Friday, March 15, 2013

Course Review: MIT 700x

Introductory Biology, the Secret of Life, taught by Eric Lander of Harvard and MIT, is the best Massive Online Open (MOOC) course I've met yet, and maybe the best course I've ever had. I've now been in a few of these MOOC courses, having finished Spanish at Duolingo (really excellent), and Control of Mobile Robots from Georgia Tech via Coursera (ditto) and currently enrolled in a few other courses from edX, Udacity, and Coursera. Lander's course is demanding, and I'm not sure I will have time to complete it, but I'm learning a lot. Let me mention a few features which I think work very well:

His lectures are taught in front of a classroom full of students, who occasionally ask questions. In his case, at least, this is preferable to the usual talking head in front of a camera. The lectures come in short segments, interupted by frequent mini-quizzes. The problem sets are both challenging and fun. There is a lot of work with software that allows manipulation and visualization of molecules.

I should mention that this introductory biology is not your granddad's (or my) introductory biology, but molecular biology. Ecosystems, organisms, tissues and even cells are out of the picture: the focus is squarely on the molecular basis of life. Lander has both tremendous enthusiasm for his subject and a real gift for presenting the essential features in a lucid fashion. Of course I might have been a little taken aback by the enthusiasm he showed for the cunning of the influenza virus in its infectious technique.

This course really shows the potential of the MOOC course, I think, as well as the soundness of the edX consortium in concentrating on the delivery platform.

Some called last year the year of the MOOC, and it seems likely that the MOOC now has too much momentum to be derailed. The financial underpinnings are still very shaky, of course, but California's ongoing effort to unload introductory courses to the internet looks like the kind of event that will provide a huge push.

It seems that the maintenance of the private jets and super yachts of the hyper rich has sucked too much money out of the system to permit conventional education of any but the children of those rich.