Course reviews

Since the start of the year, I’ve spent a healthy chunk of my spare time studying. I have to say, I’ve been amazed at the quality and variety of free online education available in the form of MOOCs (massive open online courses). With six down, three in progress and handful more coming up, it’s time to turn in some reviews!


Marine Megafauna: Introduction to Marine Science and Conservation

Duke University (8 week course)
Crabeater-seal david w johnson
Image by David W. Johnston, course instructor and Assistant Professor at Duke University

Rating: 4.5/5

Comment: Great subject matter delivered by a passionate instructor. Quite a lot of work involved with lectures, tests, reading material (PLOS ONE scientific papers) and assignments, but well worth the effort.

Certification available: Statement of Accomplishment (I achieved a 98% grade which meant that mine came with a distinction)

Next session: Not yet advertised. Sign up to be notified!


Dino 101: Introduction to Paleobiology

University of Alberta (12 week course)
 Dino 101

Rating: 4.5/5

Comment: Another terrific MOOC featuring engaging material and presenters. This one gets points for variety – they regularly changed up the format of the video lectures and even took us on-site to excavations in the Alberta Badlands.

Certification available: Statement of Accomplishment

Next session: Not yet advertised. Sign up to be notified!


Design: Creation of Artefacts in Society

University of Pennsylvania (8 week course)
[in progress] – Check back later for review!


Ocean Solutions

University of Western Australia (8 week course)
[in progress] – Check back later for review!


FutureLearn logo

Community Journalism

Cardiff University (5 week course)

Rating: 3.5/5

Comment: A lot of really useful tips were offered in this one, and I liked the fact that they interviewed a variety of experts in the field.

Certification available: No statement available

Next session: Not yet advertised


Climate change: Challenges and Solutions

University of Exeter (8 week course)

Rating: 3/5

Comment: Such an important topic, but I must admit I struggled with some of the higher-level scientific concepts. Again, a variety of subject matter experts were brought in to discuss various topics, keeping it interesting. My favourite part of the course involved learning about ocean acidification.

Certification available: Statement of Participation

Next session: Not yet advertised


Fairness and Nature: When Worlds Collide

University of Leeds (2 week course)

Rating: 3/5

Comment: Good short course – complex concepts and policies were explained simply, and the course provided much food for thought.

Certification available: Statement of Participation

Next session: Not yet advertised


Introduction to Ecosystems FuturelearnIntroduction to Ecosystems

The Open University (6 week course) 

[in progress] – Check back later for review!



Writing for the Web

Open Universities Australia (4 week course)
 Writing for the Web Open2Study

 Rating: 1/5

Comment: Unfortunately, this course only offered very basic, common sense information, no variety in the format of the lectures, limited visual aids and came across as amateur when compared to offerings from other platforms (see above).

Certification available: Certificate of Achievement

Next session: Starts in 2 days. Find out more



Coursera Certificate Statement of Accomplishment Dino 101 Coursera Certificate Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction Marine Megafauna Certificate of Achievement Open2Study

Coming up…

  • Animal Behaviour | University of Melbourne (8 week course via Coursera)
  • What a Plant Knows (and other things you didn’t know about plants) | University of Tel Aviv (7 week course via Coursera)
  • Exploring Our Oceans | University of Southampton (6 week course via FutureLearn)

Species profile (dugong)

Meg Bauer

I wrote the following species profile as part of my Marine Megafauna course, and got top marks through peer review! Thought I’d share it here for anyone interested in knowing more about dugongs.
– Meg

Top photo © Jürgen Freund, Indo-Pacific Ocean

Dugong (Dugong dugon)

  • Dugongs are often referred to as “sea cows”, as they graze on underwater meadows of seagrass. They are the only marine herbivorous mammal, as all species of manatee rely on freshwater to some extent
  • Dugongs can spend up to six minutes underwater before needing to surface to draw breath
  • There is a theory that the tales of sea sirens or mermaids originated from sightings of dugongs by seafarers

