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Learning Genetics and Evolution Online – Coursera Review

In Sri Lanka, where I work as a research assistant in cardiology, I have limited options for pursuing my interest in the question of how evolutionary biology could be applied to human behavioral problems, the next direction I would like to take my research and career. I have been reading on evolutionary genetics of human behavior on my own, but when I came across a free online classed titled Introduction to Genetics and Evolution, I was eager to take advantage of the opportunity.

Genetics and Evolution is one of 370 (as of this writing) Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCs) available on Coursera. The class, taught by Professor Mohamed Noor of Duke University, North Carolina, U.S.A., just concluded its second iteration with over 20,000 students enrolled at the beginning. Being one of the first courses to offer “Signature Track,” a new identification verification method for Courserians, Genetics and Evolution is a MOOC to reckon with. Don’t take my word for it. The fact that it is one of the five MOOCs on Coursera evaluated and recommended by the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service attests to its stature within the MOOC universe.

In addition, the course is partly integrated with a flipped classroom version of Professor Noor’s on-campus course, ensuring that you get the same standard of quality as an on-campus course from Duke. Though both the Signature Track and for-credit options require a fee, like with most MOOCs, Introduction to Genetics and Evolution can be followed by anyone who is interested at no cost from anywhere in the world and with no pre-requisites or admissions process.

In this review, I will discuss a few highlights of this course, briefly summarizing its contents and presentation while discussing who could benefit from it and describing how I used it in my own personal experience.

What to expect – Subject material and organization

Genetics and Evolution kicks off by introducing the scientific basis for evolution, and if you are not accustomed to the intense debate over evolution and intelligent design, you probably are in for a bit of surprise to see the resistance to evolutionary theories by some factions. Professor Noor assures you that not only is there no debate among scientists about the truth of evolution but also that it is compatible with both theism and atheism, hence your beliefs should not be a hindrance to learning it.

Over the next eight weeks, the course builds from simple to more complex principles, alternating between evolution and genetics. We learned how mutations are at the heart of evolutionary forces, how these forces have shaped evolution of species from a common ancestor and how new species are formed. The principles of transmission, molecular and population genetics necessary to comprehend the subject add great depth to the course. We also learned some famous applications and misapplications of this knowledge. At the end of the tenth week you would know how 3.5 billion years of evolution is shaping life on the planet one mutation at a time and how or why it is relevant to our everyday lives!

Each week’s lectures are about one to one-and-a-half hours. Four or five hours per week would be sufficient to follow the course, but that could vary depending on your involvement, especially in the forums where all things MOOC happen. Should you encounter any difficulty, there’s plenty of support along the way in the form of extra resources and forum discussions.

I have one caveat about the timing, though. Some MOOCs can be followed by just auditing, merely listening to the lectures without much proactive attempt to understand the material, but that probably won’t work with Genetics and Evolution. Here you are not only given the theoretical knowledge but also how to apply some of the principles to solve problems which are tested in weekly quizzes and exams. Therefore, you need to learn how to apply the concepts in order to successfully complete this class.

MOOC discussion forums – Where the massive part happens

No review of this course would be complete without at least a few words about the forums. In this class, they are well structured and moderated by Community Teaching Assistants who are canny enough to keep the discussions on track while not policing your expressions, so to speak. I don’t think all MOOCs have assistants like this – not even the first iteration of this class – but they definitely are used very effectively in the second iteration. They not only moderate the forums but help with subject matter with their excellent knowledge of the course and its content. They have access to the instructor and draw his attention to concerns that they themselves may not be able to respond to effectively. Overall, they play a great role in making this class more effective.

You will find that a mere attempt to formulate a comment or a query on the MOOC discussion forums make you understand a difficult concept better. Once you take the time to write a comment, by the time you are about to post it you are already clearer about it. Though it’s entirely up to the student to take part in the forums or to decide how to make use of them, I recommend that any student at least spend some time on the forums, as it is a big part of the MOOC culture, especially in Genetics and Evolution. The professor even offered extra credit for his on-campus students for taking part in online forums.

There is no shortage of enthusiastic fellow Courserians waiting eagerly to support you. You would find a wide range of individuals of different ages and backgrounds enrolled in the course: home-schoolers, undergraduates, graduate students, parents and teachers, prospective students considering Duke University and retirees. They range from serious students of biology to people already employed in related jobs, such as science writers and those who work in biology laboratories.  I also met many animal and nature lovers in these forums.

The professor himself does directly contribute a lot to the discussions. (In the spring 2013 term, he personally started six threads and made 174 posts and 189 comments).  With some luck you may even get the opportunity to meet him and a handful of students in a Google Hangout during the term. Professor Noor is popular; students simply love him. He is popular not because he stands there and shines but because he steps down and mingles with students, is casual in his approach, listens to their views and has a good sense of humor. Whoever thought MOOCs are making inaccessible celebrities out of academics, have not taken the Genetics and Evolution MOOC from Professor Noor! His philosophy seems to be the opposite.

Fellow students, Community Teaching Assistants and the Professor himself together build a camaraderie on these forums that is worth experiencing, which not only facilitates your learning but carries well beyond the end of the class.

How to navigate and succeed in this MOOC

Be clear of your objective. Are you following this just to get a general idea of the subject or to study it a bit in depth? How important are the different types of certification available?

