Thursday, 1 August 2013

Dino 101: Using the Past in the Present for the Future

On Tuesday, the Faculty of Science and the University of Alberta announced their first MOOC: “Dino 101”. What is a MOOC? What is Dino 101?

MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Course. MOOCs are university courses delivered over the Internet that can scale to hundreds of thousands of learners. The first MOOC was an advanced course in computer science at Stanford University launched in September 2011. It was available for free and, amazingly, attracted 160,000 registrants! The current record is 250,000. Imagine the thrill of teaching to an audience of one-quarter of a million students. The number is mindboggling.

Dino 101 is the fun name we use to describe our new Faculty of Science course PALEO 200: Dinosaur Paleobiology. It’s an introduction to science using the fascinating subject of dinosaurs. (C’mon. Admit it. How cool is that?) Although officially a second-year accredited course at the University of Alberta, it has minimal prerequisites (familiarity with basic biology) making it suitable for learners of all ages.

Usually the first question I get asked by the media is “Why dinosaurs?” When planning started for a MOOC a year ago, there were two considerations that seemed important. First, we wanted to do something different, not just one-up an existing “MOOCified” course. Second, we wanted to showcase the research and teaching strength of the University of Alberta as a way of enhancing our provincial, national, and international reputation. Creating PALEO 200 was the result of these discussions.

The University of Alberta has access to enormous paleontology resources. We have a world-class paleontology team led by Dr. Phillip Currie, the world’s foremost dinosaur researcher. The University’s history in paleontology research goes back almost 100 years and this has resulted in an enormous collection of artifacts available on campus for research. As well, there is a dinosaur dig in Edmonton, the world-class Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, and the World Heritage site Dinosaur Provincial Park. All of these were used in the making of Dino 101.

Members of the paleontology team (professors and students) worked together with researchers in the Faculty of Education and the UofA’s experts in digital strategy to create an engaging learning experience. The combination of expert paleontologists, on-location shooting, usage of real fossils, and interactive tools create, in my opinion, a new standard in MOOC development.

Dinosaurs appeal to young and old, male and female, and cross international boundaries. If an advanced computer science course could attract 160,000 learners, how many might Dino 101 appeal to?

On September 4, our dinosaurs roar to life. Help spread the word: register for Dino 101 at the University of Alberta site ( or with our partner, Coursera (

It’s fun (unlike any course you’ve taken before).
It’s educational (shh! Don’t scare people away).
It’s free (unless you want to get official university credit).
Why not give it a try?

With apologies to anyone with literary taste:

There once was a course on T-rex
Plus creatures with very long necks.
The learning was great;
Alberta, first rate;
Ta-da! It was better than s**.

I’ve taken the course, now I’m wiser
It wasn’t for fee, I’m a miser.
My girl doesn’t know
To school I did go
With knowledge so new, I’ll surprise her.

To learn brand new things was such fun.
This MOOC, yes, was second to none.
There’s much more to learn
Plus credits to earn.
More courses? I’ll never be done.