The dugong (Dugong dugon) is a marine mammal in the order Sirenia. The family Dugongidae consists of only four species still alive today. The word “dugong” translates as “lady of the sea” in both the Tagalog and Malay dialect, from which the term was originally derived. Dugongs are also referred  to as Sea Cows, Sea Pigs and Sea Camels, but are not related to any of these animals. Dugongs are most closely related to the Stellar’s Sea Cow, which, in the 18th century, was hunted to extinction by humans. Their closest living relative is the manatee, which they resemble, with the key difference being the shape of their tails. While the tail of a manatee is round and spade-like, dugongs have tails that are fluked. Both species are actually related to a giant land animal – the elephant – although the behaviour and appearance of elephants and dugongs has diverged dramatically.

Dugongs range in length from 2.4 to 3.5 m, with a weight spanning the 231 – 499 kg range. Their coloration varies; juveniles are a pale cream colour that darkens with age both laterally and dorsally, and adults can be anywhere from a brownish to a dark grey hue. Other factors that affect the colour of the skin include the growth of algae, which can give off a greenish tinge. These large herbivores can be found in warm coastal waters from East Africa to Australia, and span the Red Sea, Indian and Pacific oceans. The preferred habitat of the dugong is shallow tropical and subtropical coastal and island waters. There are estimated to be around 85,000 dugongs in the world, with the largest population found in the waters of northern Australia, from Shark Bay (Western Australia) to Moreton Bay (Queensland).

In the wild, dugongs can live up to 70 years, but have a slow rate of reproduction. Sexual maturity in dugongs does not occur until after 10 years of age, and can take some females until they are 17 years old. One calf is produced after a gestation that lasts around 13-14 months, whereupon the mother will assist the newborn with reaching the surface to take its first breath.

Dennis the Friendly Dugong Rutger GeelingPhoto by Rutger Geerling on Flickr

Dugongs are vegetarians whose entire diet is made up of different species of seagrass. Studies have shown that dugongs prefer grasses that are delicate and higher in nitrogen, such as seawrack (Halophila ovalis) and narrowleaf seagrass (Halodule uninervis). They forage throughout the day and night, uprooting whole plants using their snouts. Because of this behaviour, dugongs create distinctive trails where they have fed. They have also been shown to manipulate the seagrass beds when feeding to facilitate plant growth, a behaviour called “cultivation grazing.”

Dugongs have been long sought after for their flesh, oil, bones, skin and teeth. As they are languid and slow-moving animals, and congregate in coastal regions and around islands, they make easy targets for hunters. Due to loss and degradation of habitat, impacts of fishing, hunting and coastal pollution, the total number of dugongs seems to be in decline, with the populations becoming increasingly fragmented. To counteract this trend, dugongs have become legally protected throughout their range, with further conservation efforts being centred on protecting dugong habitat through the creation of Marine Parks. Currently, the conservation status of dugongs is listed variously as endangered, threatened, and vulnerable to extinction.

Helene_Marsh_Copyright-Andrew-Rankin_Dugong_Skull-compressedPhoto by Andrew Rankin

Dugong Expert: Professor Helene Marsh

Professor Helene Marsh’s research has centred around the population ecology and management of dugongs. Her research has formed the scientific basis for major marine conservation efforts, such as the establishment of Dugong Sanctuary in the Torres Strait. Helene is the current Dean of Graduate Research Studies and Professor of Environmental Science at James Cook University, and a program leader in the Marine and Tropical Science Research Facility.


Further Reading:

Department of the Environment (July 2013) Dugong dugon in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. Available here

Kelly N, Peel D (November 2013) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for Surveying Marine Fauna: A Dugong Case Study. Available here

D’Souza E, Patankar V, Arthur R, Alcoverro T, & Kelkar N (October 2013) Long-Term Occupancy Trends in a Data-Poor Dugong Population in the Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago. Available here

First course down!

open2study certificate writing for the web

I passed my first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) last week, with a final score of 90%! Writing for the Web has the potential to be an informative MOOC, and there’s certainly a growing interest in this subject, but I feel the format and content of the course could use some revision which makes me disinclined to recommend it to others. I’ve passed on my feedback to the course administrators, so hopefully the content errors will be rectified in future offerings of the course, and some variety will be introduced to the format of the video lectures to maintain participants’ interest.

