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Emergence of Life – New University of Illinois Online Course


One of the wonderful things about the internet is the jaw-dropping amount of information available – literally at our fingertips.  Never before in history has the common individual had so much knowledge and experience and expertise available for the learning.  To be sure, there is plenty on the internet that is incomplete, wrong, or downright deceptive, but today I want to celebrate the positive side of the information explosion.

Among the interesting developments to come out of all this is the availability of university-level courses online.

For free.

Many universities now offer free online courses, including some of the most prestigious institutions around.  While it is true that upper-level and graduate-level courses, particularly those with lab requirements, may be difficult to replicate online, the internet seems a near ideal medium for introductory-level courses.  A colleague of mine teaches engineering at a local community college, and he has remarked how the online teaching revolution threatens to change the whole landscape of university teaching.  Whether that is good or bad is a topic for another time.

Some may lament the impersonal approach of such learning, while forgetting that their introductory biology and history courses at their alma mater were taught in a large auditorium with nigh on a thousand students and little opportunity for personal professor-student interaction.  Come to think of it, now that I reflect back, it may have been that blonde girl who always sat a couple of rows in front of me, several seats to the left, who distracted me from recognizing the impersonal nature of that stadium-sized classroom . . .

But I digress . . .

I have taken a few online courses over the years, directly from universities and also through other online resources.  If you haven’t yet had an opportunity to check out some of the available clearing houses – edX, Coursera, iTunes, and others – I encourage you to do so.

One of the upcoming courses I’ve had my eye on is “Emergence of Life,” taught by Bruce Fouke at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Given that the initial course description included the following (in part):

How did life emerge on Earth? How have life and Earth co-evolved through geological time? Is life elsewhere in the universe?

I thought this might be an interesting venue for exploring, in some depth, current understandings of abiogenesis.  So I put it on my watchlist.

Having received an email just this morning informing me that a new session is starting in June, I checked out the course page:

The syllabus is:

  • Week 1. Course Welcome, Geological Time, and the Nature of Science
  • Week 2. The Tree of Life and Early Earth Environments
  • Week 3. Fossilization and Precambrian Life-Earth Interaction
  • Week 4. Paleozoic Life After the Advent of Skeletons
  • Week 5. Paleozoic Plants, Reptiles, and the Transition to Land
  • Week 6. Mesozoic Reign of Dinosaurs and the Development of Flight
  • Week 7. Cenozoic Mammals and Global Environmental Change
  • Week 8. Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Cosmos

Unfortunately, it looks like abiogenesis will get but cursory mention, with coverage in Week 2 and perhaps a minor return in Week 8.  As a result, I haven’t decided if I will sign up for the course, as my primary interest was abiogenesis.

Don’t misunderstand, however.  The hope for more abiogenesis coverage was my preference, not a claim from the instructor.  He is certainly free to put together whatever course he thinks is interesting and educational.  The course does, indeed, have some very interesting topics: the nature of science, the transition to land, the development of flight, astrobiology . . .

So maybe I will sign up after all.  Hmmm . . .  As long as I approach it with the understanding that a course entitled “Emergence of Life” is really about the “Tree of Life” – not so much about the emergence of initial life, but the emergence of different creatures over time – then the syllabus makes more sense.

Will the course have some holes?  No doubt.  Will it answer some of the key issues that have been raised about the cause of the Cambrian Explosion, the infusion of information necessary for the emergence of different forms, how complex functional structures can arise via natural processes?  Unlikely.  Yet it should provide a good high level sense as to what the evolutionary story is, from abiogenesis to early life to current life forms, to life beyond Earth.

If any commenters at UD end up taking the course and want to post summaries of issues or thoughtful critiques here, I would be happy to help facilitate that.

Please, though, if any of you do sign up for the course, please do so in the spirit of learning, rather than to challenge or create controversy.  Be respectful and recognize this for what it is: the chance to learn from an experienced professor at a major institution.

Rwalk @3: Yes, if for nothing else, I think it might be interesting to take the course just to identify how many things they present in the tree of life storyline fall into the following categories: (i) observable fact, (ii) inferences from observable facts, (iii) reasonable assumptions, (iv) hypotheticals, (v) wild speculations. Eric Anderson
Mung @1: Naw. Different blonde. I was in that huge auditorium class my freshman year. Didn't meet the right one until a few years later. :) Eric Anderson
Be most interesting to see what they claim about "the tree of life" given what's really known... RWalk
Nice Eric. Thanks. And Free! That's just hard to beat. So yes, I would try to respect that. Maybe they will have a course on Macro-evolution! But I can't wait to ask if he's read Darwin's Doubt! ;) Mung
Come to think of it, now that I reflect back, it may have been that blonde girl who always sat a couple of rows in front of me, several seats to the left, who distracted me from recognizing the impersonal nature of that stadium-sized classroom . . .
Did you marry her? ;) Mung

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