Online courses in Palaeontology.

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. 

 

Emergence of Life. 

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).

 

Introduction to Paleontology.

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.

The content of this course is on the whole good (the explanation of the geological timescale in the first episode excepted), and covers some subjects not found in other courses. In particular, the course has in many places an emphasis on Southeast Asia, and Indonesia in particular, which is unusual in palaeontology courses. However, the selection of material in the course has a slightly random feel, with no overall direction to the course, making it essentially like watching 24 unrelated palaeontology lectures delivered by the same person. Nevertheless, the course covers all the big subjects in palaeontology, with a lot of information that needs to be understood in order to understand the science, but Sutherland does this well, explaining how where an organism lived and what its body was made from can influence whether-or-not it is likely to enter the fossil record in a simple, matter-of-fact manner that most people should be able to understand without difficulty, and even introducing a bit of geochemistry. 
 

A New History of Life.

Run and presented by Stuart Sutherland of the University of British Colombia on the Wondrium platform (formerly 'The Great Courses'). 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. This course comes with a free book in PDF form that covers the same material as the course. 

The course comprises thirty-six half-hour lectures, of which the first five are intended to be introductory. The first lecture introduces the idea that the Earth can be studied as a series of intereacting systems, as well as the greenhouse effect, and James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis. The second lecture covers the development of an understanding of the age of the Earth, starting with the bible-based theories of Bishop James Usher, and working through the development of the principles of stratigraphy in the eighteenth century to the development of modern isotope geochemical rock-dating methods, The third lecture introduces fossils as a tool in rock dating, and shows how biostratigraphy (using fossils to date rocks) can be used to corelate the ages of rocks in different areas, even when radiometric methods (which are reliant on the presence of igneous rocks) are absent. The fourth lecture introduces the reconstruction of extinct organisms from their fossil remains, and how these reconstructions can be used to interpret the environments where they lived, as well as the concepts of taphonomy (everything that happens to an organism between dying and being fossilised) and bias in the fossil record. Episode five introduces the concepts of continental drift and plate tectonics, and the processes by which mountains are formed.

The sixth lecture covers the origin of the Solar System, the Earth and the Moon. The seventh lecture covers the origin of the Earth's tectonic plates, oceans, and atmosphere. The eighth episode covers possible ways in which the first life could have originated from abiotic sources. Episode nine considers te possibility of life elsewhere in the Solar System, the earliest evidence for life on Earth, and the implications of the Late Heavy Bombardment for life on Earth. The tenth episode covers the Faint Early Sun hypothesis, the appearance of methane-producing Archaea and oxygen-producing Cyanobacteria, the formation of banded ironstone formations, and the appearance of oxygen in the atmosphere, and how this resulted in the Huronian Glaciation, then the appearance of Eukaryotic cells and the first multicellular organisms, and finally the rise in the sulphur content of the Mesoproterozoic Oceans, and how this hindered the further evolution of life. The eleventh episode considers the causes and effects of the Huronian and Cryogenian glaciations. The twelth episode looks at the emergence of Metazoan Animals, and the Ediacaran Fauna.

The thirteenth episode covers the Cambrian Explosion, and the emergence of Animals which could be placed into modern groups. The fourteenth episode focusses on the fossils of the Burgess Shale, and introduces the concept of fossil lagerstätten. The fifteenth episode looks at invertebrates groups in the fossil record, and introduces fossil reefs and micropalaeontology. Episode sixteen introduces the subject of mass extinctions, while episode seventeen looks at the Ordovician Extinction. The eighteenth episode examines the first Plants and Arthropods to emerge onto land, and looks in particular at the Rhynie Chert Lagerstätte. Episode nineteen covers the appearance of the earliest Chordates, and the first Vertebrates, Conodonts, and Jawless Fish. The twentieth episode covers the evolution of jaws in Fish, and the first radiations of Fish groups. Episode twenty one looks at the search for the earliest Tetrapods, and episode twenty two looks at Ceolcanths, fossil Tetrapods, and the discovery of the fossil Tiktaalik on Elesmere Island, Canada. Episode twenty three examines the coal forests of the Carboniferous, and the Animals that lived in them. The twenty fourth episode covers the terrestrial Vertebrates of the Permian. Episodes twenty five and twenty six look at the End Permian Extinction, and the search for its cause.

