• The Open University

Introduction to Ecosystems

Gain an understanding of the natural world, how the web of life works, with illustrations from around the world.

44,056 enrolled on this course

A living ecosystem
  • Duration

    6 weeks
  • Weekly study

    3 hours

If we don’t grasp why ecosystems function, it becomes harder to determine possible reasons for when they don’t, and makes it difficult to identify possible environmental threats to humans.

In this course you will discover how organisms are linked together by complex interrelationships, how such links are studied and how the physical properties of a particular habitat interact with the organisms that inhabit it. Using case studies, you will come to learn how knowledge of ecosystems leads to understanding of their individual importance, and how they can be preserved.

All Open University science courses presented on FutureLearn are produced with the kind support of Dangoor Education.

Find out more in David Robinson’s post for the FutureLearn blog: “Why learn about ecosystems?

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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds This course examines the intricate and critically important relationships between living organisms and the environment under the expert guidance of Open University senior lecturer Dr. David Robinson. The familiar woodland is an ideal place to begin to understand ecosystems in more depth. The journey begins by examining some key definitions of what we mean by an ecosystem as well as introducing some essential skills needed in field research and applying this science to case studies by the likes of world renowned broadcaster David Attenborough. And in forests like this one, where food sources are often very widely disbursed, the ability to travel fast and far but with very little effort is a very valuable ability indeed.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 seconds Rich in video, high quality audio, and text, tailored to the needs of people new to the subject, this six week course steers towards the fundamental issue of the impact of human beings on our natural world. The vital question we have to ask is, can this destructive process be reversed? Finishing the course will leave you with insights into the rich diversity of organisms across the world and a fresh perspective on the vital role that humans play in these fundamental networks of life. Understanding ecosystems transforms our view of the natural world.

What topics will you cover?

  • Introduction to the concept of an ecosystem and the problems of scoping a useable definition. Applying the definition to an example of a small ecosystem.
  • Following a food chain that links a group of organisms. Exploring those links in specific examples and what these reveal. Studying examples of adaptations to particular habitats and extreme conditions, displayed by animals and plants.
  • Investigating the diversity of life within different ecosystems and the small organisms that form the base of food chains.
  • Undertaking a small project on observing and identifying organisms in a neighbourhood ecosystem and contributing to an online community.
  • Using case studies, exploring the impact that humans can have on ecosystems and whether damaging impacts can be reversed. Examples of conservation and the problem of habitat restoration, illustrated by the conservation efforts to maintain a spider population.
  • Conserving lowland gorillas, China’s Loess Plateau and the Galápagos world heritage site.
  • How the problems of the Galápagos illustrate how fragile ecosystems can become and how important it is to understand such systems if we are to maintain them in balance.

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Identify and be able to define an ecosystem.
  • Assess and understand the different ways in which a system can be analysed.
  • Apply and use your knowledge of the key features of ecosystems to determine interrelationships between organisms in a simple ecosystem.
  • Describe adaptations shown by animals to extreme desert and polar environments.
  • Engage with and join the iSpot online community, obtain identifications for animals, plants or fungi you have seen and consider any links between them that you could identify.
  • Discuss how small organisms in marine systems contribute to energy flow through ecosystems.
  • Explain how humans impact on three examples of fragile ecosystems.

Who is the course for?

This course is intended for those with an interest in natural history, conservation or the environment and does not require any previous experience of studying these subjects.

Who will you learn with?

I am a zoologist specialising in acoustic behaviour and evolutionary biology, now researching insect ecology and ultrasonic communication.

Who developed the course?

The Open University

As the UK’s largest university, The Open University (OU) supports thousands of students to achieve their goals and ambitions via supported distance learning, helping to fit learning around professional and personal life commitments.

  • Established

  • Location

    Milton Keynes, UK
  • World ranking

    Top 510Source: Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020

Learning on FutureLearn

Your learning, your rules

  • Courses are split into weeks, activities, and steps to help you keep track of your learning
  • Learn through a mix of bite-sized videos, long- and short-form articles, audio, and practical activities
  • Stay motivated by using the Progress page to keep track of your step completion and assessment scores

Join a global classroom

  • Experience the power of social learning, and get inspired by an international network of learners
  • Share ideas with your peers and course educators on every step of the course
  • Join the conversation by reading, @ing, liking, bookmarking, and replying to comments from others

Map your progress

  • As you work through the course, use notifications and the Progress page to guide your learning
  • Whenever you’re ready, mark each step as complete, you’re in control
  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

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