Online courses: Accessing nature through the Internet.

 Image by John Ward | flickr.com

Image by John Ward | flickr.com

­­­If you are looking to expand your­ knowledge of and familiarity with environmentally focused science and issues, free online courses are a great resource for doing so on your own time and at your own pace.  While most of the courses that I want to take are at the undergraduate level, the material covered is generally less detailed than your typical university course, so it can take less time and studying to grasp and understand the material.  Instead of aimlessly browsing the Internet to learn about climatology or environmental activism, online courses are a great way to gain information without consuming too much time or spending any money. So, I decided to complete a few online courses to explore what kind of environmental and nature programs the Internet has to offer.

The Open University (OpenLearn) and Coursera are two of several online education resources that I have discovered with courses related to nature – particularly animal science.  I chose these topics as examples because I consider myself an animal person and am curious about what else there is to learn.  My specific interests focus on the ‘macro’ scale of the animal kingdom, such as ecosystem function, animal behaviour, and wildlife conservation. I believe that in order to enjoy nature, it is important to seek further knowledge to observe how scientists try to protect wildlife and advance scientific understanding of the natural world. Course participants can, in turn, raise awareness and help build a brighter future for our planet.

Here are some courses I recommend that are related to nature and the natural environment:

The Open University – OpenLearn (http://www.open.edu/openlearn)

The Open University (OU) is a university for international students to pursue their degrees via distance learning. These degrees, however, usually take longer to complete than the average amount of time that it would normally take to complete at a standard university. The OU is also a research-oriented institute. They provide free learning for students through both classroom and remote settings.

Sample course: “Animals at the extremes: Polar biology” (http://www.open.edu/openlearn/nature-environment/natural-history/animals-the-extremes-polar-biology/content-section-1.2)

The course is divided into several sections. The main contents include polar biology, environmental regulation of physiological processes, and natural feasting and fasting, just to name a few. There are some technical terms (i.e. fecundity, ruminants) that the learner would want to be familiar with if he or she has little or no experience in the field.

One interesting fact I have learned from the course is that there are only two permanent residents in the Arctic: the Arctic fox and reindeer. The rest are migrants; they will not survive for long with such limited food supply.  In fact, the Arctic actually has much less biodiversity than the Antarctic. 

Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/)

Coursera offers free courses in different topics from universities around the world.  It is set up such that the student manually searches for the specific topics that he or she wants to learn. Most of the courses are comprised of videos and lecture notes that provide many visual guides without overwhelming the student with too many details. There is a set time in which the student must complete the modules and submit homework to the administrator, who then grades the assignments and provides feedback.

Sample course: Animal Behaviour (University of Melbourne) (https://www.coursera.org/course/animalbehav)

The syllabus covered animal behaviour, ecology, natural selection, communication, and parental care and conflict.  I am personally interested in all of the topics in this course because I have had previous experience with observing animal behaviours. 

My overall experience with online courses was quite positive.  Personally, I prefer courses that provide reading materials over videos since I find it easier to study on my own time, even though videos are typically more interactive.  Submitting work and receiving feedback from the instructors is great – it genuinely feels like I am taking a real course with beneficial student-to-teacher interaction. Depending on student needs and goals, he or she can choose how they learn, how much they learn, and how to interpret and apply that newly acquired knowledge.  Hopefully, online learning will become an increasingly accessible method of learning, and access to free education will be available to all, regardless of location and background.