Episode twenty seven looks at the rise of the Dinosaurs, and the End Triassic Extinction. The twenty eighth episode introduces the concept of palaeobiology, and looks at how palaeontologists reconstruct Dinosaurs and their lifestyles. Eprisode twenty nine looks at the origin of flight in Insects, Pterosaurs, Birds, Bats and other groups. The thirtieth episode looks at the creatures of the Mesozoic Oceans. Episode thirty one examines the science of palaeoclimatology, and the hothouse climate of the Cretaceous. Episode thirty two looks at the End Cretaceous Extinction, and the evidence for an giant impact as the cause of this. Episode thirty three looks at the history of South America and its faunas during the Tertiary. The thirty fourth episode looks at the post-Cretaceous expansion of the Mammals, the climates of the Tertiary and Pleistocene, and the extinctions of the Pleistocene megafauna. Episode thirty five looks at the evolution of Humans, and of our ideas about that evolution, and episode thirty six looks at the emergence of fully Modern Humans, and our impact on the Earth's biosphere and other systems.

On the whole, the content of this course is good, although some of it is now a little dated. However, if a single word were to be used to sum up this course, then that word would have to be 'long'. This is essentiallt eighteen hours of one man talking about palaeontology, and if the couse 'Introduction to Paleontology', also presented by Stuart Sutherland is also viewd (and if you've paid for a subscription, why wouldn't you), then this goes up to 30 hours. It takes considerable stamina to get through all of the this, which may eventually have the effect of putting the viewer off the subject, rather than turning them onto it.

Life in the Palaeozoic.

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.

 

Paleontology: Early Vertebrate Evolution.

Run by the University of Alberta on the Coursera platform, and led by Alison Murray of the Department of Biological Sciences. The course covers the evolution of Vertebrates from their appearance in the Cambrian until the appearance of the first fully terrestrial Tetrapods. The course is split into four sessions each comprising a series of video lectures presented by palaeontologist Scott Persons, as well as downloadable booklet provided with the course. The presentations are entirely studio-based, but numerous props, notably fossil specimens, are used to illustrate the material. 
 
The coverage of the subject matter is thorough, with detailed coverage of the anatomy and evolutionary history of each group, combined with the changing environments and geography of the Palaeozoic world. As such it is likely to take several days to complete. Assessment is via a series of multiple choice questionnaires at the end of each session; the course can be taken without these at no cost, or can be paid for, and the assessments taken, in order to earn a certificate. 
 
This course is highly recommended, as it covers the material in great depth, and is the only course I am aware of which is devoted entirely to this subject (although several others touch on it). My only quibble is some of the extra features used (this is not necessary in order to pass the course), notably an animated phylogenetic tree with species 'trading cards' on it, which seems out of keeping with the rest of the material. I thought that possibly my inability to see the value of this related to my being middle-aged and having a good background in the field, but my thirteen-year-old son was equally baffled by this, and given the complexity of much of the material on the course, I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone much younger than him. 
 
 
Also run by the University of Alberta on the Coursera platform, and led by Philip Currie of the Department of Biological Sciences. The course comprises a series of twelve sessions, each comprising a series of video lecture, most of which are presented by palaeontologist Betsy Kruk, with additional presentations by Phil Currie and Scott Persons. The majority of these lectures are in the studio, again with extensive use of props, though some is delivered both from field excavation sites and the Royal Tyrell Museum, which has truly impressive Dinosaur collection. 
 
The course provides in depth coverage of Dinosaur origins, biology, evolution, and their eventual extinction, as well as the world in which they lived, with its changing environments and geography, and the geology of the rocks in which they are preserved. Again this is supported by a series of downloadable booklets provided by the University of Alberta, and assessed by a series of multiple choice questionnaires at the end of each session; and again the course can be taken without these at no cost, or can be paid for, and the assessments taken, in order to earn a certificate. 
 
This course is highly recommended, and probably provides the most extensive and in-depth coverage of any online program currently available. The only things I disliked about the course where some of the extra material, with the return of the 'trading card' phylogenetic tree, as well as features in which dinosaur skeletons can be assembled like jigsaw puzzles (although on this occasion my son enjoyed these, so who am I to quibble?) and examine specimens in a three-dimensional, rotatable framework, which was either not working or not compatible with my computer.
 
