40,000 students sign up to ET-hunting course at Edinburgh University


AN amazing 40,000 people have signed up for a Scottish university course which helps them hunt for ET.

From China to Kosovo, alien hunters are getting lessons from Edinburgh University after signing up to the online course in “Astrobiology and the search for extra-terrestrial life”.

Professor Charles Cockell – a former NASA researcher who heads the ET-related programme – said even he was “surprised” by how popular the course was.

The course also discusses the possibilities of life on Mars (pic: LeCire)


He said: “I think people are interested in the history of life on Earth and whether there could be life elsewhere, but I was surprised by the response.

“The most gratifying thing is there have been study groups forming in India, China, Pakistan, Canada, the USA and all over the place. There’s even an astrobiology group in Kosovo.”

He added: “The course asks questions about how life originated and how it came to be on Earth, life in extreme environments and the possibility of the existence of life on other planets like Mars.

“Right at the end of the course there’s a discussion about extra-terrestrials, what the consequences of detection would be and the possibility of life beyond.

“Anyone can sign up from anywhere but I have been quite astonished by the sheer diversity of people who have.”

Prof Cockell said feedback among his 40,000 students on the free course had been “very positive” and is looking forward to the start of the next course.

But he admitted: “So far no one has actually spotted anything extra-terrestrial yet but in general the feedback for the course has been very positive.

“We regularly hold discussions on forums and try to answer student queries to questions such as ‘What are the limits of life?’ and ‘When are future missions to space going to happen?’.

“It’s all very exciting and I’m glad to see people so keen.”

Edinburgh offers five other Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) including Equine Nutrition, Online Education and Digital Media, Critical Thinking in Global Challenges, Artificial Intelligence Planning and the Introduction to Philosophy.

Enrolment figures for all courses have rocketed 50% over the last two months alone with 300,000 students signed up “evenly” across all courses.

They are held as five to seven week educational tasters for people of any age or background.



Professor Cockell, who became interested in space exploration when he was a child, added: “It’s a really effective way of teaching and if it gets people talking and learning then that’s great.

“I’ve got about 40,000 in total for the extra-terrestrial course and I think the other 260,000 are spread out pretty evenly.”

Edinburgh was the first university in the UK to join the Stanford-based Coursera consortium.

University principal Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea said the remote courses had caught the imagination of students.

He said: “As someone who has researched in this area for more than 40 years, I am thrilled to bits that we have been able to attract so many learners to experience what Edinburgh has to offer.

“Online learning is an increasingly important method of teaching, opening up high-quality education opportunities to people around the world.”

Other less conventional degree modules around the world include The Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion module as part of the BA in Education Studies at Durham University.

Staffordshire University offered a 12-week module on David Beckham as part of the BA in Sports, Media and Culture.

The University of Baltimore in the US is offering the opportunity to study zombies as part of English 333.

And the University of California, Berkeley, offers a two-unit class on “Simpsons and Philosophy” where the cartoon is studied through the eyes of Nietzsche and Plato.