Skip main navigation

Why learn about ecosystems?

David Robinson is lead educator on The Open University’s free online course, “Introduction to Ecosystems.” Here, he discusses how humans interact with the environment and why we should recognise the importance of learning about it. 

A taster from this free online course  © The Open University/BBC

Humans have an impact that is felt worldwide. We interact with our environment in a myriad ways, often without thought to the consequences. An ecosystem is a group of organisms and non-living components linked by processes of energy transfer and cycling of components and, unless we understand the links, we cannot limit damage, conserve or restore.

This emphasises that the study of ecosystems is a core part of biological science. We need to recognise the importance of studying ecosystems, define them and their components, and investigate how they work.

Understanding the links between species

I regard the understanding of links between species as a key skill that anyone interested in the natural world should develop. Through “Introduction to Ecosystems,” I hope I can convince you that ecosystems are not “a thing apart.”

We are, ourselves, a key species in almost all ecosystems on the planet. It won’t be possible for us to conserve and restore everything and so, with an understanding of ecosystems, comes a responsibility for taking hard decisions. When debating how – or even whether – we should conserve a particular species in danger of extinction, knowledge of the place of that species in an ecosystem is vital.

Correctly identifying plants and animals

Revealing links between species requires correct identification of plants and animals. Through “Introduction to Ecosystems,” you will be able to start by collecting a few photographs and uploading them to the iSpot website, where the iSpot community can help you identify the organisms that you have photographed. The website can give you links between your observations and other species.

10,000 observations were posted to iSpot by learners on the course between November 2013 and January 2014. Each observation has a date and place, so information about distribution and seasonal changes can be deduced from this continually growing data set.  For example, an observation of a fungus from Kent, photographed in December, posted by a learner was identified with help from the community as Chondrostereum purpureum – the silver leaf fungus.

iSpot works by bringing together a community with a shared interest in the natural world and a wide range of different skills and experiences. It adds to our knowledge of the world around us and helps develop the ability to identify organisms.

I often tell my students that almost every time I spend a day in the countryside I see an animal or plant, a bit of behaviour or an interaction between species that is new to me. I hope that my fascination with the natural world – the reason that I guide you through this course – will encourage you to go out into your local area and view it through fresh eyes.

Want to know more? Join the free online course “Introduction to Ecosystems” now.

Related stories on FutureLearn

FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now