 
Another course run by the University of Alberta on the Coursera platform. This course is led by Michael Caldwell of the University of Alberta, and is again presented by Scott Persons (who seems to have a flair for this), with some additional presentation by Halle Street of the University of Alberta. The course is again built around a series of video lectures, delivered from a studio with extensive use of props (including at one point a slightly reluctant Cat), plus downloadable written material provided with the course. 
 
This course is split into four sessions, the first of which provides an outline of the challenges facing a terrestrial animal returning to life in the oceans, and an outline of the first such groups to do so in the Permian and Triassic, with the third three lectures covering by turn the Ichthyopterygians, Sauropterygians, and Mosasauroids, with an in depth coverage given to each group's evolution, anatomy, adaptation's to the marine environment and eventual extinction. Each session is designed to last about two hours, though I suspect many students will require slightly longer than this, given the depth of the material. Again this is assessed by a series of multiple choice questionnaires at the end of each session; and again the course can be taken without these at no cost, or can be paid for, and the assessments taken, in order to earn a certificate. Once, again this course is highly recommended, and appears to be the only online course covering the subject matter, which is slightly surprising as I have always found Mesozoic Marine Reptiles to be of equal interest to Dinosaurs to the general public. My only slight disappointment (other than the continued presence of the 'trading card' phylogenetic tree) is that the course covers neither Turtles nor Marine Crocodiles, both of which are fascinating groups and were significant parts of Mesozoic Marine faunas.
 
 
The final (at the moment) course on palaeontology by the University of Alberta on the Coursera platform, and again led by Phil Currie and presented by Scott Persons. Did I mention earlier that the material on the Dinosaurs 101 course probably provides the most extensive and in-depth coverage of any course on Dinosaurs currently available online? Well doctors Currie and Persons appear to have felt it wasn't enough, and have produced a far more detailed course covering this specific group of Dinosaurs. 
 
The course is split into five segments, covering avian anatomy, the Theropods as a whole, then the early Coelurosaurs, those Coelurosaurs closest to the Birds, and the appearance of the earliest Birds. Extensive coverage is given to the anatomy, biology, and evolution of each group covered, with lectures given in the studio by Scott Persons, making extensive use of props, including at one point a Parrot (possibly not the best of ideas, as Parrots like to be the centre of attention and will steal the show, and quite possibly the presenter's hat, which is what happened to me when I tried something similar, although Persons appears to have retained his hat, or at least arranged to have any hat stealing incidents edited out).
 
Once again this is supported by a series of downloadable booklets provided by the University of Alberta, and assessed by a series of multiple choice questionnaires at the end of each session; and again the course can be taken without these at no cost, or can be paid for, and the assessments taken, in order to earn a certificate. This course is also highly recommended, both for its detailed coverage of the Theropod Dinosaurs, and because it is (remarkably) one of only two online courses provided by universities on the subject of Birds that I could find at all (the other being an introduction to pet birds from the University of Tennessee).
 
 
Course provided on the edX platform by the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, and presented largely by Argentinian palaeontologist Rodolfo Coria. This course is in Spanish, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as about 572 million people speak Spanish worldwide, 477 million of them as a first language, but if, like me, you are not confident in the language, can present a bit of a problem. Fortunately, the video lectures come with subtitles in English, and I read Spanish well enough to cope with the associated written material. 
 
This course comes in three blocks, covering the history of palaeontology in Patagonia, a general outline of Dinosaurs, and the Dinosaurs of Patagonia. This is not an exhaustive study, with the most interesting section to me being the history of palaeontology in Patagonia, a subject of which I knew close to nothing. The section on Dinosaur anatomy covers only the distinctive features of a Dinosaur skull, and the differences in the hip structures of Ornithischian and Saurischian Dinosaurs; this course also gives a brief mention to the recent theory that the Saurischians may be a polyphyletic group, with the Ornithischians being the sister group to the Theropods and the Sauropods the sister to both, as well as the Dinosaur origin of Birds. The section on the Dinosaurs of Patagonia specifically quickly broke down into a list of species, and was consequently rather dull (although I did learn how Argentinian palaeontologists actually pronounce 'Giganotosaurus' - a feat I shall not attempt to repeat myself). Each of the blocks comprises a series of video lectures and a downloadable booklet in PDF form (these go into quite a bit more detail than the video lectures, and are therefore an important bit of the course, even if you struggle with Spanish), followed by an online test. As with the Coursera platform, edX offers the chance to take the course can be taken without these at no cost, or can be paid for, and the assessments taken, in order to earn a certificate. 
 
