This blog post is a little different than the rest. I normally write about scientific research – either my own or what others have done – but this time I’m writing about something else: MOOCs.

You might have heard of MOOCs (massive open online courses) before; if not, here’s a brief history. The first modern MOOC came on the scene in 2008, but they didn’t really start to take off until 2011 when several renowned universities (Stanford, for example) began converting some of their traditional classroom courses into online courses. This was revolutionary. A university making its product freely available to anyone in the world? In capitalist societies, it’s almost unheard of! Tens of thousands of people signed up for these courses and walked away with experience equivalent to university curricula, many times having directly communicated with the professors themselves. And the professors were rewarded with a potential classroom size expanding to cover the entire globe, reaching out to more students than they ever had before.

During the past year, I have become closely acquainted with one MOOC in particular: Useful Genetics, taught by Dr. Rosemary Redfield (a long time supporter of “open science”). The course is at the second-year university level – a direct equivalent of BIOL 233 at the University of British Columbia – and targets people with solid genetic fundamentals and who want to a) satisfy their craving for more, b) apply their knowledge to the real world, c) get a head start on their courses, or d) all of the above. I work as a teaching assistant, answering students’ questions on the discussion forum and refining course material. This has been my first and only experience with a MOOC so far (I’m a little embarrassed to admit that prior to 2015, I didn’t even know what a MOOC was), and let me say, it never ceases to impress me. Here’s a look behind the scenes.


First of all, UBC has stood behind the course from the start, funding salaries for technical support and teaching assistants (like myself) for years. Sure, running a course (or two, or twenty-four) like this helps improve their public image and global presence, but I also like to think that at some level, the value of what we provide is recognized.

Secondly, the MOOC community is unlike any that I have seen before. We have a team of “community TAs” – people who have taken the course in the past and want to volunteer to give back to the community. Most of them have been dedicated to the course longer than I have and offer invaluable help on the discussion forum. They are always there to answer students’ questions (often faster than me) and flag things for me to fix. I can honestly say that I have never before seen a group of volunteers so committed to their task – by doing this, they’ve created a dimension to the course that couldn’t exist without them. They (and the active students) are the ones who keep the course alive.

Finally, an objective often missed in science courses is teaching effective communication. Learning to communicate to an audience of fellow scientists is hard enough, but an audience of non-scientists is harder still. To explain complex ideas without assumptions of prior knowledge, to do it clearly and without using jargon – now that’s a tough task, and one that is surprisingly de-emphasized in most science classes. But not in Useful Genetics. The novel “Peer Explain” assignments require students to explain complicated (and sometimes controversial) genetic topics in a way that an average person can grasp. This is a skill all of us can work on, and why I started this blog in the first place.

If anything I have written here interests you, please visit our facebook page or tell us what you think in the comments below. Better yet, consider signing up for the course through the edX website. The course is a living thing; we are always looking for ways to improve and refine it, and your suggestions are key! Thank you.