When Dr. Phillip Currie and his team created the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Dino 101, they hoped it would reach a wide audience. However, counting a 12-year-old boy from Scotland as a graduate was surprising even to Currie.
“I felt that probably we would get a few people who were considerably younger,” he said, “but I didn’t expect quite that young.”
Finn McKellar lives in Craigmarloch, Scotland. He’s 12 years old and just started Year 1 of high school. His mom discovered the Dino 101 MOOC on Facebook and immediately thought of Finn.
“We were trying to find something that was interesting for him,” Finn’s dad Matthew said. “He doesn’t like sports and things, the clubs and things like that never quite did it for him. It was something that he was certainly interested in.
“He took it up all by himself. We didn’t have to push him to do anything. It was completely unlike homework for him. It was something he was really enjoying.”
Finn says his interest in dinosaurs began when he saw the movie Jurassic World.
Despite being just 11 when he started the university-level course, he didn’t struggle too much with the content.
“A lot of the knowledge on it I already pre-knew,” Finn said, “but some of it was hard.”
His dad found it a lot harder.
“I have to say, I looked at a couple of the modules and I’ve got a degree in biology and it was tough for me,” Matthew laughed. “It was really high level. I was amazed.”
The U of A started offering Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology in September 2013, through Coursera. It was the university’s first foray into the ever-expanding world of open online education. It was also the first time a Canadian institution offered a MOOC that could count for credit. Students also have the option of a non-credit stream.
Finn completed the whole thing and has a certificate from Coursera to prove it.
“I wanted to do the entire thing,” he said. “The whole thing I found rather fun, that’s why.”
“We didn’t think he would do the quizes,” Finn’s dad said. “We didn’t think he would pass it – it was more for his interest and he would sort of cherry pick things. We were amazed that he managed to get the whole way through the course.
“We’re really proud. Both his mom and his dad are really, really proud of what he’s achieved. I suppose the attention is nice and really gives self esteem for him when he probably needs it the most.”
Finn agrees the accomplishment has given him a boost.
“Yeah, it really did,” he said with a shy smile, “to the point where I almost started bragging.”
Watch below: The U of A’s Dino 101 course continues to break new ground. Now, it’s a textbook being offered in app form. Emily Mertz has the details.
MOOCs like Dino 101 have blown open the world of education, making courses more accessible to anyone, anywhere. Since it started, more than 70,000 people have taken this particular course.
Currie says Finn’s accomplishment is a testament to that.
“We were certainly hoping it would reach a very wide demographic both in terms of countries and of ages,” he said. “We’ve heard from people who were in their 80s even who had taken the course and enjoyed it. But on the lower end, I wasn’t sure but I had a feeling … When I was a kid, I would’ve died to have something like this. Many of the kids who write me from all over the world are really into it. It’s quite a surprise sometimes that they know things that I haven’t figured out yet.”
Currie described having a 12-year-old complete the course is “very cool.”
“We’ve heard of a couple of others, but they’ve usually done it with their parents’ assistance and of course, having somebody there to tutor you through the whole thing would certainly be a help. I would say it’s pretty rare still.
“I know there are many people who are considerably older – like four or five times older – and don’t get through the course,” Currie said.
Matthew admits his wife and he didn’t set out to register Finn in such a high-level course.
“When we were looking for something for Finn we were thinking something much more age appropriate, something that would get his interest, but there’s nothing out there at all for – well, Finn was a child when he started – there’s nothing really out there for children as an online resource. It’s all very, very basic, there’s nothing in the middle.”
But Dino 101 ended up being a great fit.
“I was very impressed,” Matthew said. “The interactivity of the courses, they’re really good. They’re really engaging.”
Finn’s favourite part?
“There was a fossil analyzer bit where it would give you fossil charts with a 3D projection of them and you could look at them.”
Over a 12-week period, Dino 101 teaches students about the non-avian dinosaurs that roamed the Earth, some 250 to 65 million years ago, during the Mesozoic Era. Many of the course lessons are delivered from dinosaur dig sites. The course also boasts unique digital tools, including virtual fossil collections.
Currie, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Dinosaur Paleobiology at the University of Alberta, leads the course.
“It is a whole new world,” Matthew said.
“It’s amazing that Finn can sit in his room in Scotland and interact with somebody like Dr. Currie, who’s one of the foremost people in palaeontology all the way in Alberta. It’s just fantastic.”
Unfortunately, Finn cannot use the course for university credit. He would need to visit the U of A in person and take the exams there to prove it’s actually him who knows the content so well. But, that’s not slowing his trajectory. He’s already taking another course, this one on theropods and the early evolution of birds and plans to pursue a career in a related field.
“Probably Paleobiology,” Finn said, adding “that would be extinct organisms or animals.”