The course is estimated to take 20-28 hours to complete, but this seems to be a severe overestimate, the full course took me less than three hours, even with reading the written material in Spanish (which I cannot honestly even call my second language). Admittedly I didn't take the associated tests, but it is difficult to imagine that these are so challenging as to take ten times as long to complete them as to work through the material that supports them. As such I find it hard to wholeheartedly endorse this course; the free sections are probably worth going through, particularly if you are looking for a course in Spanish or have a particular interest in the palaeontology of Patagonia. I also have some reservations about the wat the edX platform charges for its services, which requires not just payment (fair enough), but also copies of identification documents (driver's licence, passport etc.). This frankly strikes me as a bit phishy; these documents provide no obvious security benefit to the platform; it would still be possible to pay for a course and then get somebody else to do it for you, if you were really lazy and wanted the certificate that badly (though I really can't imagine why anybody would bother), but does mean surrendering information that makes identity theft and bank fraud a lot easier, something I'm not comfortable with. 
 
 
 
Course offered by the University of Hong Kong on the edX platform, and led by Michael Pitman of the University of Hong Kong and Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. This course is intended to cover the environments and ecosystems in which Dinosaurs lived, and the organisms that lived alongside them. The course is in English with subtitles available in Chinese, and is presented by Michael Pitman, but with additional material from a large number of other Dinosaur palaeontologists from around the world. 
 
The course is split into a series of six segments, each followed by a test, with the tests needing to be passed if the course is taken with the intention of gaining a certificate (this must be paid for); the assessed courses run periodically with support, but the course can be accessed at any time. The first of the lectures covers an introduction to the Late Cretaceous Erlian dig site in Inner Mongolia, with a potted history of the site beginning with its discovery by Roy Chapman Andrews in the 1930s and continuing through to the modern day, plus a broad overview of Dinosaur palaeobiology. The second segment concentrates on the palaeobiology of Theropod Dinosaurs, with an emphasis on those from Erlian (Oviraptorosaurs and Therizinosauroids) plus Tyrannosaurs. Section three continues with Therapod Dinosaurs, covering Ornithomimosaurs, Dromaeosaurids and Troodontids (which are found at Erlian) and Birds (which are not), with an unexpected section on mask making (in Spanish) in the middle. The fourth section continues with Dinosaur palaeobiology, this time concentrating on Sauropodomorphs, Iguanodontians, Ankylosaurs, Ceratopsians, and Pachycephalosaurs. Section five covers the palaeobiology of other Late Cretaceous organisms, including Turtles, Crocodylians, Lepidosauromorphs (Snakes and Lizards), Plesiosaurs, Pterosaurs, Fish, Bivalve Molluscs, Ostracod Crustaceans, and Plants, which are found at Erlian, and Mammals and Foraminiferans, which are not, and discusses the use of each of these in interpreting Cretaceous environments. Section six returns to Dinosaur palaeobiology, covering diet, movement, growth and reproduction, followed by a summary of the course, and an unexpected visit to a field site in France.

On the whole the material in the course is of a very high standard, and the course is definitely worth taking, subject to my previously mentioned reservations about the edX platform, notably the way in which it charges for its services, which requires not just payment (fair enough), but also copies of identification documents (driver's licence, passport etc.), which strikes me as a bit phishy; these documents provide no obvious security benefit to the platform; as it means surrendering information that makes identity theft and bank fraud a lot easier. However, while the content of the course is excellent, it does seem to have failed in its main objective, presenting a study of environments and ecosystems in which Dinosaurs lived, and the courses authors appear to have got a bit carried away with the Dinosaurs themselves, with everything else packed into a single segment (five). This made segment five significantly longer than the others, but without really covering the objectives, leaving me wondering if it might have been better splitting this into two separate courses.

