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).
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.