Currie, Dr. Philip

2014 Excellence in Science and Technology Public Awareness, Finalist

Dino 101, an Online Portal for Sharing Scientific Discovery

Ever since he was a child, Dr. Philip Currie has been interested in dinosaurs. He can pinpoint the exact moment when his fascination began when he was six years old and found a plastic dinosaur in a cereal box.

Eventually he read All About Dinosaurs by Roy Chapman Andrews when he was 11 and from then on he knew he had to work with dinosaurs.

“I decided that’s what I had to do. By the time I was 12, I had gone to the Royal Ontario Museum enough to know that all the dinosaurs in Canada came from Alberta so I decided I’d be a dinosaur paleontologist out here,” Currie says.

His passion for dinosaurs led Currie to the University of Alberta where he is a professor and Canada Research Chair in dinosaur paleobiology.

Dino 101

In September 2013, the University of Alberta launched Dino 101 with Currie as the lead instructor. Dino 101 became one of the most successful science-based Massive Open Online Course’s (MOOC’s) to date.

MOOC’s are online courses aimed at large-scale participation via open access on the web. These courses offer massive public outreach for sharing science and discovery.

Currie was approached by Jonathan Schaeffer, U of A’s Dean of Science, with the idea of a dinosaur-based MOOC. Although Currie had never heard of this type of course, he leapt at the opportunity.

“I’m very much a believer in public education when it comes to dinosaurs or any other type of science,” Currie says.

“We went essentially from the frying pan into the fire, learning very quickly what a MOOC was and what the potential was for doing a dinosaur course online.”

Building Together

Within a year, the team of more than 40 people designed, built and delivered Dino 101 to 37,000 students.

“That only happens when you have a tremendous amount of support, backup and people involved in the team overall,” Currie adds.

Given the complexity of the project, the Dino 101 team included scientists, graduate students, experts from University Digital Strategy and contributions from the Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Education.

“It was a tremendous learning experience,” says Currie. “You teach courses in the conventional way year after year but this was something different, a different approach to education.”

Introduction to Dinosaurs

Dino 101 offered the basics of comparative anatomy, biomechanics, species diversity, evolution, extinction, geology, stratigraphy, earth history, and more over its 12 weekly lessons. Perhaps most importantly, it introduced the methods of scientific investigation and evidence-based thinking.

“Dino 101 encompassed not only teaching people facts about dinosaurs and dealing with misconceptions that the public has about dinosaurs but it also worked on some of our favourite themes in science in general,” Currie says. “I think people who graduate from Dino 101 have a much better understanding of how science works and a much better understanding of the broader sciences of biology and geology.”

Exceptional Success

Dino 101 has been offered twice so far with 17,000 students enrolled in the fall and 7,000 in the winter. With a retention rate of 77% and overwhelmingly positive feedback, the success of the program can’t be understated.

“It’s pretty amazing how many people actually completed the course because MOOC’s are notorious for high drop-out rates but we attained one of the highest retentions rates ever for one of these courses,” Currie says.

The program also had a significant international reach with participants enrolling from countries across the world from the US and UK to India and Russia. Furthermore, it achieved the highest reported female percentage for a general science MOOC course at 55 per cent.

He says that although Dino 101’s future is uncertain, he expects the high participation they achieved should lay the groundwork for more opportunities for online science education in the future.