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Massive open online course-inspired education

Lakshmy Ramakrishnan

Experiments and practical lab work, considered indispensable for training in biology, came to a standstill when educational institutions and laboratories shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this article, researcher and educator Lakshmy Ramakrishnan describes how Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, could offer students exposure akin to lab work, even looking beyond the pandemic.


Life science students gain skills and experience by working in labs. The Covid-19 pandemic placed limitations on experimental work for not only PhD students and researchers but students of undergraduate and postgraduate courses as well. Some of the challenges included, uncertainty over when students could resume or complete lab experiments, difficulties associated with maintaining cell culture and lab animals, inability to process and analyse data, unpredictable access to labs because of restricted logistics, and delays in procuring reagents and materials due to supply chain issues. 

Owing to the forced transition into remote learning, educators were strapped with the unprecedented job of having to cater classes that were equivalent to the wet lab. Some educators opted to incorporate literature reviews, whilst others offered bioinformatics-based project work and virtual simulations as a substitute. For instance, a study carried out at Stockton University describes a virtual lab exercise that involved teaching students about PCR and gel electrophoresis using a SARS-CoV2 theme. It was found to be useful in enabling students to understand basic molecular biology as well as bioinformatics concepts. A few also began to include massive open online courses (MOOCs), which are typically popular among engineering students, in the life sciences classroom.

MOOCs, delivered through various online learning platforms, provide courses taught by experts to almost any part of the globe, offer a great deal of flexibility, a wide range of subjects, and provide students with the option to gain course completion certificates that are recognised by various educational institutes. They are curated with videos, tutorials, discussions, reading material, and assessments. 

MOOCs are also suitable for life science students looking for a substitute for wet labs. Some notable examples include, 

  1. MITx offers courses on molecular biology, where students can learn how to design experiments to test DNA replication and repair hypotheses and learn how to interpret data from such experiments. 
  2. Biochemistry, Biomolecules, Methods and Mechanisms’ is another course offered by MITx that enables students to understand how protein structure is determined, how to interpret graphs, plot behaviours, and calculate constants related to enzyme function. 
  3. The Quantitative Workshop on Biology’ is a course that enables students to write Python, MATLAB, and R code, aiding in the analysis of biological data as well as instructing students on how to examine protein structure with PyMol. HarvardX offers a similar course in programming and data analysis with MATLAB, with an emphasis on application to biology and medicine. 
  4. A course that is relatively popular with students is BioStatistics,’ offered by DoaneX, which upon completion will enable students to design experimental, quasi-experimental, and observational studies, as well as learn how to collect, analyse, and interpret data using appropriate statistical tools. 
  5. A challenging field is microscopy, where image analysis is a serious concern for students from non-engineering backgrounds. EPFLx offers a course, Image Processing and Analysis for Life Scientists,’ which covers core concepts from image acquisition to image filtering, and segmentation, using open-source solutions, ultimately enabling students to work independently on information-rich images. Johns Hopkins University, through Coursera Inc., offers Fundamental Neuroscience for Neuroimaging,’ which is designed for clinical practice and basic research and pertains to the principles of neuroimaging methods and introduces concepts necessary for a basic understanding of neuroimaging applications. 
  6. State University of New York offers a course that enables students to master Big Data analytics using real datasets, including Next Generation Sequencing data, in healthcare and biological context. 
  7. One of the key areas that require systematic honing is academic writing. Stanford University offers its trademark course, Writing in the Sciences,’ which is entirely devoted to equipping students with the necessary skills to write manuscripts, grant proposals, and general science communication. 

Taking into consideration the nature of the course content, assessment methods, and financial factors, students may benefit from custom-made online courses. Educators can design their own online courses tailor-made to suit their own students. Educators can even incorporate different academic exercises to provide holistic content. 

For instance, videos of lab demonstrations and virtual simulations can be combined with data sets and quizzes to keep students engaged and provide opportunities for discussions with peers. A challenging area for students is data analysis. Online course content that involves analysis of literature, particularly that of the methods and results sections on select topics, can be a great tool to incite critical thinking. This would enable students to closely examine the techniques applied and determine the robustness of experimental data. Exercises such as these would empower students with the know-how of methodically and clinically assessing data that is presented before them, either their own work or that of their peers. Designing courses that involve a combination of these methods would be greatly beneficial to students and would enable them to develop well-rounded research prowess. 

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, MOOCs turned into a saviour, at least to the lucky few who had the right devices and internet speeds to access them. But the growing popularity of MOOCs is a testament to the changing demands in education. Students who are looking to further their education or enhance their skill set have unique requirements and the MOOC platform is able to provide tangible benefits, such as versatility, lower financial burden, as well as a unique learning experience. 

Leaving aside the necessity of online learning, which was brought about by the pandemic, and its role as a substitute to wet labs, education right now and in the future is likely to involve blended learning, i.e. a combination of online and face-to-face instructions. MOOCs do not have to be restricted to the pandemic scenario; instead, they can be utilized to introduce innovative teaching methods, provide a platform for students with a more flexible, broadened, multi-dimensional approach to learning, and can offset the burden that future challenges to education may bring about. Additionally, it can act as a balance to a relatively rigid university curriculum. 

The main disadvantage posed by MOOCs is the attrition rates, the limited scope for personalised courseware, limited faculty interaction, as well as the digital divide. This can however be substituted through traditional classrooms. MOOCs can therefore form part of existing curricula and still provide well-structured, highly effective courses.

Recent studies indicate that there was an increase in enrolments in MOOCs offered by Coursera Inc. and Udemy Inc., with Coursera enrolling ten times more people in 2020 than in 2019. The majority comprised undergraduate students and professionals seeking to improve their technical skills. In contrast to previous studies, it was observed that there were greater instances of students completing the course and obtaining the necessary credentials to advance their career goals. This suggests that students have begun to embrace the benefits of the internet age, enabling them to learn any subject without spatial and temporal constraints.

There is ample scope for redefining online education, taking inspiration from MOOCs. A revamping will aid in the development of transferrable skills, ultimately enhancing employability in research and development sectors, like health, nutrition, pharmaceuticals, food processing, textiles, biomaterials, and agriculture. Collectively, as we move towards a period of reinvention of the education industry, it must be borne in mind that whilst learning is an active process, the way we channel education to our students also requires dynamism.