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Open Online Courses in Biology

What is Biology?

Biology is the study of how living things grow, interact with one another, and function internally. Because its subject matter is so diverse, biology is broken apart into more than 50 sub-disciplines that include botany (the study of plants), genetics (the study of DNA, genes, and hereditary traits), and zoology (the study of animals). However, though it has many niches, all areas of study in biology share a core set of principles: all living things are made of cells, which pass hereditary information to new generations through genes, expressing new traits and creating new species prompted by evolution, while consuming and changing energy in the process. This is all accepted under the main idea that living things naturally maintain their own internal stability (a concept known as homeostasis).

What Can Online Courses in Biology Actually Teach Me?

It is important for you to know that there is no programmatic accrediting agency for college biology programs in the United States. This means that curricula are not standardized: a biology graduate from College A may have taken different courses than a graduate from College B. However, it is generally accepted that each of these graduates will have the same basic understanding of the fundamentals of biology, taught by doctorate-holding professionals in the field. An online biology course can expose you to the theoretical foundations of the science, but can do little else beyond that. Biology is a hands-on discipline that requires rigorous laboratory work for a true “three-dimensional” educational experience.

Online courses in biology can be effective for learning things like microbiology, genetics, the principles of disease transfer, cellular biology, developmental biology, protein folding, computational biology, and molecular biology. In these online courses you can expect to be taught how to answer questions like:

  • Why do I have brown eyes?
  • How do researchers develop anti-cancer medications based on a person’s DNA?
  • How does my body use the sugar I eat?
  • How do people contract the flu, and what is it doing to their cells to make them sick?
  • How does the human body regulate its own temperature?

If you decide that you want to take an online biology class, make sure you do some research prior to enrolling. What is your choice institution’s reputation in this discipline? Who will be teaching your class—do they have a Ph.D. in biology? Have they been working in a field closely related to what they are teaching? Can you find reviews of other students’ experiences with this professor?

Free Online Courses in Biology From Around the Web

Below, we have compiled and organized open courseware relevant to biology for you. Open courseware is a collection of video-based lectures, tests, quizzes, and other related course material from prominent colleges around the world. This information is offered for free, but does not include an option to work directly with a professor. These online biology courses can be a good start for someone who is considering taking online courses at an established university.

Subjects

Biology (11)

MPH/CEE 241: Biology of Water and HealthTufts University

Open Courseware

Water Treatment, Engineering
Taught by: Jeffrey Griffiths

Course Description:

Through lectures, exams, quizzes, readings, and other assignments, this water treatment online course will familiarize you with the biological elements of water systems from an engineering perspective. This water treatment course has no prerequisites, but is designed for graduate students, so you should make sure you can handle the rigors of advanced coursework before attempting to use the presented materials. All content can be accessed through the course page, though you can use a PDF reader to access a more user-friendly presentation.

Training Course on Mangroves and BiodiversityUnited Nations University

Open Courseware

Wildlife Management, Ecology
Taught by: T. Balasubramanian

Course Description:

By using the contents presented in this short, intensive wildlife management online course, you can become more familiar with marine biology in mangrove forests. Some of the topics covered by this graduate-level course include marine environments, diversity assessment methods, ecosystems in mangroves, threats to mangroves, and how to effectively manage these valuable ecosystems. You will need a PDF file reader to access any of the course modules, though the glossary can be reviewed online without any special software.

Water DiplomacyTufts University

Open Courseware

Water Treatment, Engineering, Politics
Taught by: Shafiqul Islam

Course Description:

Presented as an exploration of the increasing political value of water, this 2011 water treatment online course combines elements of international law, water engineering, and diplomacy. Most of the files used in this course require a PDF document viewer to access, though some content is available on the site itself as well. The course has no specific prerequisites, and due to the focus of the course content on shoring up gaps in the knowledge of both engineers and legal thinkers who take the course, you should have no difficulty following along even if you are unfamiliar with these fields.

