Saturday, April 27, 2013

Useful Genetics, three days in

Four days before our first lectures appear (Module 1: How different are we?), here are the latest stats:
About 1000 students have done our two surveys and the Preparation self-test.  These numbers are quite reasonable - it's well-established that most of the students who register for a Coursera course are just browsing.  We'll be interested to see how the numbers change once the lectures begin.

We're increasingly glad we opened the course a week early.  The night before last some students began reporting that they couldn't download or stream videos, though most students seemed to have no problem.  It took the Coursera engineers about 24 hrs to identify and fix the problem; I'll have to ask them whether it was caused by something that we did incorrectly or just some bug in their system.  But I'm really happy that this happened before the lectures start.  (One of my goals is to set a very positive tone at the start of the course, letting the students see that we're being helpful and responsive, so later they'll not panic when problems inevitably arise.)

There's already lots going on in the discussion forums.  We've inherited a self-titled 'Genetics Gang' from Mohammed Noor's Coursera course Introduction to Genetics and Evolution; they seem knowledgable and enthusiastic so I'm expecting them to be an asset to the course.

The file containing our DNA replication stop-motion animation is gone for good (lesson: don't create important new files inside a Dropbox folder).  I don't know if we'll have time to recreate it, so I guess I should provide an explanation for the students.  Maybe in the next 'announcement', when we announce the availability of the Module 1 materials on Wednesday.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Useful Genetics is now a real course!

We went live yesterday, a week before our first lectures will be available.  Students are viewing the introductory videos, taking the surveys and self-test,a nd posting on the discussion forum.

Only a few minor bugs:
  • Some students couldn't download the Open Genetics textbook.  We thought this might be because the ualberta server was struggling (though there wouldn't have been that many students) so we put a copy on the Coursera server and the problem went away.
  • Students found an error that had snuck into the grading of one of the self-test questions.
  • Students report that the audio volume is too low on the introductory videos.  We can adjust this for future videos.
It's quite exciting to have real students at last, but I really need to get the next videos prepared and recorded, and the TA and I need to get more quizzes done.

The TA and I spent yesterday morning trying to make a little stop-motion animation of DNA replication, in honour of DNA Day (today).  We'd announced in our introductory email that we were going to do this, and I had the excellent iStopMotion program.  We only got 5 seconds of replication recorded (moving everything around was very fussy and time-consuming), and the animation was pretty rough, but it looked OK and we were going to frame it with cute title and 'The End' animations.  But the recording file that was saved didn't include the images we'd recorded! 

I spent a couple of hours searching for another version of it, sending emails to the TA, troubleshooting the problem by recording different clips and saving them to different places.  This revealed that all files that I saved to a folder in my Dropbox had this problem, but a file saved to another location was fine.  More time invested in composing an email to iStopMotion.  But they responded very promptly, sending me a file that they say will solve the problem.  Here's hoping - we could make a much better recording if we did have to redo the whole thing, but we really can't spare the time.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Useful Genetics is about to go live!

It's high time I got back into blogging (I don't know why I stopped).

Our Coursera MOOC, Useful Genetics, goes live tomorrow!  The first set of lectures (Module 1: How different are we) won't be made available for another week (May 1), but we want to make the introductory materials available sooner, both to help students get ready for the course and to give them a chance to complete our introductory surveys before getting distracted by the lecture videos.

In addition to short Welcome and Course Logistics videos, we have three quizzes/surveys:
  •  Community survey: This is a 'tell us about yourself' survey.  The information it provides about student interests and background will help us tailor the course to the students and also be used for later research into teaching strategies.
  • Preparation self-test: This is an ungraded quiz on the background students should bring to the course (we'll be happy with solid high-school-level molecular and cell biology).  Each question has a recommended reading in an on-line high school biology textbook.  We'll also use the data for research into teaching strategies.
  • Genetics Knowledge survey: This is a modified Genetics Concept Inventory.  We're asking students to show us what genetics knowledge they already have, but we expect it will also reveal a lot of misinformation.  Again, the data will be used for research into teaching strategies.
As of today we have about 26,000 students signed up, but participation data from other MOOCs predicts that most of these will fall away within the first week.  We don't regard this high 'drop-out' rate as a failure, but as a reflection of the nature of MOOCs. The openness of MOOCs allows many people to sign up 'just to see', and most of them have no serious plans to complete the course.  Many of the rest will, quite reasonably, take a smorgasbord approach, sampling the materials and taking what they can use.

Because this is a new course, and a new approach to genetics, planning and preparing the lecture videos is an enormous amount of work.  The first and second week's lectures are in the can (well, on the server), but I realized yesterday that the draft material for the next two weeks needs a major overhaul.  Modules 3 and 4 cover how genotypes determine phenotypes, for both simple loss-pf-function mutations and natural genetic variation; I hope to get them all done before May 1.

I'm recording the videos in my office rather than in the video-production studio run by UBC's Centre for Teaching and Learning Technology.  This setup took a very long time to get working properly (many stupid glitches up until a couple of weeks ago) but now it's working OK.  Recording in my office gives the videos the non-slick feel I want them to have, and gives me much more control.  The editing turns out to be quite simple, partly because I'm happy with low production values.

CBC television's main news program, The National, will be doing a feature on MOOCs tomorrow night (April 24) - they recorded a lot of video with us in February so I'm hoping Useful Genetics will get some nice Canadian publicity.

(Now I'm off to write a long-overdue post on my research blog, RRResearch...)

Monday, March 04, 2013

Teaching personal genomics - the commercial issues

(Apologies for the long interval of dead air...)

I'm working on the video lectures for my upcoming MOOC Useful Genetics, and I'm stalled at Module 5, on personal genomics.  I know from our preliminary survey that this is something many students will be especially interested in. 

One factor that makes these videos different from the rest is that I'll be discussing services that are provided mostly by for-profit companies.  When I taught this in my face-to-face class, I found that students were particularly sensitive to this -- when I said positive things about 23andMe's interface, or marveled about how inexpensive genetic testing has become, they worried that I might have a commercial interest in the providers.

Another issue is copyright.  I don't think I can use images from commercial providers' pages without their permission, but obtaining such permissions is likely to be a big pain in the butt.

So I guess the solution is to avoid mention of specific providers, and just discuss the general types of services that are available.  Students will want to know how these analyses work, what kinds of information they provide, why consumers might choose to use such services, how to choose a particular provider, and how to interpret the information they obtain. 

The students can discuss specific providers and their services in the forums.  My job is to provide the information and issues that will help frame these discussions.  I think I'll want to explicitly explain this approach in the overview video for this module.