Online learning

Friday 19th February 2016

A couple of years ago I discovered online learning, and I wanted to share some of the awesome courses that I've discovered.


Introduction to Forensic Science

This course is run on FutureLearn by the University of Strathclyde.

It's a free six week course with about 2-3 hours work per week. It's aimed at the general public so there's not much hard science in it. It follows a reconstruction of a real murder case in Scotland, and at the end of the course we got to vote on whether we thought the defendant was guilty or not.

It runs periodically and there were about 1,500 people in my intake. I've rarely seen such an enthusiastic online community, with theories flying around on the forums about whether he did it or not. 

This was easily the most fun I've had on an online course, and I'd really recommend it - sign up for the next one here which starts on the 18th April.

Other courses I've enjoyed on FutureLearn include Moons, Begin Robotics and The Science Of Nuclear Energy.


Periodic Videos

This is a series of videos made for the University of Nottingham about each of the chemical elements. While this might sound a bit dry they're really brought to life by the brilliant Sir Martyn Poliakoff, who has the most amazing hair I've ever seen.

Some of the videos are longer like Gold, and some shorter like Astatine, but they're all interesting.

There are 118 videos in total, so it's quite an achievement when you finish watching them all! In total the videos have over 116 million views and the channel has 700,000 subscribers.

Prof Poliakoff was knighted in 2015 with the commendation specifically naming his YouTube videos. He said "With a few hours of work, I have lectured to more students than I have reached in my entire career."


Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

This free course is run on Coursera by the University of Edinburgh. It's made up of six hours of lectures, broken up into 10-15 minute chunks, with a quiz at the end of each week.

It's easily the most interesting course that I've done online, and I've seriously considered becoming an Astrobiologist since I completed it. But it's not a simple course at all, there's some complex biology, chemistry, geology and astronomy.

The course is designed so you can start it whenever you like and take as long as you want. This is great if you don't have a lot of spare time, but it lacked the interaction with other students that I've enjoyed on some other courses.

You can sign up for the course here.


University Certificate in Astronomy

This one's pretty serious, it's the first module of a BSc in Astronomy, run by the University of Central Lancashire as a distance learning course. It's a full academic year and 20 credits towards a degree, running from October to May, and costs £470 to join.

It looked pretty straightforward in the course material, but I've found it really difficult! I was hoping for a nice introduction to Astronomy as a total newb, but it's full of hardcore maths and physics.

It's fascinating and very challenging - but it must be sinking in because I got 71% for my first assignment!

There's more info about the course here.


Crash Course

Finally, something a bit simpler. Crash Course is a YouTube channel made by PBS in America, on a wide variety of subjects from World History to Psychology.

I've just finished their Big History and Astronomy courses, both of which are a series of ten-minute videos and are absolutely fascinating.

Big History is only ten videos and presented by the VlogBrothers Hank Green and his brother John (who wrote The Fault in Our Stars).

The Astronomy course is 45 videos presented by ex-NASA scientist Phil Plait, who does an incredible job of making astronomy understandable. 


What have we learned?

I keep coming back to the idea of how much of a change this is to the way humans passed on information even fifty years ago. In the past you needed to be in the same room as the lecturer, writing down notes or with a copy of their textbook.

The Open University really started this shift with their TV programmes starting in the 70s, but they didn't seem very accessible to me. Now you can watch a full course on your mobile while you eat breakfast.

But then I'm brought back to how basic the whole process still is - the lecturer encodes the information as a video or a series of letters in a book, which you have to view with your eyes, decode into meaning and then hopefully your brain stores at least some of it.

Wouldn't it be much more efficient to have a swarm of tiny robots that make new memories for you directly by wiring up synapses in your brain? Now there's digital learning.



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