20 January 2014

Introduction to Ecosystems - A FutureLearn Course

A few months ago I heard about a new venture from the Open University called FutureLearn. While currently in Beta, FutureLearn aims to offer free, high quality online courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. Commonly known as MOOCs (massive open online courses), Introduction to Ecosystems is provided from the Open University itself, however other courses are offered via FutureLearn from universities such as those in Bath, Bristol, Liverpool, and Newcastle, etc.
This is a 6 week course (extended to 8 weeks to cover the Christmas break), offered wholly online using articles, videos, iSpot, and question and answer sessions.

As we most terms, we have an idea of what 'ecosystems' are, but we find that there are various definitions and competing theories that make a solid definition difficult to arrive at. So, from the outset we are encouraged to create our own glossary of terms, to give us a grounding as to what the terms we encounter really encompass.

Over the 6 weeks we visit various different ecosystems such as, Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, Bwindi Inpenetrable National Park in Africa, Loess Plateau in China, and Galápagos islands. Covering topics such as how to investigate the components of the ecosystem, managing ecosystem conservation, and how to ensure that it make financial sense to maintain an ecosystem rather than destroy it. An example of this being using managed tourism to bring in money to an area such as a forest, which may be cut down for timber without the income from tourism.

The 'To do' pages we see each week are set out as a contents page, with links to each topic: the article, video or conversation pages. After the task is complete you can add comments to continue the discussion about what's been learnt in that task. Each week closes with some questions, the course ends with additional questions that cover the whole course. This was helpful to see what I had really learnt since November and in the end I didn't do too badly scoring 22 out of 30 points.

In addition to chatting to each other via the comments under each topic, there are some other ways that this course is interactive. For instance, we were encouraged to use iSpot to identify some organisms that we had found in our local area.  I used a caterpillar that I had photographed a few months previous, but hadn't gotten around to identifying.

Catterpillar on iSpot website

The course ended with a question and answer session with the Lead Educator for this course, Dr David Robinson and Community Manager at iSpot, Janice Ansine; which can be viewed in full below:

All in all, I enjoyed this course. I felt that with around 2-3 hours study each week, it was an achievable course to fit into life. As the Open University has been making television and radio programmes for many years, they had plenty of material to make the course interesting - and as such it was like an extended documentary series with questions added in. New material was also made for the course, which was nice to see, but some of the old material used was made over 10 years ago - raising the question of how applicable it is to understanding the current situation in ecosystem study. However, saying that, I would recommend this course to anyone interested in understanding what an ecosystem is - this is a good start.

With the Q&A sessions in the course, it's clear that there is ongoing investment and interest in the material being provided - it's not just uploaded and then ignored - which I see as a very positive sign.

Over time, I look forward to seeing what other courses are made available and what changes are made to the FutureLearn system. There are already courses on sustainability and climate change becoming available - so it's looking like a bright future for MOOCs in the UK. I also must now visit Wicken Fen - it looks like an amazing place.


If you've studied this course or a MOOC with another provider, I'd like to hear your experiences. It would be great to hear from you in the comments - especially any recommendations. Feel free to ask any questions about this course too - I've probably missed out a bucket-load of useful information!

8 comments:

  1. More and more courses are being made available online. I've heard of a site that lets you take free online courses (they also have language course) for free.It's called ALISON.

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    1. Hi Marielle, as you say there are many MOOC sites including Coursera, Edx and Allversity. I even read an article the other day of a person using MOOC courses for their MBA! It seems that the future is bright for free education. :)

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  2. This is great! I've been meaning to look into Open University courses. I even thought it might be fun to design some courses and lead them (I did some instructional design work for one of my jobs and really enjoyed it). Your course sounds like it was worthwhile, and it's always great to learn something new.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Open University courses tend to be very good, but with the government withdrawing funding, they are very expensive these days. Hopefully sites like FutureLearn will be able to keep us busy with worthwhile learning without the prohibitive cost.
      Perhaps you could design and run a course via your blog? That could be quite interesting.

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  3. This is very interesting Tim - something I wasn't even aware existed! I will definitely keep it in mind for less busy times! Does it leave you with any recognised qualification or certificate? Or is it purely for your own learning gain?

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    1. Hi Lou, glad you liked my post. FutureLearn is currently in Beta, but I imagine that when it goes fully live there will be some sort of certification. Sites like Coursera offer a validated certificate for a nominal fee - so it may be something like that.

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  4. I tried the course (even though I know a bit on the topic ;) ) because I was curious, and I was really impressed at how they did it - I thought the balance of audio, videos, text, discussions was good.
    Looking forward to more of these online courses!

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    1. I'm really glad you enjoyed it too, Sophie - especially as you know the topic! I'm looking forward to more of these online courses too - after I've finished my current (and last) module for my degree!

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