An Interview with David Johnston on the new Marine Megafauna MOOC & PLOS Collection


Launching today, the PLOS ONE Marine Megafauna Collection MarineMegafaunabrings together recent Open Access research for use by students of Marine Megafauna: An Introduction to Marine Science and Conservation, a new MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) from Duke University. The course, taught by David W. Johnston (Asst. Professor of Marine Conservation & Ecology), will encourage students to use the papers in the Collection to gain a deeper understanding of marine life and how scientists study the ocean.

I recently spoke with David to discuss the MOOC and the importance of OA research when introducing a global audience to the science of marine conservation.


Tell us about the Marine Megafauna course:

I offer the course in two ways, one being the traditional in-presence class offered at Duke University every spring and the second as a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) through the Coursera platform. In my traditional class we have regular lectures and exams, and we also have field trips to the Duke Marine Lab and to the Smithsonian Institution’s Sant Ocean Hall to get students up close and personal with basilosaurs and giant squid. In the online version, students are presented with video lectures on various species, systems and conservation topics and are evaluated through weekly quizzes and peer-assessed exercises that use open access data and resources.


Why charismatic marine megafauna?

This question comes up a lot, and my usual response is: “Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like penguins?” Most people really like marine megafauna species. This provides educators like me with a pedagogical hook to capture a student’s attention and maintain it in order to sneak in some complex ideas from marine science. Clearly not everyone’s path is so predictable, but many young people become engaged in marine science through this fascination – I did. They don’t always continue on with their initial infatuation however – they move on to other aspects of marine science like biogeochemistry, or phycology or fisheries science to name just a few.


What are the benefits of learning via a MOOC as opposed to a traditional course?

Well, that’s a great question that I can’t answer just yet – this is the first time we will be teaching Marine Megafauna in the online realm. Clearly, my traditional course only reaches about 45 students every spring semester, so my hope is that we will reach a greater number of people through the MOOC approach and set at least a few of them on a revitalized path in life that includes something related to marine science and conservation. In the online context, we have the opportunity to reach across ages, not just the younger audience that most university educators like me frequently interact with. That’s cool! We can also reach across political boundaries relatively easily through this educational approach, which is both exciting and challenging for a course that deals with conservation issues.


Can you tell us about the digital textbook you’ve developed to run alongside the course?

Students are asked to read open access journal articles that cover the main aspects taught in the course. In this case we have focused on using PLOS ONE articles that are now all collected into the Marine Megafauna Collection over at PLOS Collections. We have also developed an iPad app that is useful for teaching marine megafauna-based classes called Cachalot. This app, available on the iTunes store for free, incorporates the PLOS ONE articles with other content written be experts around the world and is released under an open access license. We are not using the app directly in the online class this time as it is only available on iOS, not through the android or web-based platforms – yet.


Why use Open Access research to teach?

In the open online learning context, I think that using OA materials is ideal. Educators can distribute materials and use them in their classes without the hassle of dealing with more restrictive licensing requirements or, in some cases paying for use of materials. These benefits are passed on to the students in the class who get a free “textbook” and an educational experience that makes use of solid and up-to-date science. That is nearly the opposite experience that students face with many traditional paper texts that are expensive and often dated by the time they are released. Using OA research also provides educators access to new datasets (published as supplements to OA articles) that can be used in hands-on exercises with students within the context of what they are reading for class.


Finally, what is your favourite Marine Megafauna?

Another tough question. Right now I must admit to be fascinated with crabeater seals.


Credit: David Johnston

They live around the Antarctic continent and feed primarily on krill – the small shrimp-like critters that are a key component in Antarctic foodwebs. Crabeaters have a beautiful silver pelage and some of the most amazing teeth around – essentially designed to strain krill out of the water after they take a gulp.

For more information on the course, please watch the introductory video here.

To enroll for the course, please visit:

David W. Johnston

David W. Johnston

Interview by Jennifer Horsley, Editorial Project Coordinator, PLOS Collections


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