 
 
Course run by the University of Southampton on the Future Learn platform, led by Martin Solan and Christina Wood of the University of Southampton, with input from a number of other researchers and educators, both at Southampton and elsewhere. This is, strictly speaking, a course in environmental science rather than palaeontology, but contains a large section on the Marine Mesozoic Revolution presented by Richard Twitchett of the Natural History Museum, this is a significant subject in palaeontology. This makes this the only course I am aware of covering the evolution of post-Palaeozoic invertebrates, which is unfortunate as the fossil record is largely that of nearshore marine environments, with only snapshots of other environments. 
 
The course is split into three segments, with both video and written content provided by the University of Southampton, as well as extensive links to outside organisations. It comes in three segments, the first providing an introduction to the topic, and a brief guide to the classification of marine sediments, the second an overview of benthic marine faunas, including the development of major invertebrate groups following the End Permian Extinction, an overview of the major groups of marine invertebrate groups, their classification, ecology, and distribution, and the final segment covers man-made environmental hazards threatening marine environments. As with Coursera and edX, Future Learn offer the chance to take the course for free, or pay to enrol and gain a certificate of achievement for completing the course. As noted previously, the course is not specifically aimed at palaeontologists, but the section on marine faunas is definitely worth viewing. 
 
 
Course run by the University of Cape Town on the Future Learn platform, led and largely presented by palaeontologist Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan of the University of Cape Town, but with significant input from a range of other palaeontologists, environmental scientists and conservationists. This course gives a broad overview of the history of life as reflected in the fossil record, with a major emphasis on the five major extinction events of the Phanerozoic Eon. The course contains a video lectures and written content from the University of Cape Town, combined with extensive links to outside sources, and interviews with scientists working in the field, predominantly, but exclusively, from South Africa. 
 
The course is split into five segments, the first providing an overview of the topic and discussion of the origin of life and the fossils of the Proterozoic, the second the fossil record from the Cambrian Explosion to the end of the Devonian, including the End Ordovician and End Devonian extinctions and the rise of the Tetrapods, the third the remainder of the Palaeozoic, including the rise of Insects and the emergence of terrestrial floras, and ends with the End Permian Extinction, fourth the Mesozoic and Cainozoic, with including rise of the Dinosaurs, the End Triassic and End Cretaceous extinctions, the rise of the Mammals after the End of the Cretaceous, the spread of Grasslands, and eventually the emergence of Hominins and Humans. The final section covers threats to the modern environment presented by Human actions, and discusses whether we are living through a Sixth Mass Extinction. Unlike most other courses, which typically present an in depth study of the course-leader’s field, this course aims to give the student an introduction to a very wide range of palaeontological and environmental topics, and as such it is highly recommended. 
 
 
 
Course run by Emory University on the Coursera platform, led and presented by Anthony Martin of Emory University. This course also covers the fossil record of extinction events and the possibility that we might be in the middle of a mass extinction, though it takes a very different approach to the subject. 
 
The course consists of a series of lectures presented by Anthony Martin, with links to outside reading material. It is split into five segments, with the first presenting an overview of the topic, the second a history of the science of palaeontology, the third a review of the fossil record and the extinction events in it, the fourth the extinctions of the Pleistocene Megafaunas and the possible causes, and the fifth the environmental issues facing the world today. 
 
Much of the material is good, and the course covers topics not brought up in any other course discussed here, particularly the Pleistocene Megafauna extinctions, but there are a few problems with it. Firstly, there is the presentation style; the first four lectures are presented almost entirely by Anthony Martin alone, standing in a recording studio with white walls and a white table before him. Martin does not use any props, and relies entirely on his personality to get his ideas across, apart from a couple of visits to a museum, which he uses as a backdrop rather than interacting with, the overall impact of which is soporific rather than engaging. Only in the last segment does Martin interact with other scientists in different environments, and the course becomes more engaging. Secondly, the course relies entirely on external links for its reading matter, most of which is good, but with some links to material which is not open access. Thirdly, there is the way in which the course is assessed. Each of the five segments is followed by a multiple choice questionnaire, which is similar to most other courses, but the final segment is also followed by a peer-reviewed written assessment similar to that used on the Emergence of Life course, which presents the potential for the same problems, i.e. 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, and thereby the course. 

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