Mar 5, 2014

Marine Megafauna MOOC and the Public Library of Science (PLoS) collection


Marine Megafauna MOOC

A new Duke University MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) titled Marine Megafauna | An Introduction to Marine Science and Conservation has been running since February 3rd, 2014.  Dr. Dave Johnston teaches this course offering about sea turtles, whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, sharks, giant squid and other large ocean creatures […]

Marine Megafauna MOOC

UnderPermitNOAA 2013-04-2309-06-07 (1)

Dave Johnston and Ari Friedlaender recover a digital recording tag after deployment on a humpback whale. Photo credit: G. Ruttle, under permit by NOAA.

A new Duke University MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) titled Marine Megafauna | An Introduction to Marine Science and Conservation has been running since February 3rd, 2014.  Dr. Dave Johnston teaches this course offering about sea turtles, whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, sharks, giant squid and other large ocean creatures – collectively known as marine megafauna – and what they can tell us about how the ocean works and why it is so important for all life on earth.

Dr. Dave Johnston is a broadly skilled biological oceanographer and marine conservation biologist. He teaches courses at both undergraduate and graduate levels at Duke University – with experience in large and small classrooms and in field-based learning situations.


Dave Johnston attaches a digital recording tag with suction cups to a humpback whale in the Western Antarctic Peninsula region. Photo credit: MISAP Project, under permit by NOAA.

Dr. Johnston noted, “I was greatly excited when Duke announced their support for the development of a marine science MOOC based on my traditional undergraduate Marine Megafauna class taught every spring semester. This was a golden opportunity to reach out to an even larger number of people and educate them about key issues related to ocean science, marine resource conservation and general ocean health.”

The course now has over 13,500 students registered, 9,495 of which have accessed the course content. There are a total of 131,554 streaming views, 51,531 video downloads, and 3,521 posts on the discussion forums. Please visit Marine Megafauna: By the Numbers to know who enrolled and why they are taking the course based on our pre-course survey results.

leopard seal

A leopard seal watches researchers from an ice flow in the Western Antarctic Peninsula region. Photo credit: D. W. Johnston

In this course Dr. Johnston generously shares many of his vivid field images and videos that give students a close-up view of marine species and their habitats, which extend from the Arctic Ocean to Antarctica. Students are active on the discussion forums and follow the course’s Twitter and Facebook feeds, and they have also formed their own study groups. Many students have shared their own favorite images of marine species in a Marine Megafauna Photo Book, with over 300 photos posted already.

PLoS Collection of Marine Megafauna

One of the learning goals of the MOOC is connecting students with real marine science in current scientific journal articles. Dr. Johnston and his colleagues from other institutions have curated a collection of 96 open access articles representing a broad survey of fascinating marine organisms and systems. This collection provides a core set of reading materials for marine science educators seeking to increase student engagement in class through the use of compelling examples of current research. The collection is accessible at

PLoS ONE collection in five main categories

PLoS ONE collection in five main categories

These articles – all published in the peer-reviewed, open source journal PLoS ONE – capture the real science behind concepts taught in class and link students directly to up-to-date sources of knowledge.


The data shown via Google Earth represent the three-dimensional foraging tracks performed on four consecutive days (10-13 December 2012) by a single yellow-eyed penguin (bird id 17935) off the coast of New Zealand, near the city of Dunedin.

In one of the early course assignments, students use Google Earth and data from a PLoS ONE article to get first-hand experience visualizing spatially-explicit data and measuring animal movements. The data come from a research project that uses satellite telemetry to track the foraging patterns of a penguin of the coast of New Zealand. When the data is opened within the Google Earth software, the student is shown detailed paths traversed by the penguin over the course of four days, as shown in the image to the right. The students then use measurement tools provided in Google Earth to determine the distance traveled each day. They also identify and describe the penguin’s coastal habitat. Afterwards, students evaluate their peers’ work, which deepens their own understanding of the assignment.

What students say about the course

 After the first few weeks of the course, students have made some of the following comments on the course forums.

I just wanted to say I am learning so much from doing this course.  What is even more brilliant about it is I am learning not just from my own work and my assignments but also from the assignments I have been marking.  I think it’s an excellent system that gives more scope to learn about other countries and their marine environments/megafauna there are out there! Anyway I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who designed the course and everyone that is contributing, I love it!

After years of being an undergraduate law student, this course has made me feel like that inquisitive child pouring over an illustrated encyclopedia of wildlife facts once more.

…Excellent course! Very informative, up-to-date informations. Also very engaging, and excellent resources provided. Also + 1 votes for all the students how are actively posting on facebook and here on the forum. Lots of good resources, stories, and discussions going on! Well done all of you!

Thank you so much for all your efforts to teach us about these wonderful creatures, and their environment. I would love to continue taking any other classes you might offer in the future, and to tell you the truth, I will take this class again, because it is so wonderful, and I am actually learning!

In Chinese society, there’s a wide gap between science (Biology, Chemistry, Maths) and art (Geography, English, History) subjects, which means our secondary schools do not allow us to take any science subject while we are belonging to Art class. Therefore although I love animals and I have deep interested in biology, I could not take any degrees or courses after graduated in secondary school as I don’t have relevant academic background. I am so glad that I can take these kind of courses online now, thank you all of you!

I’m finding this course interesting and worthwhile, and it has whetted my appetite to do more marine biology. Well done and it would certainly be worth running it again.

Even though the course has started and is halfway complete, if you are passionate about the ocean and want to learn more about ocean organisms and ecosystems,  then you still can join us for Marine Megafauna | An Introduction to Marine Science and Conservation.

The following infographic, created by Dr. Johnston, visually presents a sample of the course topics discussed in Marine Megafauna. Enjoy!


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