EPCC presents its first supercomputing MOOC

Posted by s.aragon on 30 June 2017 - 11:00am

SupercomputingBy Weronika Filinger, Applications Developer, EPCC

This post was originally published in the EPCC blog.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) provide free web-based distance learning opportunities to large numbers of geographically dispersed students. Here at EPCC we are always keen to talk about supercomputing, and becoming involved in this MOOC was a natural development for us. 

Course structure and delivery  

In accordance with the MOOC methodology of presenting the content in small, easily digestible portions, we designed this course to last for 5 weeks. 

Each week has a distinct theme, and is further divided into smaller modules called ‘activities’, consisting of a number of ‘steps’. Steps are the smallest units of the course structure and, regardless of their type – article, video, discussion, exercise, quiz or test – should not require more than 20 minutes to complete. Learners can spend as much or as little time on each step as they wish, and do them at any time. In our estimate the week’s worth of content should not take more than 3 hours to complete. Learners are granted access to all of the material at once, which allows them to proceed at their own pace. 

Programme content

The first week provides a gentle introduction to the world of supercomputing, including some basic terminology, a brief historical overview and descriptions of some of the state-of-the-art machines.

The second week focuses on the physical components of supercomputers and how they compare to modern laptops or game consoles. At the end of this week, students should appreciate why we use thousands of standard CPUs rather than creating one super-CPU that is thousands of times faster. 

In week three we discuss how to make use of all of these computing cores, covering topics of parallel programming and parallel performance. 

Week four is about computer simulations, with weather modelling used to illustrate the concepts and life cycle of computer simulations. 

Finally, week five presents three examples of research conducted on supercomputers: Illustris, the biggest cosmic simulation ever; the Blue Brain project, an attempt to create a digital reconstruction of the brain; and discovering new materials. We also talk briefly about possible future developments. 

Course participants 

This course was designed to be accessible to as many people as possible, and participants do not require any specific computer knowledge. However this does not preclude more computer-literate learners from participating and enjoying it.

Looking at the self-introductions and various comments, we can distinguish three distinct groups of learners: current/former IT professionals, post-graduate students and academic researchers making use of HPC resourses, and the general public. 

This diversity led to some very interesting conversations between significant numbers of learners. The discussion topics ranged from very technical and in-depth, through general interest questions, to philosophical and ethical considerations. Although not all learners were active in the comment sections, many noted that they benefited from following other learners’ conversations. 

3,263 people registered for the course and 1,721 people accessed the content, which is a typical conversion rate for FutureLearn. Due to its rather specialist nature, ours was quite a small course by FutureLearn standards. However, those smaller numbers allowed for more interactions between the educators and learners and, possibly more importantly, between learners.  

How did we do?

Feedback from people who completed the course was very positive and we look forward to running it again. Comments included:

“Thank you for making this course available, it has been a huge insight into my future prospects and has taught me not only about huge supercomputers, but also about the fundamentals of computer science itself!”

“Thank you for a thoroughly enjoyable course. This was a topic about which I knew nothing before starting the course and so I have learnt much. The future looks interesting.”

This MOOC was developed by EPCC in collaboration with SURFsara (Netherlands) on behalf of the Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (PRACE). The course is hosted on FutureLearn, The Open University’s digital education platform.


The date of the next run is planned to be at the end of August 2017. To be notified of forthcoming runs, please register on the course page

We hope you will join our next run!

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