An existential question popped into my head at 3am, as I swept away the sweat off my brow, halfway through an online lecture on genomic imprinting, furiously writing notes: 'Why am I doing this?!' As a student who has just finished his A-levels, I was supposed to be free of cares, worries, and most of all, schoolwork. Yet I found myself in the middle of the longest free summer of my life, my pen rapidly running out of ink, and it was no midsummer night's dream.
Undertaking a six-week course through the massive open online course (MOOC) provider, Coursera, was a challenge that I accepted with the zeal of an 18-year-old freed from the clutches of 13 years of education. A massive open online course is a radically new and fascinating concept. Thousands of people with one passion – learning – are linked to a series of (usually free) online educational resources. Coursera, one of the largest MOOC providers, has nearly five million users, and provides over 300 different courses, created by 62 universities from 16 countries.
I embarked on the Epigenetic Control of Gene Expression course, run by the University of Melbourne, in July, having previously only had genetics education at school. Taught by Dr Marnie Blewitt, a researcher in molecular medicine, the course examined the nature of epigenetic phenomena. Why are skin cells and brain cells from the same person different? Why are there variations between 'identical' twins? Can your grandparents' diet affect your health? The answers to these questions lie in the realm of epigenetics, a branch of biology that has recently flooded scientific journals not just with answers, but also even more questions.
Epigenetics is the study of the epigenome, a set of chemical marks that lies on top of DNA and tells the cell which genes to switch on and off. The pattern of genes that are switched on determines the cell's characteristics. A simple analogy would be a group of students being given the same book of information, and different students read different pages from the book. Each student, representing a cell, would specialise in a different area. What is truly exciting about epigenetics is that the environment – diet, drugs and other factors – can influence the pattern, giving rise to the incredible variety that we find in humans, even in those who are genetically alike, such as identical twins.
The course was unsurprisingly popular, with around 15,000 students enrolled. Over half of students did not have English as a first language and over a quarter of students had no genetics education at university level. These statistics are a testament to the way in which MOOCs have opened doors for the general public, to genetics education or otherwise. But the benefits are not just for the public. Dr Blewitt said, 'I think that freely available courses are one way to improve the scientific education of the public, and therefore in the long run their interest and ultimately investment in scientific research. By educating and engaging with the community, we can not only increase their understanding and interest, but also go some way to safeguarding the future of scientific research'.
MOOCs have revolutionised what we mean by a classroom. No longer do students need to be faced with four walls and a blackboard; now is the time for forums, discussion boards, online hangouts and learning from experts on the other side of the globe. Each week consisted of a series of lectures and required reading, with recommended and extension resources ranging from newspaper articles and scientific journals, to animations and podcasts. One recommended resource was a film of the debate that was produced and chaired by Sandy Starr at last year's Battle of Ideas festival. One of the speakers from the panel was Professor Marcus Pembrey, who chairs the Progress Educational Trust.
Knowledge was assessed by weekly quizzes which, although multiple-choice in style, were unexpectedly tricky. The peer-assessed writing assignment at the end of the course was also a great exercise of one's ability to synthesise an answer from multiple sources.
I do have several minor gripes, however. The course had a start date and a finish date, with strict deadlines for all assessments. Although time constraints exist in a real-life classroom (and usually with even greater stringency than in virtual ones), I feel that in a virtual learning environment, distance learning should be tailored towards the student's pace, however leisurely that might be.
Overall, despite the course not being university-accredited, I believe that the online learning was worth it; there is definitely great scope for expansion in genetics education through online courses. I certainly have been inspired by the scientists whose work underpinned the course and by the passion of Dr Blewitt and her teaching staff who deserve much kudos for an engaging and educational synthesis of intricate concepts that are still only being revealed at the forefront of science. It gives me great pleasure to know that the availability of MOOCs to the masses can inspire a generation of students who have the capacity to make huge contributions to the medical sciences.
And my final result? Passed with distinction!