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This module considers the interactions between organisms and their environment that together form an ecosystem – which can range from a simple microbial community to the biodiverse rainforests of the tropics. Even the Earth as a whole may be considered an ecosystem. You’ll develop your understanding of the terrestrial environment as a habitat for a vast array of different organisms; the connections between them and their surroundings; and their resilience to anthropogenic changes – such as pollution and climate change. You’ll also gain practical experience in ecosystem science – making observations in your locality, and through extensive use of models to investigate processes essential to supporting life on Earth.

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OU qualifications are modular in structure; the credits from this undergraduate-level module could count towards a certificate of higher education, diploma of higher education, foundation degree or honours degree.

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Module code
Study level
3 10 6
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
See Am I ready?

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A most enjoyable course, the tutor was fantastic. The statistics (regression and ANOVA) was very well explained. Among other things,...
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What you will study

Understanding ecosystem structure and function is the key to understanding how life has persisted in the past and may yet flourish in the future.

The module offers a holistic approach and is composed of four blocks. They take you gradually from simple local systems and processes up to the complexity of the global scale. An introductory block defines what is meant by the term ‘ecosystem’ and presents a range of examples, describing their biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) components. The second block then addresses the cycling of energy, water, carbon and inorganic nutrients through these systems. It reflects on how these flows control the type and number of organisms inhabiting the system and also how the presence of living organisms in turn affects the cycling of energy and matter. The resilience of the ecosystems to the perturbations of human activity is explored in the third block, using a range of case studies from across the globe. The final block looks at our planet as a whole to investigate the interdependence of the sub-systems within it.

The majority of this module is delivered online and you should expect to spend the following proportions of your time studying:

  • online text accessed via a website (15 per cent)
  • hardcopy module book (15 per cent)
  • a DVD-ROM from which you will access models, spreadsheets and video material (20 per cent)
  • web resources including electronic books and journal papers (20 per cent)
  • carrying out practical work (15 per cent)
  • web-searching (5 per cent)
  • assessment (10 per cent).

Throughout the module, the four core concepts of definition, cycling, resilience and interdependence will be illustrated by examples from around the world, using the full range of media. The module emphasises the nature of data obtained in environmental studies with its inherent variability. To understand our environment scientifically, manipulation and statistical interpretation of data are essential. You will be introduced to a number of statistical tests, accessed via spreadsheets (including ANOVA and multiple regression) to enhance your skills in this area. You will be given the opportunity to input data into these spreadsheets and critically analyse the statistical output.

One particularly interactive element will be the use of two digital thermometers, supplied in a home kit, to record your own observations. These observations will be made in two practical tasks; firstly on an individual basis and then in small groups involving an element of experimental design. Results will be compiled into a database that you’ll analyse to investigate some ecosystem properties. You will have the opportunity to apply your new skills with environmental statistics (e.g. ANOVA and multiple regression) to draw conclusions from your data. You will be assessed on the outputs from these activities in your tutor-marked assignments.

Another theme running through the module is the use of modelling. Predictive modelling of ecosystem response is now a frequent issue in the media. The module illustrates the different types of models that are used, exploring their inputs, components and assumptions so the output can be correctly interpreted. There will be a number of spreadsheet-based or stand-alone models that you will engage with to explore how a particular system responds to external influences. About 20 per cent of the module study time is devoted to the use of modelling and statistical tools, the majority of which are spreadsheet based.

In addition to the module book, DVD, web resources and digital thermometers, you will also have access to an introduction and guide, a glossary and a specimen examination paper. The three-hour examination will draw strongly on the activities undertaken during the module.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. Tutorial support will be available online. 

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You must use the online eTMA system to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs). Assessment is an essential part of the teaching, so you are expected to complete it all. Please note that the substitution rule does not apply to this module.

Please note that there is a practical task related to the completion of the first TMA that you will need to start in the first study week. You should bear this in mind, especially if you register late for this module.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in October 2015. We expect it to be available once a year. 


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.


This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject, preferably with the OU.

You will be required to interpret fairly complex graphs, and to manipulate datasets in spreadsheets to create your own graphs and perform simple statistical tests (e.g. linear regression). During the module you will use bespoke spreadsheets to analyse datasets using the ANOVA, regression, and multiple regression statistical tests. So, if you are unfamiliar with spreadsheet operations, you are strongly advised to gain experience prior to starting the module. You will also carry out some practical investigations – some field-related – involving measurement and analysis of the results using statistics. It is very important that you have a basic understanding of certain statistical tests before you study this module (for example, the Spearman Rank Correlation test and the t-test). Further details are given in the Are You Ready For S396? booklet mentioned below.

You will therefore need a background in science, such as you would get from our OU level 1 science module Exploring science (S104). The preferred route would be to take the OU level 2 science module Environmental science (S206) before embarking on S396. Your regional or national centre will be able to tell you where you can see reference copies of the modules mentioned here. 

It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis from which to tackle the module, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully. The Science Faculty has produced a booklet Are You Ready For S396? to help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the module or whether you need a little extra preparation.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.


Start End England fee Register
03 Oct 2015 Jun 2016 £1350.00

Registration closes 10/09/15 (places subject to availability)


You may need to apply for some payment or funding options earlier. Please check the Fees and Funding information or contact us for information.

This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2017.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

If you're on a low income you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after you register.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or book a call back at a time that is convenient to you.

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2016. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

This information was provided on 01/08/2015.

What's included

A module book, Introduction and Guide, a DVD-ROM, a website, web-based materials and two digital thermometers.

You will need

Microsoft Office for word processing or spreadsheet activities. You will need a headset, with a microphone and earphones, to talk to your tutor and other students online during some of the module activities.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as the study materials and activities are accessible via a web browser. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available. For this module you will also need to install software provided by the OU on a disk or USB stick.

A Windows desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or later operating system is suitable for this module. You will be required to install Microsoft Windows specific software.

A netbook, tablet, smartphone or Linux computer that supports one of the browsers listed below may be suitable. The screen size should be at least 1024 (H) x 768 (W) pixels. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to a suitable desktop or laptop computer in case you are unable to carry out all the module activities on your mobile device.

We recommend a minimum 1 Mbps internet connection and any of the following browsers:

  • Internet Explorer 9 and above
  • Apple Safari 7 and above
  • Google Chrome 31 and above
  • Mozilla Firefox 31 and above.

Note: using the latest version for your browser will maximise security when accessing the internet. Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

If you have a disability

The module will be delivered via an online study commentary, so you will need to spend considerable amounts of time using a personal computer and the internet. If either your sight or manual dexterity are seriously impaired, you may find using the web and the DVD exercises particularly challenging. Ecosystems modelling and spreadsheet statistical activities account for around 20 per cent of the module and these, in addition to the many textual diagrams and images in the module, require good visual acuity. The text for all journal articles and books accessed online is accessible using a screen reader.

Written transcripts of any audio components and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical, scientific, and foreign language materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.