors, and it can be used in developed and developing countries alike. The only requirements are an internet connection and a passion for learning. We are excited about future developments in this field.


We are most grateful to Anthony Masi, former provost at McGill and leader of the McGillX initiative, who provided financial support and much encouragement for this project.


Mani, L., P. D. Cole, and I. Stewart (2016), Using video games for volcanic hazard education and communication: An assessment of the method and preliminary results, Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 16, 1673–1689,

Author Information

John Stix (email: [email protected]), Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada; John Gyakum, Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada; and Karolane Caissy, Angela Guadagno, Alexander Steeves-Fuentes, Wei Wei Yan, Frank Roop, Pierre-André Vungoc, Claire Walker, Adam Finkelstein, and Laura Winer, McGill Teaching and Learning Services, Montreal, QC, Canada

Citation: Stix, J., et al. (2018), A new massive open online course on natural disasters, Eos, 99, Published on 01 February 2018.
© 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0