Announcing my MOOC, Human Evolution Past and Future

4 minute read

Note: This post is archived from 2014. The course went great, with more than 40,000 students enrolled from around the world! You can still watch many of the video elements on my YouTube channel.

I have begun a project that may change the way we teach and communicate the science of human evolution. Starting in January, 2014, I will be offering a massive open online course titled, “Human Evolution Past and Future”.

This course and all its materials will be open and free for anyone, anywhere in the world. As of this moment, more than 6500 people have already signed up for the course. The course is still more than nine months away, and I’ll be developing materials across the entire time up through January.

Developing this course is a huge investment for me. My institution, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is making it possible – but at the same time I’m actively seeking out partnerships and sponsors. I’ll be documenting the development process here on the blog, and in a series of presentations and publications as I go. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have begun to change the way universities approach online education, and the course will be a research platform as well as an educational experience.

What will be new in this course:

Expert interviews. I’ll be assembling and curating a series of filmed interviews with experts in paleoanthropology to talk about their work. Why should students hear me describe other people’s work, when I can engage the scientists themselves? I’ve already begun these interviews, and will be adding more than thirty by the time the course begins.

Mini-documentaries. To the extent possible, I’ll be virtually taking students to the field, into the laboratory, and giving first-hand experiences with the materials of human evolution. That means many of my video presentations will be much more like short documentary productions than lectures. My priority is making the real materials as available as possible.

Guided laboratories. We’ll be exploring genome data, providing some excellent virtual laboratories with the fossil evidence, and running experiments with evolutionary change.

Participatory science. With a worldwide group of thousands of students, we’ll be giving people the opportunity to participate in some real research. Some will be as simple as massive measurements of body proportions. Others will be more involved, leading us to…

Looking to the future. The course title is “Human Evolution Past and Future.” To me, the path of our evolution in the past is closely tied to where our species may be going. To that end, the course will be looking at the next hundred, thousand and ten thousand years of our evolution. I’ll be interviewing people who are thinking about the impact of technology on our future evolution, and students will come up with their own scenarios based on a strong understanding of the forces that shaped human evolution in the past.

I’m doing this because human evolution is important. The effects of the past shape who we are today, our health and choices, our societies and imaginations. Anthropology can engage people in their own lives and experience. The MOOC technology platform has such potential for innovating new forms of education, I am eager to bring human evolution into that space.

And who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to reach tens of thousands of people looking for information about our evolution? Some people really don’t like the word, MOOC. All I have to say is, I got used to “blog”, so why not another strange word? This is a natural extension to what I’ve been doing for nine years here on my blog: curating and writing reactions to the best research in paleoanthropology. In this project, I’ll be able to bring people virtually out to the field, and let experts tell about their findings in their own words.

What you can do:

Sign up for the course. I encourage everybody to sign up! You don’t have to finish a MOOC, or even watch all the materials, to get a lot out of it. My MOOC will allow you to “choose your own adventure” to the maximum extent possible. If you want a strong module on ancient diets, you can get that by itself, or together with my best materials on Neandertal genetics and post-agricultural evolution.

Look for your opportunity to help. I’m working on several partnerships for this course, and the most important one is with you. With a worldwide group of students, many from developing economies, I cannot assign a traditional textbook. I need a free version of everything written for the students in the course, and that means I’ll be providing the text myself. I’ll be providing some opportunities to help support this important cause, which will impact students everywhere.

Adopt the materials. We’re putting a lot of work into the materials for the course. A lot of professionals are donating time to be interviewed, and are allowing me to use photos and other materials to make a really high-quality presentation. I want to get these high-quality materials into as many classrooms as possible. If you’re teaching human evolution in a college or high school setting, look out for additional information on how to use materials and develop curriculum that works in your context!

I learned a lot from my experiment last year putting lectures online from my regular course. I am putting those insights together with discoveries from other MOOC experiments to create new ways for students to network with each other and with ongoing science. This is just the initial announcement. As the summer progresses, I’ll be giving you more background about how I’m producing the course, along with sample materials and some chances to participate. I’m looking forward to the experiment, and I hope you will follow on the journey.