Genetic MOOC

Course: Introduction to Genetics and Evolution
School: Duke via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Mohamed Noor
Introduction to Genetics and Evolution is a college-level class being offered simultaneously to new students at Duke University. The course gives interested people a very basic overview of some principles behind these very fundamental areas of biology. We often hear about new “genome sequences,” commercial kits that can tell you about your ancestry (including pre-human) from your DNA or disease predispositions, debates about the truth of evolution, why animals behave the way they do, and how people found “genetic evidence for natural selection.” This course provides the basic biology you need to understand all of these issues better, tries to clarify some misconceptions, and tries to prepare students for future, more advanced coursework in Biology.
…The genetics lectures are limited to basic transmission genetics, recombination, genetic mapping, and basic quantitative genetics….The evolution topics covered in the present course are largely confined to “microevolution”…

[addendum: This course has been modified to fit the new Coursera platform. The experience may be very different]

How good is this course, you wanna know? It’s so good, that although I had no particular interest in genetics or evolution, although I only signed up because some friends of mine from another course were enthusiastic about it, and I happened to have no classes running during the week it started, although I planned to drop it in W2 or W3 when other courses, courses I was definitely interested in, started – in spite of all that, it became the centerpiece of my MOOCing for the past eleven weeks, and by far my favorite course of the Winter session.

That’s what a great MOOC can do.

It starts with a great professor, in this case, Mohamed Noor. He’s the kind of guy who can use “bee-bop around” and “stochastic forces” in the same sentence and it sounds perfectly natural. He’s the kind of guy who seems so relaxed and personable, it’s hard to believe he’s a science professor at a prestigious university, while at the same time he evinces such command over a wide swathe of complex theory and practice, including the current state of research, that it’s hard to believe he’s bothering to talk to mere students. He’s the kind of guy who uses the three major releases of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” as an analogy for relative reproductive fitness, and pulls it off. He’s the kind of guy who lectures in t-shirts with a bobble-head Darwin and a painting of a drosophila (fruit fly, the geneticist’s go-to critter) on the whiteboard behind him, without giving the sense that he’s trying too hard (his faculty profile shows him in a suit and tie, and that’s the shot that looks forced to me). For a sample, here’s a pastiche of “catch phrases” from the course, brilliantly cobbled together by a student from the 2013 run of the course.

While the course was fun, it wasn’t easy. In the live Hangout just before the final exam, a student told Dr. Noor, “You really made us work, man.” Yep: the official estimate is 5 -6 hours, but it took me more like 10 – 12 hours (I’m slow). And I loved every minute. If you’re not up to investing that kind of work, there is another option: some of the lecture videos are labeled as “General”; they give an overview of the topics, but don’t go into details of calculation or the many variations possible. GenEv Light, as it were. OF course, there’s always the risk you’ll get sucked in…

Each week started with a set of lecture videos, but that was only the beginning. I’d take careful notes, felt like I understood everything, and then… a series of practice problems left me going, “Huh?” Working through the problems gave me a much better sense of what population genetics could show, or how epistasis works, beyond the definition. A variety of other supplementary materials (software, definitions, articles, etc.) was included, and collaboration was not only welcomed, it was planned for on the message boards with weekly “Most Confusing?” and “Practice Problems” threads organized by the CTAs.

Student discussion of graded problem sets was also encouraged in an entire subforum organized by the Staff TA. This may seem like it would make the problems a piece of cake, but most of them required interpretation and analysis of the material, not just regurgitation of facts or calculation via formulas, meaning often there was a kind of debate between Team Answer A and team Answer C with Team Answer E raising a few good points as well. These boards were closely monitored, not for “cheating” but for excessive confusion; though the need was rare, on occasion a question would be clarified – ju- u- u – ust a little tiny bit – and in a way that wouldn’t help unless you understood the issue thoroughly in the first place.

By the way – it’s not easy to design questions like that. It’s a lot simpler to pick a key sentence from the lecture, rephrase it, and frame it as sentence completion, but asking something like, “What type of selection might you imagine operates on running speed in cheetahs?” or “Earlier in the semester, we discussed overdominance and the example of sickle-cell anemia. If you were to look at such a case, what might you expect in terms of the McDonald-Kreitman test’s predictions?” (both actual practice questions) takes more effort. Answering them requires a lot more than a complete set of notes.

Another nice detail was the structure and pacing of the course. An optional introductory set of lectures dealt with the evolution vs religion question pretty thoroughly. The midterm was scheduled for a week when no new material was released, meaning time could be spent on review and preparation. But it showed in subtler ways as well: I found weeks 2 and 7 to be particularly difficult, and weeks 3 and 8 were particularly “fun”; week 8, by the way, included sexual selection, including some amusing behaviors of various species. Though we were cautioned against anthropomorphizing any of that, it was easy to draw a parallel between the “song” of the water mite and the kind of conversational cues that might facilitate or discourage a human couple’s romantic connection. With my penchant for similarities in opposites, I drew a connection between what Peter Struck called the “cute puppy syndrome” used by Virgil in The Aeneid to make Dido more naturally attracted to Aeneas, and the egg-carrying behavior of the male waterbug that tends to increase its mating possibilities. A fun week, after having torn my hair out over the molecular clock.

The discussion forums were as rich and valuable as the rest of the material. The CTAs were terrific (I knew some of them from other courses, primarily Origins), both in directing discussions of the material (“check the last two minutes of lecture 3; do you see how that relates to your question?”) and in offering auxiliary discussions (“DNA in the News” was a popular thread, as was “Humor,” of course). The course TA mostly operated behind the scenes, except for the Hangouts, but a course like this doesn’t just happen; the day-to-day technical running, the release of materials, link posting, etc., all takes attention and work, and he did a great job. Fellow students were helpful and encouraging as well. And, as in any course dealing with this material, occasionally discussions got heated; this was kept under control by CTAs and staff refocusing on the course material and forbidding anything approaching disrespect. Again, that takes a lot of work, both to monitor, and to ameliorate without getting heavy-handed.

Most of the “grade” for the course depended on a timed midterm and a timed final; discussion of these was firmly forbidden, so even if you could bluff your way through the problem sets, you were on your own for these – which used similar question structures as the problem sets, but tweaked the situations just a little.

Timed tests can be problematic for some, for technical reasons; this is the first time I’ve encountered the brilliant idea to break the timed tests up into two separate sessions. Students, particularly those from countries with less-than-dependable internet connectivity or, for that matter, electricity, sometimes find they end up with scores of 0 due to technical issues (or, simply from not following instructions and going over the time limit); this two-tests process assures that at least half the score can be salvaged. Problems still happen – but it’s a simple way to make them less likely, and to make non-academic technical issues, or simple user errors (clicking “Submit” by accident seems popular) less costly.

I was very worried about these timed exams. I tend to work very slowly; and, I get confused after relatively short periods and need a break. These were fair exams, though, modeled on the problem sets, but not copying them. I did a lot of review for both exams – re-watched the videos (at 1.5 speed, it was pretty funny), re-did the problem sets. To my surprise, I aced the midterm (I don’t know my “grade” on the final yet, though I doubt I did that well; I’ll admit, I didn’t put as much effort into it, so I didn’t deserve to do as well). I don’t usually brag about scores in these posts, since they don’t usually mean much, but this score meant something. That 100% required some degree of understanding. I earned it. The test was designed to make me earn it – and the course was designed to make me want to earn it.

That’s what a MOOC can be. That’s what a teacher can do.


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