Over the past decade online learning has become a significant part of the education sector, enabling many people to study at home subjects that would only have been available in a classroom setting, and then typically as part of a larger course. In the field of palaeontology numerous universities in several countries are now offering online training, in a field where, other than the occasional day course for the public run by museums or voluntary organisations, training was generally only available as part of a formal degree program, in geology, biology, or palaeontology. These courses are not, however, all identical, both because palaeontology is a huge field, with many different areas within it, and also because courses are aimed at learners of different abilities, and are presented by educators with different approaches to teaching. This article aims to review a range of different online palaeontology courses currently available, in the hope of giving prospective students a view of the field.
Run by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on the Coursera platform, and led by Bruce Fouke, Director of the Roy J. Carver Biotechnology Center. The course covers the emergence of life on Earth, and its subsequent evolutionary history, from the microbial ecosystems of the Precambrian through to the appearance of man, with an additional chapter on astrobiology and the search for life in the cosmos.
The course comprises a series of lectures presented largely by Bruce Fouke, with some by other academics, as well as a range of reading materials, and is designed to encourage wider reading and research of the topics raised. The course is heavily based upon the work of the late Carl Woese, a highly influential microbiologist and biophysicist, who was based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and who developed the Three Domain theory of life, in which all life on Earth is divided into three Domains, the Bacteria, the Archaea, and Eucarya. Due to this the course is probably stronger on the early life and astrobiology sections than it is on some of the other material, and probably gives more weight to the ideas of Woese than those of other prominent theorists in the same field, but on the whole the material is excellent and the course is highly recommended.
One caveat is the way in which the course is assessed; the course is split into a series of weekly segments, each of which is followed by two assessments, a multiple choice questionnaire and a written assignment. These written assignments are marked by peer-review, with each piece of work being marked by two other students. The course can be taken without the assessments, which is free, or with them, which requires payment, and results in a certificate of achievement. The written assessments are designed to be thought provoking, and require research to complete, but will result in the student getting more from the course; however they way in which it is assessed can mean that if not enough students are taking the course at the same time (or too many drop out before reaching the end of the course), then it becomes impossible to complete the assessment, which is frustrating and potentially discouraging, and can result in the loss of the money paid for the course (Coursera have recently introduced a yearly subscription option, which covers as many courses as the subscribed wants within a years, which would at least offset this latter problem).
Run by the Smithsonian Institution on the Wondorium platform (formerly 'The Great Courses'), and presented by Stuart Sutherland of the University of British Colombia. This course comprises a series of video lectures, each about half an hour in length, with no tests needed to complete the course or certification available for doing so, i.e. this is essentially a TV show rather than a true course, albeit one which is intended to be informative (many of the other ‘courses’ on the Great Courses platform appear to be old National Geographic TV series). Courses on The Great Courses are available only by subscription (although a free two-week trial subscription is available), and are uncertificated. The value of certificates from online courses is, of course, debatable. Certainly, an online course is in palaeontology is not going to get you a job in palaeontology, but it might count towards gaining acceptance on a college or university course, and working towards a certificate can be motivational.
The first lecture begins with an introduction to the subject, starting with the history of the Smithsonian Museum, then the city of Washington DC, then the area on which it stands, followed by some fossils from the area. This is followed by an introduction to the geological timescale. This follows the familiar pattern of comparing the history of the Earth to some more ‘measurable’ unit, something that I will admit I have never been found useful; to me being told the first Dinosaurs appeared on the third of December, or something similar, is not useful, and potentially mildly confusing. But that’s me, and presumably some people do find this helpful. Stuart Sutherland, for some reason, choses to compare the history of the Earth to the length of the National Mall in Washington DC, thus we are told that the Late Heavy Bombardment happened at the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Cambrian Explosion at the Ulysses S Grant Memorial. This is of very limited use to anyone not familiar with Washington DC (and when publishing on the internet, we should never assume everyone is familiar with our local area), and for me is starting to drift away from unhelpful, and towards surreal (particularly as Sutherland has a northern English accent, and could presumably express himself in some more familiar unit, such as the measurements of a cricket pitch). The second episode comprises a brief history of the science of palaeontology, followed by a discussion of biases in the fossil record, modes of preservation, and the importance of fossil lagerstätten (deposits with many exceptionally preserved fossils) in understanding the fossil record. The third episode covers techniques used in palaeontology, from field mapping and fossil collection, through preparation to techniques such as microscopy, computerised tomography and photogrammetry, finishing with a brief look at reconstruction work by palaeoartists. Episode four covers ichnology, the study of trace fossils, including movement and feeding traces, burrows, stromatolites and coprolites, and covers how these can be used to interpret both the behaviour of Animals and the nature of the environment in which they lived. The fifth episode covers taxonomy, starting with the binomial system and the works of Carl Linnaeus, then moving to modern methods such as the application of genetics to classification and the cladistic system. The episode finishes with an examination of some controversies in the classification of