Local/Online Nature Classes

After reading @loarie’s excellent analysis on iNat users, observers, and identifiers last month, I had a few incomplete thoughts about our questions on user recruitment, retention, and engagement. My thoughts center on one new program (or platform) that is ripe for iNat expansion:

iNaturalist should host or coordinate nature education courses.

Take a moment to let it settle in before you make a judgment on this suggestion. Let me lay out both the reason why this makes sense, and a quick summary of the challenges and questions that would need to be solved.


  • iNaturalist is an education and science organization. It has a user base is rich in smart, altruistic nature nerds. Many of the most engaged users are educators in some capacity.
  • iNaturalist has global reach in natural sciences. It’s target audience are those curious about nature, especially those wanting to improve their familiarity of organisms in their community, and sharpen their identification skills.
  • iNaturalist has global reach, and has an opportunity to set up workflows, templates, standards, and feedback mechanisms that could facilitate courses around the world.
  • iNaturalist gives a “lab” experience for students to see observations and practice skills regardless of the season or location. Instruction from course material is amplified through application.
  • A course through iNaturalist, whether hosted locally or online as a MooC, would align with recruitment and engagement goals. My hypothesis is that course students would advance along the engagement spectrum, whether by joining as new users, or increasing observation and identification activity of existing users, and help systematically transmit the iNaturalist culture one currently only learns by being active on the site and forum.

Now, I don’t think it’s feasible or even preferable for iNat to staff up and teach a bunch of courses. (Unless there are any donors out there who want to grant something to support that!) I envision iNaturalist partnering with educators by providing some course templates and a standard platform where people could find iNat-based courses. A few example scenarios:

  • Jim is a master naturalist in Denver. He specializes in bugs. He must perform some amount of hours of community service/outreach each year to renew his master naturalist certification. He goes to the iNaturalist course site and picks a template for a local class, which gives him a broad and customizable set of goals and methods. He makes it a Denver Entomology class, makes the goals and curriculum fit that scope, picks out a book and/or online resources, learns how to sort and filter observations on iNaturalist to support practical class activities, and gets some documents he can post online and/or print to advertise the class. Some people come and spend some time learning about bugs, and how to use iNaturalist to continue learning together. When they leave, they know they aren’t alone in their weird hobby. Maybe they join or make a club, or just help identify each other’s iNat observations.

  • Kathy loves plants. She wants to see more botanical literacy in the world, so she wants to teach a botany class. She goes to the iNaturalist course site and picks a template for a MooC class, which gives her a platform to set up the digital logistics, a broad and customizable set of goals and methods. Mostly same as Jim’s scenario here, except she does it all digitally. They learn all about pedicels and achenes and caudices, and use iNaturalist to look at plants around the world. They don’t learn how to identify every species everywhere, but they learn what to look for and how to describe plant characteristics, and how to find and use guidebooks and online resources. A bunch of plant observation maybe, instead of getting identified, get a bunch of awesome comments all about “tomentose to villous leaves” and “apical tips” and “nutlets”.

  • Sophie, Bob, and Carol helping lead their local City Nature Challenge. In the 12 weeks leading up to it, they each take their specialty and host a class for local plants, birds, and mushrooms. CNC is the “graduation” of their class, and the students are ambassadors, ready to observe, identify, and welcome new users as they practice what they learned.

Something like this could be used by every Audubon chapter, Native Plant Societies, natural history center, etc. to help support their missions and link to iNaturalist. Wherever these get listed could also list less formal meetups, field trips, and nature walks that intend to use iNaturalist as a platform to share observations.

Questions and issues:

  • These would be volunteer classes rather than accredited course that generate “duress” students, but we may want a way for people to interact with the site behind a “student wall” at first. I acknowledge it because I know it is probably the first thing on some people’s minds, but has been discussed at length elsewhere.
  • What platform would iNat use? A custom MooC interface to make it really easy to host a class and use the site as a tool? Or one of the other many MooC platforms?
  • This would be a branch from iNat’s core platform. What would it take to execute something like this?
  • Would anyone on the forum be interested in taking or teaching a course like this?

Ok, that’s probably enough words.


This is a terrific new twist for the iNat community. Not only offering classes hosted by current users, but a great way for some of us avid fans to get involved and share more of their love of iNat to a new group. Moreover, a class like you are suggesting might not only create relationships for meetups, walks, etc, as you said, but also might provide a “mentorship” opportunity where a class may get early feedback on best practices within iNat and making good observations. Wouldn’t it be nice if new users heard directly back from the “teacher” about posting unknowns, casual grade, taking photos that show the subject in optimal ways, and so much more.

Thanks for sharing your terrific idea!


This gives me goose bumps. I love your ideas. I also think iNaturalist could host a convention (virtual, probably) of creative users giving presentations on using iNat for various purposes: How to use iNaturalist to set up a virtual nature trail. How to use iNaturalist to help beachgoers with gull and tern identification. Using iNaturalist to make a story map of the origins of crop plants. I see so many good ideas in the Forum, and it would be fun to get them fleshed out in a way that could be used by others.


I love this on so many levels!!!


SUPER potential here! I learn so much by researching how to separate two species, and then writing up a journal post (so I can find it again) and referring others to the post as I ID observations and share what I learned. (I’m not always right but I’m happy to be corrected so I can improve my notes and IDs.) Most people don’t have the time or inclination to do that, but appreciate the quick tips that result. I’ve seen that information shared by users that were told/taught by someone who had seen my post. When the knowledge spreads, it’s awesome! It would be a good idea to have the lessons peer reviewed in some way, though, so the (unintentional) wrong info isn’t spread as well. I see a lot of new users trying to figure out ways to ID things coarsely, so it doesn’t even have to be complex. Great idea! +1


Many organizations in Ohio offer iNaturalist workshops. So it isn’t a full course per se, but we tend to add it in to many events.

For example, VernalPoolooza had many sections on the weird life found in vernal pools. Then following those was a short presentation on how to contribute data to a vernal pool project using iNaturalist.

And most Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalists have also been made aware of the program or use it to complete their volunteer hours.

I’ve done the same for many of my dragonfly outreach events. We tend to do a short overview of iNaturalist followed by a lot of info on dragonflies of Ohio. Then we go out and look for dragonflies and people practice uploading observations.

From all the outreach events we have done over the past several years, we have gotten rather good recruitment and retention. And most nature centers across the state now offer short courses on it once a year.

These event have paid off with better representation across the state, to the point where it makes Ohio look like a dragonfly hotspot just because the neighboring states haven’t had as much of a push to get people to use iNaturalist. For example, the following species look like they are super abundant in Ohio compared to Indiana/Pennsylvania/Kentucky, etc once you zoom in on our area.

Lilypad Forktail (generally rare and requires certain plants): https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/103495-Ischnura-kellicotti
Prince Baskettail (Ohio entirely outlined with observations):https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/100215-Epitheca-princeps

So doing outreach events definitely helps get more people involved. If you find there aren’t a lot of people contributing in your area, it would definitely be worth organizing short workshops on a theme or bioblitzes.


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