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Online education: Can it help us become better scientists?

Posted By Connections Editor, Monday, January 5, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Eugenia (Kena) Flores-Figueroa1 and Peter van Galen2


1) Oncological Research Unit at the Mexican Institute of Social Health, Mexico City, Mexico  2) Massachusetts General Hospital and Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, USA.


In 1990, before the commercial use of the World Wide Web existed, Steve Jobs referred to the computer as “the bicycle for our minds” to explain how he envisioned the use of computers as “the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with”. He explained that he invented his analogy while reading an article in Scientific American. The article was about an interspecies comparison on the efficiency of locomotion in which man was at the third lowest place. But a man riding a bicycle was at the top of the list, even above the condor (which was the most efficient species). Jobs’ vision is now a reality, personal computers are our most valuable tool in modern life- they have transformed our lives. We use them daily in our jobs, for entertainment, and most of all, as a portal to retrieve information through the internet. The paradox is that we are now facing a challenge in the quality of information we find online.


Eighty seven percent of internet users in the United States recognized that the Web helps them learn new things: they feel more informed about products and services to buy, news, and popular culture. Academic information was not one of the top topics on that list. Despite accelerated growth of worldwide internet usage in the past 14 years (over 700%, ref. 1), online education has been growing slowly, and it has been facing faculty resistance. According to the Babson Survey (2013), faculty acceptance of online courses in 2012 was at the same percentage (around 30%) as in 2004, and only 6% above the first poll in 2002 (2). We think online courses are a great way to increase accessibility of education and we will explain how they can be used to expand your knowledge and skillset as a scientist.


How can I get started?


If there is a topic you would like to know more about, there is bound to be a course about it. Check out the websites below and find the most appropriate course for you. You can watch lectures at your own pace and work on assignments when you have time. If you are looking for a specific subject, you can select lectures accordingly. For the first author of this paper, courses on writing in the sciences and public speaking had improved her skills as scientist.

For the second author of this article, following courses on Unix and Python on was essential to get him started with the analysis of high-throughput sequencing data. If you are interested in getting an in-depth overview of the entire course subject, or if you draw motivation from working with peers, you should consider becoming more involved with massive open online courses (MOOCs).


What are MOOCs and what they have to offer?


MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are formal online courses that offer education and training for college and graduate students. These courses not only take advantage of computer-based material methods (videos, graphics, online quizzes), but they build a community around that course and offer a new learning experience. They are offered by both non-profit and for-profit organizations. For scientists, it is a great opportunity to practice peer review, as you grade your classmates, and you get the chance to compare your work with that of others. You can choose to learn at your own pace or follow the course timeframe with weekly tasks that you can fit in your schedule at any time you choose. You are given feedback on your learning, and you have the chance to repeat a lesson until you master it. MOOCs are expanding to on and off-campus courses, as some institutions are taking advantage of this new method of learning, and they are incorporating MOOCs as part of their curricula, replacing traditional courses.

MOOCs give you the opportunity to enrich your undergraduate and graduate studies with courses from the most prestigious universities. For young investigators and PIs, the flexibility helps to fit these courses in your busy agendas, and give you the chance to keep learning and keep improving. It also provides an opportunity to acquire training through courses that are not easy to find otherwise, such as mentor and manager training which is usually not a part of a science curriculum..

With MOOCs, massive, can really mean massive? In august 2012, Coursera (one of the for-profit organizations) hit 1 million users in over 192 countries and today they have over 10 million users. You can find a variety of classes, from basic to advanced statistics, computational biology, scientific writing, public speaking, data acquisition and analysis and genetics, to mention some.


Five tips to succeed with MOOC


1.- Commit

MOOCs have created a new way of learning, and even a new way to commit, as nobody is taking assistance, your professor will not give you a warning if you do not show up and your classmates will not judge you if you do not answer the questions correctly, but YOUR conscience will. You are your own judge and you will receive the benefits of completing the course, this is all about personal commitment.


2.- Follow course recommendations

Each course has specific requirements, on background knowledge and the time you need to invest. Follow those recommendations, if they are advertised as an advanced statistics course, do not enroll if you do not have that level.


3.- Start with one course

Once you start browsing for courses, you may feel like a kid in a candy store and be tempted by the various academic offers. Our recommendation is to start with one course and take one at a time.


4.- Customize to your needs

You can optimize your experience to your own preferences. If you want to learn something specific, appropriate lectures can be selected and watched individually. But if you want to get the whole experience, watch the videos, read the supplemental material (many courses give you extra references or extra quizzes), and join the forums and social media. All the materials are designed to improve your learning experience.


5.- Schedule it in your agenda

Choose a day and time to take your online course. The format is so open and mobile (you can watch videos and access the content on your smartphone and tablet) that you will be able to access it at any time, and if you feel that you are getting behind, you will be able to catch up at any time; however, sometimes that time never comes. So it is better to schedule it.




In the late 1800s, distant education was achieved through correspondence. Now, new technology has reshaped the format of distant courses to online education, but the idea of offering low cost or free education to the masses is still the same. Online education offers a win/win situation for both students and faculty. It has contributed to the improvement of the quality of the information on the internet and it is a way to market and position many institutions worldwide. It represents a new tool that comes with new rules. Some academics are still afraid of the repercussions of this new model of education, but those who embrace it stand to benefit a great deal.

Where to start










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