You may not notice that the lectures in Introduction to Genetics and Evolution are coded G and S for General and Specialized, respectively. If your initial knowledge is somewhat less than average, try to use these codes wisely by first sticking to the general lectures and moving on to specialized ones as you gain confidence. Go through the syllabus at the start the summary of each week’s summary to anticipate what to expect.

The ungraded weekly practice problem set is a good way to see if you have mastered the key concepts. Once you are confident with key concepts, do the graded weekly quiz. The score is carried forward to your final course results.

In each case, if there’s something that is unclear, you can see if the additional general resources are helpful. If not, you can go to the forums. Use and contribute to the forums wisely. Respect the nuances and ambiance in them. There are many threads, so it’s easy to lose your way. Always remember the objective and prioritize participation according to the time you have. If you wish, you can form your own study groups with others in the forums depending on your inclinations.

Make your own notes and compare them with other students. Revise your notes for the midterm and final exams and make a compilation of the mathematical concepts and formulas you will be learning. As the exams usually are open note, you may not need to learn them by heart.

Read instructions on the site about the course, forums and exams, even if you are not new to MOOCs, because they vary from other courses. Be aware of the times, time zones and deadlines.

These are some general tips, but find out what works for you. Above all, have fun, don’t be too serious and don’t hesitate to ask questions and engage with others. Of all the diverse students enrolled, one common attribute to success is self-motivation and discipline; cultivate those qualities throughout the course. They will be useful in other areas of your life too.

How Genetics and Evolution was useful in my personal journey

Though I currently work as a research assistant in cardiology, I am looking at the possibility of getting involved in further study of and research in evolutionary biology of human behavioral problems. In the past I’ve worked in research projects across diverse sectors, including marketing, social work, education and mental health, with a brief teaching stint in psychology during which I developed my interest in human behavior. The interest in learning evolutionary perspectives on health and illness, especially that of human behavior and its disorders, is different from my initial qualifications in medicine, which I moved out from, some time back, to explore alternative career options.

As I said at the beginning, where I live in Sri Lanka, and as a working adult, it is not easy for me to further my education. I have limited-to-no options to pursue the specific interdisciplinary niche I am interested in here, and my current work as you can see, is not necessarily in line with my long-term goals. So when I came across the Genetics and Evolution class on Coursera, I found it to be right up my alley.

I am pleased to say this MOOC has guided my awareness of sub-areas in the broad subject of evolutionary biology that I need to familiarize myself with in order to study its application in human behavioral problems. It has enabled me to be aware of and bridge the knowledge gaps I have. That may help me to make a shift from what I do now to what I aspire to be doing in the longer run. This class has helped me to find and refine what inner interests I have, so I can proceed accordingly, reducing the turbulence in my search for suitable research programs.

With the foundation and direction I got from this course, I followed up with another short MOOC on Neuro-anthropology of Human Evolution and am currently following one on Genes and the Human Condition that focuses on the evolution of human behavioral traits and problems. I’ll also be following Human Evolution, Past and Future, scheduled to begin next January, as I think it would be interesting and useful to know about the future of human evolution too. Meanwhile, I am contemplating enrolling in another MOOC on epigenetics, as the latter courses on human evolution, specifically the one on behavior, has shown me the growing importance of epigenetics in this field.

Though I may not earn a formal qualification from this course (or other MOOCs), it will be useful in showing my enthusiasm and interest in the subject to prospective employers or research supervisors in this field and help me to successfully pursue my interest in the evolution of human behavior beyond MOOCs. Even today, as a course that’s built on basic scientific principles, it has already helped me articulate my own thoughts and views with more precision in my current work.

Coursera Review — A few final thoughts

This was my first MOOC, and fresh out of it, my views may be biased toward optimism. The course may have shortcomings and limitations, but they are far out-numbered by positives. My personal experience has been an immensely positive one, and I therefore couldn’t help focusing on them.

To sum it all up, the Introduction to Genetics and Evolution MOOC is a well-structured class with very good depth and breadth by a brilliant instructor from an excellent educational institution. The ambiance it creates during the course is very supportive and stimulating. Therefore, it’s up to you, the only missing variable in the equation, to make the best out of it. I hope my review has given a few cues as to why you should consider this MOOC and how you could go about successfully using it for your benefit.

Finally, I recommend this class to anyone who longs to understand our lives on this planet, anyone who has questioned the purpose of our existence. It’s about us, our place here on earth. Why are we who we are today? Why are we where we are today? Why do we do the things we do? In short, apart from other benefits discussed above, it could be a great crash-course on humility in the otherwise fast-paced and hectic lives we lead.

Ruchira Kitsiri (2 Posts)

Graduated in medicine, I moved out from clinical practice to explore alternative career options. Having worked in research projects across diverse sectors including market, social, education and mental health and a brief teaching stint in psychology, I now work as a research assistant in Cardiology. But my interest is in learning genetics and neuroscience of human behavior and its problems from an evolutionary perspective for which MOOCs have been very helpful.


2 Comments

  1. Great to read about such a well-organized and meaningful course, and about your own educational journey. This kind of thing is exactly what MOOCs are made for, it seems. Good luck with your continued studies and possible career expansion!

    • Thanks