Classes in “astrobiology and the search for extra-terrestrial life” are among six modules which have seen more than 300,000 new enrolments at Edinburgh University – each taking in lessons from the comfort of their own home.
The institution’s free remote learning courses have proved an international hit, with the number of people signing up rising by 50 per cent in just two months.
Professor Charles Cockell said the response to his lectures in the hunt for aliens had left him overwhelmed.
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 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.
“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.”
High school pupils, university students and retired people in their 70s and 80s have signed up in their droves.
Other Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered include artificial intelligence planning, introduction to philosophy and equine nutrition.
They run for between five and seven weeks as tasters for people interested in higher education but who can’t commit full-time.
Professor Cockell, who became interested in space exploration when he was a child, said: “It’s a really effective way of teaching and if it gets people talking and learning then that’s great.
“There has been some talk of UFOs and it’s a reasonable hypothesis to ask if there are extra-terrestrials out there, but to support it the evidence has to be extraordinary, which it isn’t at the moment.”
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.”