On a more upbeat note, the other courses I’m currently undertaking (through Coursera and FutureLearn) have been top notch so far!

Open2Study CertificateMe in my pjs showing off my certificate.

Dino 101

dinosaur skeletons museum victoria
An after-work visit to Museum Victoria to sketch some dino bones!

It’s nearly the end of week 5 of my online paleobiology course (Dino 101: Introduction to Paleobiology by the University of Alberta on Coursera), and I thought I’d share some dinosaur-related images and video. The course is absolutely awesome, and I’d recommend it to any dinosaur enthusiasts out there. If you have any specific questions, please leave a comment or message and I’ll get back to you!

dinosaur bones sketch drawing pen ink
One of my drawings: Dino skull - Ink on paper, 2014

dinosaur skull sketch  dinosaur scrapbook
My book is filled with these quick anatomical sketches & pages of notes

Dinosaur egg fossil
This photo was posted in the facebook study group I help administer. It's 
a fossilised dinosaur egg, won at auction by a lady in New Zealand. 
Naturally, we all lost our sh*t over this.

meg dinosaurs otway
Something I posted to the facebook group: a pic of me at the Otway 
Ranges in Victoria, Australia, taken last year. I'd just zip-lined 
through the rainforest on a giant flying fox, then I stumbled 
across these guys in a field!

Amazing animatronics at Museum Victoria.

Teach me about dinosaurs, Alberta


It is the eve of the start of my first MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course. Having only discovered the existence of this FREE! distance education a few days ago, I’m now enrolled in no less than four courses with no less than three platforms (Coursera, FutureLearn and Open2Study), and already eyeing off my fifth.

Why do a MOOC? Aside from it being a really fun acronym, most MOOCS offer Statements of Accomplishment, which can be included in your CV or LinkedIn profile, boosting your credentials and showing your passion for a subject. Certain courses also offer verified certificates, in which a third party proves it’s really you at each assessment stage and awards you some fancy paperwork at the end (for a fee). Plus, it offers you the opportunity to connect and interact with other like-minded individuals from all over the globe. And did I mention it’s free? (I know it sounds like I’m being paid to write this, but I’m just really excited about it all). If you’re itching to flex your study bone but don’t have the time/money/patience to commit to a full degree, a MOOC could be the ideal solution – take it from a two-time University dropout.

My current courses:

Dino 101: Introduction to Paleobiology – University of Alberta on Coursera – commences Jan 6 (12 weeks)
Workload: 3-5 hrs/week for non-credit | Course structure: The class will consist of lecture videos, which are 1-2 minutes in length, interposed with integrated quiz questions in addition to a unit test after each of the 12 lessons. 

♦ Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions – University of Exeter on Futurelearn – commences January 13 (8 weeks)
Workload: 3 hrs/week | Course structure: 

♦ Writing for the Web – Open2study – commences January 13 (4 weeks)
Workload: 2 – 4 hours of study per week, but can vary depending on the student | Course structure: Watching videos, and taking quizzes and assessments.

♦ Marine Megafauna: An Introduction to Marine Science and Conservation – Duke on Coursera – commences February 3 (8 weeks)
Workload: 6-8 hrs/week | Course structure: The class will consist of a series of lecture videos that are between 8 and 20 minutes in length. These videos contain several integrated, ungraded quiz questions per video. Students are required to read and understand several research article per week, and the complexities of these articles will be discussed in online discussion fora. There will also be standalone homework sets, including working with datasets derived from real scientific research.

Stay tuned for more – I’ll be sharing some of my learnings and reviewing the above courses in the following weeks!

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P.S. I think this will be my fifth: What a Plant Knows (Tel Aviv University on Coursera) – but luckily this one doesn’t start until October. Phew! #addictedtoacademia