Massive Open Online Courses: Huge potential for bioinformatics education

Author: Rachael Dellar - 2014-10-13

Over the past 5 years, there has been a revolution in higher education with the arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These freely accessible courses represent a new generation of online education, provided by some of the top-ranked universities in the world and geared toward huge numbers of students.

In the words of the Stanford-academic-turned-MOOC-founder Andrew Ng, the demand for such high-quality online educational platforms is 'growing faster than Facebook', and with his own site, Cousera, boasting over 9 million members from 190 countries, he may well be right.

As a UK student of biochemistry and genetics transitioning without formal university education into the world of public health in South Africa, I have found MOOCs to be an incredible resource. I have learnt the basics of epidemiology from academics at UNC Chapel Hill and PennState, and large-scale biostatistics, bioinformatics and programming from world-leaders at Johns Hopkins. These courses, combined with more traditional books and journals, gave me a solid knowledge base which allowed me to streamline my learning when I got to engage face-to-face with my mentors.

More recently, and of particular relevance to SATuRN, after being awarded a fellowship to work with Professor Tulio de Oliveira on understanding the transmission of HIV infection to adolescent girls in rural South Africa using phylogenetic approaches at the Wellcome Trust Africa Centre of Health and Population Studies, I have taken a fantastic course in computational molecular evolution run by the Technical University of Denmark. Spanning from introductory lectures on evolutionary theory to more advanced modules on Bayesian inferences of phylogeny, the course has really helped me to conceptually understand what is going on 'behind the scenes' in the CPU when phylogenetic models are running.

Most MOOCs are very flexible and so you can engage with them as much or as little as you like. For some modules where I feel comfortable with the subject, I tend to just watch a few lectures. For others where the material is less familiar (as well as science I also enjoy some of the courses on philosophy and history), or if I need to acquire a certificate for completion, I try to complete all lectures, quizzes and assignments.

The great advantage of these courses is that you can get top-quality education anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Together with TedTalks, and the rest of educational 'digital tsunami', they represent a fantastic capacity-building resource, particularly in developing countries where traditional educational methods may be harder to access at high-quality. I am therefore very pleased to recommend them as a tool for bioinformatics education to the SATuRN partners.

Rachael Dellar, Research Fellow at Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies



UNC Chapel Hill Cousera

Penn State Cousera

Johns Hopkins Cousera

Computational molecular evolution run by the Technical University of Denmark



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KRISP has been created by the coordinated effort of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) and the South African Medical Research Countil (SAMRC).

Location: K-RITH Tower Building
Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, UKZN
719 Umbilo Road, Durban, South Africa.
Director: Prof. Tulio de Oliveira