Zoological MedicineTufts University

Open Courseware

Wildlife Management, Veterinary Science
Taught by: Gretchen Kaufman

Course Description:

The lectures, readings, and supplementary materials for this 2008 wildlife management online course will familiarize you with topics like animal medicine, laboratory work with animals, and medicine for specific types of animals. All of the content of this advanced undergraduate course is available for free, though you should have some background in veterinary science or biology before attempting to make sense of the content. To access some of the course notes and supplementary materials, you will need a PDF file viewer, though most of the information is available on the site itself.

GEN200 GeneticsTufts University

Open Courseware

Human Physiology, Physiology, Genetics
Taught by: Laurie Ann Demmer, Diana W. Bianchi, Janet M. Cowan, Jodi Dana Hoffman

Course Description:

Though designing medical treatments based on an individual's genetic make-up once seemed like science fiction, today it is getting closer to reality and this course examines recent developments in the field. Originally recorded in the fall 2005 semester, this undergraduate biology online course focuses on medical genetics, or how genetics and gene theory is applied in the practice of medicine. Through lectures, the recommended textbook and online resources, you will study the diagnosis, inheritance and treatment of genetic diseases, molecular genetics as it relates to different disorders, and gene therapy.

Histology: Study of Cells, Tissues and OrgansTufts University

Open Courseware

Science, Physiology

Course Description:

This science online course – published in 2006 – is 131 hours in length and intended for first-year students. During the course, you will examine the cell structure as well as the functional correlation that connects all organ systems in the human anatomy. There are no academic credit or degree prerequisites chiefly because this is a course intended for first-year undergraduates. However, this course is particularly work and study-intensive since you are required to complete six quizzes and four written exams over the span of your 131 earned hours.

Introduction to Neural NetworksMassachusetts Institute of Technology

Open Courseware

Dynamical Theories, Neural Networks, Neural Development
Taught by: Prof. Sebastian Seung

Introductory BiologyMassachusetts Institute of Technology

Open Courseware

Biology, Population, Ecology
Taught by: Prof. Penny Chisholm, Prof. Graham Walker, Dr. Julia Khodor, Dr. Michelle Mischke

Course Description:

First published in 2005, this online course teaches the impact of ecological systems from the perspective of births, deaths and success. Topic includes an introduction to molecular biology, gene regulation, relations to the biosphere, productivity of food webs, recombinant DNA, cellular microbiology, population growth, and their requisite impacts on population growth and ecological sustainability. Presented in a series of videos, this undergraduate course does not have any prerequisites.

Anatomy & PhysiologyCarnegie Mellon University

Open Courseware

Physiology, Anatomy

Course Description:

Published in 2012, this physiology online course will introduce you to the structure and function of the human body. Implementing learning tools such as interactive images, video lectures and practice opportunities, this class is equivalent to a two-semester course and will equip you with foundational knowledge in anatomy and physiology from the cellular level up to the integration of organs and organ systems. Designed to introduce undergraduate students to the field of health and fitness, the class has no prerequisites. However, to access class materials you will need to download the Unity software program.

BiochemistryCarnegie Mellon University

Open Courseware

Physical Science, Chemistry

Course Description:

Published in 2012, this course will give you an introduction to the concepts of thermodynamic, structural and molecular biological interactions related to biochemistry. This physical science online course is designed as an introductory course for students majoring in biology or chemical engineering. Therefore, prerequisites for the course include completion of courses in chemistry, organic chemistry, thermodynamics, algebra and differential calculus. Students are also encouraged to have completed introductory courses in biology as well. In addition, the class also requires that you download Flash, Java and mathml software to fully participate in the course.

Introduction to BiologyCarnegie Mellon University

Open Courseware

Science Education, Genetics, Ecology

Course Description:

This science education online course will introduce you to basic concepts in biological chemistry, symbiotic life systems, genetics and ecology. This course – recently updated in August 2012 – is taught at a community college level, so you can enroll whether you are an undergraduate or a graduate student. The course is free and there are no additional academic or software requirements, but you must register with Carnegie Mellon University online prior to enrollment.