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What a Plant Knows – MOOC Report

I’ll let you into a secret – I’m not really a plant scientist, I only masquarade as one on this blog. My day job involves science education and one of the main things I’m interested in is online learning, such as Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). This post first appeared on my personal/education blog, Science of the Invisible

What a Plant Knows What a Plant Knows comes as a refreshing change. This is down to the quality and enthusiasm of the teaching staff rather than any platform attribute.

Apart from a couple of statistics courses, the majority of the MOOCs I have taken were because I wanted to explore the platform and approach to learning being used rather than because of the subject matter. Coursera’s What a Plant Knows is different, because as the non-plant scientist Internet Consulting Editor of Annals of Botany, I feel that I really do want to learn more about plants.

Based on his book What a Plant Knows, Daniel Chamovitz fits into what I’ll call the Model B MOOC Professor – the big personality. In the grey world of MOOCs, this works well for me, although it would be very easy to tip over the edge and become irritating. As usual, there is a little too much talking head video, but clearly efforts have been made to include alternative formats. The assessment component is perfunctory, a few MCQs for each section. To their credit, teaching staff, including Daniel Chamovitz, are actively participating in the course discussions boards.

Week 1 was a good general introduction, although maybe slightly a little too “OH WOW, it’s a PLANT”. Week 2 on plant responses to light (“What A Plant Sees”) is right on the money – great stuff! Without any doubt this is the best Science MOOC I have seen yet.

Will this (very good) MOOC bring students flocking to the professional study of plant science? Not in any significant numbers – I can’t see us having to start a plant science degree to cope with student demand any time soon.


AJ Cann
Alan Cann is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester and formerly Internet Consulting Editor for AoB.



  1. Popularizing science in general, and plant science in particular, is essential to attract interest and increase understanding, especially in younger people. Without a substantial increase of those with a positive view and expertise, plant science will decline below its already parlous state.
    However, popularizing runs the risk of leading to a view of the topic which is `humanized’ and teleological. `Knows’ is a particularly good example of mixing-up human concepts and applying them to the biological realm. Plants, as far as I `know’, do not have mechanisms for conscious evaluation of their environment and of their own state or condition. The plant’s mechanisms may result in behavior and responses to the environment which are beneficial in terms of growth, production, reproduction etc but does the plant `know’? It is but a short step to Lamarckism and `creationism’. The latter is perhaps the greatest threat to science, so beware!

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