PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 9:29am

Free online courses

Dozens of British universities began offering free online courses last week, joining a global trend started in the United States that opens up higher education to the masses. They are initially offering 20 courses, through a joint portal similar to those already operating in the US (below). Subjects include the causes of war from King's College London, studio production from Queen's University Belfast and introductory particle physics from the University of Edinburgh. On the first day of pre-registration, 20,000 people from 158 countries signed up - even though the portal will not be completed for several months. Other top universities, including Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College, are taking a wait-and-see approach. Simon Nelson, chief executive of the project, FutureLearn, says he hopes they will eventually come onboard. He says the new platform allows universities to focus on the quality of their courses, which run between six and 10 weeks and use videos, text and discussions over social media. FutureLearn is a unit of the Open University, which provided distance learning courses for the past 40 years.

Getting our heads around it

A research team at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has made a new breakthrough in our understanding of the evolution of the brain (right) and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism. The groundbreaking discoveries about the novel mechanism that controls brain cell production and cortical expansion, have been published in the prestigious neuroscience journal Neuron. The team is led by Prof Nancy Ip, dean of science and director of the State Key Laboratory of Molecular Neuroscience and the Morningside professor of life science at the university.

Cash is jolly good for fellows

The Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship Programme in the Humanities at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, has received a US$1.5 million gift from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The funding will allow McGill's faculty of arts to offer 12 two-year postdoctoral fellowships, each valued at US$55,000, over the next six years. Since its inception, the fellowship programme has provided financial support to 14 postdoctoral fellows. In addition to conducting research, recipients teach one undergraduate course per semester and participate in a seminar series with other postdoctoral and graduate fellows to discuss their experiences in the field.

"These fellowships will greatly enhance our ability to support postdoctoral scholars in conducting research that is both transformative and at the forefront of creativity," says Professor Christopher Manfredi, dean of arts, who calls the fellows an inspiration to other students. Issues explored by researchers at the university include the role science plays in influencing climate change beliefs among indigenous people, and how movement, performance and subjectivity have affected the art of dance in Quebec, Canada.