Learning Geology Online: Sifting The Fake From The Genuine

This may seem like a random topic. But I come from a education system where the academic year begins now or within the next month and with all the talk about the importance of lectures it seemed natural.

Many people are interested in how the Earth works. They have become interested in rocks by reading geology blogs, moving to areas with rocks visibly mangled by tectonic forces or hearing about volcanoes, earthquakes and climate change on the news. The information from blogs is like dipping one's toe in the water, mangled rocks are just plain confusing and the media often gets things wrong. People interested in Earth processes and geology may be left wanting more.

My sisters are studying by correspondence through the University of South Africa (UNISA). This has made me curious about this as an option for geology. Can one study geology by correspondence or online? The advantages of distance learning are; it is perfect for people who can only study part time and it tends to be cheaper than physically being on campus. On the other hand one has to be very self motivated and disciplined and there are no lectures or lecturers to guide one. Yes emails are answered but there is nothing quite like one on one contact when one is struggling with a concept. Added complications when studying geology by correspondence are field work and practicals. I have found that students struggle with concepts such as mineral cleavage or visualising things in 3D (yes the layers on Table Mountain do indeed go all the way through the mountain). My one sister did chemistry and zoology through UNISA (she's now studying psychology) so the practical side is not impossible. She did her chemistry practicals in the chemistry labs at the University of Namibia and the zoology practicals in Potchefstroom, South Africa. So I know that studying science via correspondence is doable. But are there options for people interested in geology? And if yes what are they? 

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa. Taken from Lion's Head.

From my googling there seems to be two options 1) a degree in geology by distance learning and 2) free courses which teach the basic principles but do not result in a geology degree. I have also discovered that this is more complex than I had at first thought so I am going to cover distance learning in a series of blog posts. I shall evaluate the different free courses and then potential degree options by country. In this post I shall tackle how to choose an institution.

Important questions to ask yourself are: what do I expect to gain from this course/degree? Do I want to be a geologist or do I just want an introduction so that I understand the basics? If I want to be a geologist will this degree make me employable as a geologist? Is the organisation offering the course a real accredited institution?

The last two questions are linked. A degree from a genuine institution should make one employable as a geologist. Determining the legitimacy of an online institution can be easy in some cases and difficult in others. Courses from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) or Birkbeck University of London are probably legit. Courses from University Degree Program are probably not. Personally I would use four steps to determine the legitimacy of an online university which I have listed below. If you can think of any of any others feel free to add them in the comments section.

1) Is the institution accredited by a valid organisation?

Wikipedia has a wonderful list of dodgy institutions (interestingly/unsurprisingly a fair number of them have theology in the title). Wikipedia also makes life easy by listing all the bodies which can legally decide whether an institution is accredited or not. Although the Central Council of Homoeopathy is on this list! To complement the list of accredited accreditors Wikipedia has a list of non-accredited accreditors.

While I have linked to Wikipedia here, remember the lists are probably incomplete so use them as a starting point for your search.

2) What is their course work/syllabus?

Courses about plate tectonics, mineralogy and petrology are a good start. Courses about Noah's Flood are an obvious red flag.

3) Check the staff.

Who works at the institution? Where did they get their degree from? What are their research interests? Have they published any journal articles? Which journals have they published in?

4) To make doubly sure you can check with on organisation you trust.

Geological surveys and societies are a good places to go. The Geological Society of London a list of accredited UK institutions, for example. If there is nothing on their website you can contact your local survey and ask them if the online institution you are thinking of enrolling with is valid.

Once you have determined that the institution is genuine the next step is looking at the courses offered in more detail. This will be the topic of my next post about online learning.


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