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Internet, the mentor of my undergrad education” — a personal account of online learning

Ronak Borana

Learning through web sources
Learning through web sources  (Photo: PXHere)

In the summer of 2017, after many months of brooding and deliberation, I applied for an undergrad course in biology. I knew I wanted to do research for a living, but I didn’t know where to begin. The first few classes were a bit reassuring, but that sense of relief was soon ousted by anxiety. BSc is good, but what next? What do you get a masters in? When to do research and how is it like? In which discipline? And even if I find it, what to do if I don’t end up enjoying it?

While my professors helped me with many of those queries, there was no plain sailing with someone as confused as me. I liked many aspects of biology, but I didn’t know which one to put a ring on. I had started to find computational biology interesting, but how would I know if it was really my calling? A couple of lectures on bioinformatics were certainly not enough. The only recourse I could think of was a master’s degree in it, but I was really apprehensive about committing to an entire degree to experience what a field is like. After a bit of wandering on the internet, I came across an online course on Bioinformatics. This free course was offered by the University of California. Enrolling in this semester-long course turned out to be the best learning experience I ever had. Animations, quizzes, live-projects and comfort of taking my classes whenever I wanted, made me fall in love with the subject. Soon MOOCs (massive open online courses) became a source of parallel education that allowed me to understand the nuances of biology in a way traditional colleges could not. 

For the uninitiated, MOOCs are free online courses that make their video lectures and course materials open to anyone who wants to use them. There is no barrier or prerequisite, just a sound internet connection, and you can learn anything. To begin with, there are two major platforms that host online courses, Coursera and edX. It’s easy, just look through their large catalogue of courses and enrol in whichever ones you find interesting. Watch the relevant videos and discuss them with your classmates from across the globe. You can even skip lessons or abandon the course to your liking. There is no pressure or penalty. There are many other platforms like Future Learn, Khan Academy,iBiology, and subject-specific platforms like the EMBL’s portal. An India specific platform, NPTEL hosts biannual courses from premier institutes like IITs, IISC, IISERs. Most of these platforms sustain themselves by charging a fee for a certificate. NPTEL also allows you to transfer credits to your offline college course. Similarly, SWAYAM is another Indian platform funded by the government of India that offers a multitude of courses. While most of the science-based courses are hosted on NPTEL, there are many other interesting courses on soft skills and communication.

Over the last two years, I have found myself taking online courses in myriad different fields like neuroscience, animal behaviour, nanotechnology, experiment design, research writing, epidemiology and epigenetics. I have completed some and deserted others. Within the comfort of my home, MOOCs helped me get the flair of different aspects of science and has given me more insight into the direction I want to head to after my undergrad. It is not just biology, MOOCs allow you to explore other interesting career prospects like science outreach and intellectual property laws. How about a course in patenting? Or science communication? Don’t worry if you end up dropping out of a course. As this article in Science magazine suggests, low retention rate has been a familiar attribute of MOOCs. Frankly, this is how learning should be, driven by intrigue and interest and not by some unreasonable threat of poor grades or expulsion. Science is moving at an incredible pace, and it is imperative to keep up with it. Twitter immensely helped me in this pursuit. While Twitter can be a dumpster fire when it comes to political discourse, it is a tea party when it comes to science. There are hundreds of researchers who tweet about their experiments, critique each other’s papers, recommend books, debate ideas, advertise vacancies, share insights, feedbacks and help disseminate science through palatable tweets. Between poorly reported news articles and jargon loaded scientific papers, twitter offers everyone a sound platform to colloquially discuss science.

Twitter can be used to catch up with the latest in science (Click on the image for more).

My twitter timeline is a treasure trove of interesting threads. For example, there are tweetorials’ that explains why corn is everywhere, or how grasses are better than trees for climate change, who were the first humans to come to India, image duplication fraud in scientific papers, role of genetics in education, how cows fart from their mouth, why there is no gene for language or the problem with India’s DNA profiling bill. Along with these byte size threads, many from the #STEM and #PhDChat community regularly crowdsource, curate, and share resources for students and early career researchers to refer from. Data visualization, population genetics, bioinformatics, statistics, scientific coding, prediction research are some examples. I have personally benefited immensely from Graham Coop’s open-source notes on population genetics for undergraduates.

Twitter has also made science more relatable to me. I no longer think of scientists as stern, infallible geniuses but as corporeal humans driven by curiosity. Journals, science journalists and researchers often tweet about important papers and preprints and have helped me keep in the loop with subjects I find interesting. Along with students, Twitter can also help seasoned scientists further their research career. Now, more than ever, we need more and more people to join the scientific discourse. 

Along with Twitter, there are other spaces that help me keep up with science. The Print, The Wire, Down to Earth, The Hindu, IndiaBioscience are a few science news portals that I have really enjoyed reading. IndSciComm’s incredible podcast series where they interview Indian researchers and talk about their journey in science has also helped me a lot. 

The Internet has been the most versatile mentor I ever had will be so for a very long time. It has helped me supplement my otherwise stale college syllabus with intriguing insights from the curious world of research. It has helped me, shaped me and made me more confident in my pursuit of science, and I am sure it will keep doing so for many generations of students to come. 

The author can be contacted @ronakb_ on twitter.

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