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Five of the best online courses for geographers

Five of the best online courses for geographers
19 Jun
When you’re studying on MOOCS, or Massive Open Online Courses, no one minds if you turn up late. To keep your brain ticking over summer, here are some of the best MOOCS you can study for free

MOOCS are online courses with a limitless capacity of participators. While they have no prerequisites (hooray), they are not necessarily a doddle. Most are run by leading uninversities or scientific institutions to challenge you to think differently and more broadly about the subject matter.

Most courses are structured into five or six weeks worth of study, with around three hours of activity each week. However, you can study at your own pace and even drop in just occasionally to learn something new. 

1. Monitoring the Climate from Space, Futurelearn

A false colour image of the Mississippi river delta as captured by the Landsat satellite (Image: ESA)

This Earth Observation (EO) course on Futurelearn is the first MOOC produced by the European Space Agency (ESA). What results is some impressively broad and engaging material aimed at anyone with an ounce of interest in satellite data – and if you didn’t already you will now. Bringing together work from the Cryosat, SMOS, GOCE and Sentinel satellite missions and others, there are scores of diagrams, maps and high resolution images that make the most of looking at the Earth from space. You can study ice thickness, aerosol, sea level, sea salinity and soil moisture in greater detail to better understand the dynamics and changing variables of the Earth system. Topics are run by leading scientists in the field such as Alan O’Neill, former director of National Environment Research Council (NERC), and Martin Wooster, Professor of Earth Observation Science at King’s College London.

‘It is my hope that learners will come away with a better understanding of the ways in which ESA’s global Earth Observation missions can help scientists to better understand how the ocean, atmosphere, biosphere, and cryosphere operate and interact as part of an inter-connected Earth System,’ says Dr Stephen Briggs, ESA Senior Advisor. ‘We will also introduce learners to the use of the data to support a variety of applications and environmental policies. This course will surely inspire learners across the world about the power and value of Earth observation from space, and about learning more on this fascinating topic.’

Course run by the European Space Agency, started 8 June 2015

2. Geography of World Cultures, iTunes

Map of the 26 Arabic dialects in the ‘Arab World’ (Image: Arab Atlas)

This audio course, produced by Stanford University, hopes to readdress the assumption that our culture is globalised and homogenous. Rather, it details the distinctions between cultural-geographical terms such as ‘the Arabic world’ and ‘the Islamic world’, words which are used extensively but perhaps without conviction. Using detailed maps – displayed rather niftily as album art on iTunes – the course explores how history has shaped cultural diversity as well as the current processes of contemporary transformation.

‘Does the world still exist in numerous and separate cultural worlds? Well, in one sense, it never has, as cultures have always interacted extensively, and at many different levels,’ explains Dr Martin Lewis, course coordinator and Historical Geographer at the University of Stanford. ‘Such interactions have grown much more extensive with the most recent round of globalisation, but such interactions also generate reactions, which can to some extent re-inscribe cultural borders. It is also the case that we need to divide the world into large macro-regions, which are partly defined on cultural terms, merely to talk effectively about it.’

Course run by Stanford University, self-paced

3. Exploring our Oceans, Futurelearn

volcanoThe summit of the West Mata volcano is nearly a mile below the surface. Its base descends to nearly two miles deep (Image: NOAA)
You often hear that the oceans cover more than 70 per cent of our planet’s surface – but what is perhaps equally remarkable is that most of that ocean is deep, relative to our human scale,’ says John Copley, convenor of the Exploring the Ocean MOOC and lecturer in Marine Ecology at the University of Southampton. ‘In fact, more than half our world is covered by water more than three kilometres deep – so ours is not just an ocean planet, it's a really a deep ocean planet.’

You will be looking at the landscape of the underwater expanses through six weeks worth of videos, images and articles. ‘One of the revelations of the past century is that landscape of the ocean floor is just as varied as that of land,’ explains Copley. ‘There are spectacular mountains, canyons, ridges, trenches, vast plains of flat mud – and each environment home to diverse life, just as varied as that in different habitats on land.’

Just in case your friends aren’t as keen to talk about the deep ocean as you are, below every activity is a comments panel to discuss the lessons with fellow MOOCers. 

Course run by the University of Southampton, available 31 August 2015

4. Exploring Humans’ Space, EdX

San Francisco suburbs from above (Image: Mark Schwettmann)

As the title suggests, this course is a little more conceptual. The aim is to learn about the abstract terms through social science and cartography. Sounds complicated? ‘The aim of this course is to help you feel comfortable with your daily notion of space,’ says Jacques Levy, Professor of Geography and Urbanism at EPFL. ‘Firstly, space is about distances, the simplest way to understand it is to connect your daily life, your perceptions and your practices to the concepts of contact and remoteness. You will easily realise that space is omnipotent in your life.’ 

The course is divided into nine distinct sessions, each of which are filmed in a geographically relevant space. This will help some of the abstract notions a little more concrete. First, the course will explore the different types of contemporary space and deconstruct the idea of the city and urbanism. Second, it will assess the function of cartography in the making of these spaces. After ten weeks, you will be able to read and draw your own maps.

Course run by Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, available from 21 September 2015

5. ChinaX, EdX

With the capacity to be the largest power station in the world, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river was completed in 2006(Image: Prill)

If MOOCS are massive, Harvard’s ‘ChinaX’ is supermassive. Making great use of Harvard’s extensive materials on the subject, this panorama guides you on a thorough journey through Chinese history from Neolithic to the last dynasty. ‘China is a big country,’ says Peter Bol, Professor at Harvard University and convenor of the course, ‘the home to a quarter to a fifth of humanity over the last 2,000 years. In the past, as it does today, China has had the largest economy in the world. It has been and will be a world power.’

In a way it is a western course, spearheaded by two of the United States’ leading scholars on China, Bol and William Kirby. ‘If you’re not Chinese, this course is going to give you a sort of alternative world view,’ says Christopher Lydon, an American journalist. ‘If you are Chinese, you’re going to see your way of life, your culture, your history and your present in a different mirror.’

With a total of 52 modules split among ten topics such as intellectual foundations of China, Imperial China and Modern China: Birth of a Nation, ChinaX covers 6,000 years of history. Lessons are delivered as videos with subtitles in Mandarin.

Course run by Harvard University, self-paced

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