North American Late Cretaceous Dinosaurs. Episode six covers mineralogy and the evolution of Earth’s mineral structure over time, from its formation, through the development of a permanent crust, the origin of plate tectonics, the development of an oxygen atmosphere, the snowball Earths, Cambrian Explosion and colonisation of the land surface by plants. Episode seven covers dating in the fossil record, and includes discussions of isotope dating, biostratigraphy, and magnetostratigraphy. This followed by an examination of the use of growth rings and other structures in fossils to detect daily, yearly and other cycles in the geological record, and understand how this might have changed over time. Finally, the possibility of cyclic mass-extinction events is covered. Episode eight covers biogeography, starting with the Bering Land Bridge and the Great American Interchange, then covering Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, the distribution of fossils on the supercontinent of Pangea during the Triassic, and finally the assemblage of the terrains that make up the American Northwest. Episode nine covers microfossils, with a review of the various microfossil groups, and a look at how they are used in biostratigraphy, palaeoclimatology and the study of evolutionary processes. Episode ten covers the possible origin of life at deep sea hydrothermal systems, the discovery and exploration of such systems, the different types of systems, and the possibility of life originating on other planets. Episode eleven covers the origin of modern biodiversity, with an emphasis on the Cambrian Explosion, and Ediacaran Biotas that preceded it. Episode twelve is dedicated to the Arthropods, including their origin, early Arthropods such as the Anomalocarids, the Trilobites, and the colonisation of land by the Myriapods, Arachnids and Insects. Episode thirteen covers the Devonian Extinction, and its possible causes, including volcanism, ice ages, impacts, and the rise of Plants. Episode fourteen covers the End Permian Extinction, mantle plume volcanism, and the catastrophic chain of events that nearly wiped out all life at the end of the Palaeozoic. Episode fifteen deals with the aftermath of the End Permian Extinction, covering the persistent hothouse conditions of the Early Triassic, the long interval before the Triassic biosphere began to re-establish itself, followed by the appearance of new groups such as Scleractinian Corals, Archosaurs, including Dinosaurs and Pterosaurs, and Mammals. This episode concludes with the start of the break-up of Pangea, and the End Triassic Extinction. Episode sixteen covers Dinosaurs, starting with an exploration of the places in which Dinosaurs, as terrestrial Animals, were likely to become fossilised, then covering the differences between major Dinosaur groups, before zooming in on Spinosaurs for a look at how palaeontologists reconstruct the behaviour and biology of one particular Dinosaur group. Episode seventeen covers the origin of the Whales, the theory of evolution and how terrestrial animals can sometimes return to the sea, and the use of photogrammetry in recording an exceptional Whale stranding site in Chile that was covered by a road shortly after its discovery. Episode eighteen covers the origin of the Angiosperms (Flowering Plants), looking at the origin of plant pollination by Insects in Mesozoic Gymnosperms (Non-flowering Seed Plants), the use of DNA-based phylogenetics to identify the most primitive groups of Angiosperms, the likely time and place of Angiosperm origins, and the coevolution of Insects, Plants, and Vertebrates to produce a the modern diversity of flowers and fruits. Episode nineteen covers the evolution of Grasslands, and their impact on the Animals that dwell on them, including our own ancestors. This starts with the Mesozoic origin of the first grasses, the evolution of C4 grasses, and the rise of the Grassland ecosystem from the Oligocene onwards. Episode twenty looks at Komodo Dragons, Varanus komodoensis, examining their biology, behaviour, ecology, and origin among the Australian megafauna. Episode twenty-one covers Mammoths, Mastodons, and the extinct Pleistocene megafauna of North America. This starts with the evolution of Elephants, looks at the history of studying these and other megafauna in North America, considers the possible causes of the North American megafauna extinctions, and closes with a consideration of the possibility of cloning Mammoths. Episode twenty-two covers the recently discovered Hominin Species Homo floresiensis, from the Indonesian island of Flores, and discusses the spreading of early Human groups out of Africa. Episode twenty-three covers the Neanderthals, starting with the discovery of the first specimens, then the changing ways in which this group has been reconstructed as we have gained a better understanding of their culture and abilities, and ending with the discovery of significant amounts of Neanderthal-derived DNA within our own genomes. Episode twenty-four covers the future of palaeontology, including the role of palaeontology in understanding events such as volcanic super-eruptions, bolide impacts, and climate change, which can potentially have profound impacts on our current biosphere, including ourselves, the proposed creation of an Anthropocene Period, reflecting an age in which Humans have become the dominant drivers of the biosphere, and can be detected in the geological record, and the potential of future fossil discoveries on other planets, particularly Mars.
Course run by the Open University on their Open Learn platform. This is entirely free, and produces Statement of Participation certificate upon completion. The course is based entirely upon written material presented in a series of steps covering the stages of the Palaeozoic, and the various Animal groups that arose during them, with outline descriptions of the major invertebrate groups, as well as the emergence of Vertebrates, the major Fish groups of the Palaeozoic, and the rise of first the Tetrapods and the Amniotes.
Additional reading is provided from Douglas Palmer's Atlas of the Prehistoric World, with the relevant chapters being available as PDF downloads (this book was formerly used as the text for the accredited level one course Fossils and the history of life, which no longer appears to run). The course is intended to provide a short introduction to the material rather than in depth coverage; it is estimated to take about twelve hours to complete, though this is probably an overestimation for most people; it took me very little time to work through the material (though I will admit to being both a fast reader, and very familiar with the subject matter), and my son, who is thirteen was able to finish the course in a morning. Nevertheless, the course is the only one I am aware of that covers this material specifically, making it potentially a good introduction to the field.