Epidemics MOOC: Expanding Free Access to Education

Sep 24, 2014 | Joseph Wu, Chao Quan, Matthew Ferrari and Emily Cohn | Commentary

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have been heralded as the future of learning. The New York Times dubbed 2012 as ‘The Year of the MOOC’. Since then, MOOCs have expanded into an ever wider array of subjects.

MOOCs derive their name from the following:

  • ‘Massive’ - because there are typically thousands of students,
  • ‘Open’ - to everyone, free of charge,
  • ‘Online’ - allowing access to anyone in the world, simply with an internet connection. 

Released on the Coursera platform in 2013, “Epidemics – the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases” was the first MOOC to address the ecology of infectious diseases. Produced by faculty at Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, the MOOC brought together perspectives from eight faculty to address four topic areas: What are parasites? How do hosts protect themselves from and respond to infection by parasites? How do parasites emerge and spread through populations? And what are the mechanisms and consequences of our efforts to control parasites?

“As long as there is life, there will be infectious disease,” according to course faculty member Marcel Salathe. The goal of the course is to illustrate how so much of our life is structured and impacted by the presence of parasitic organisms and the various measures that we take to limit their negative impact.

The University of Hong Kong (HKUx) will launch its MOOC titled “Epidemics” on September 23rd, featuring nine HKU faculty members, as well as Professor Marc Lipsitch, from the Harvard School of Public Health and Dr. Mark Jit, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This course has an emphasis on public health and is structured around four themes: the origins of novel pathogens, the spread of infectious diseases, the preventive and control measures to contain outbreaks, and the risk communication strategies for public health preparedness.

Malik Peiris, a professor in infectious diseases and Director of the School of the Public Health at the University of Hong Kong, described one of numerous questions to be addressed in his MOOC as “The remarkable improvement in lifespan through the 20th Century owes much to the containment of infectious diseases. However, new emerging infections continue to arise to challenge us and it is important to understand why”. Professor Peiris will be leading the first week of HKUx “Epidemics”.

The two “Epidemics” MOOCs have the potential to expand access to elite college education, irrespective of age, income, or location. This prospect has excited Malik Peiris who is thrilled by the enthusiasm shown by the thousands of students already registering for this course. Faculty at Penn State were equally “stunned by the excitement and inquisitiveness of the online learners,” according to course faculty member Matthew Ferrari. The course had over 28,000 learners at launch and attained a completion rate of nearly 20%.  One key to the success of this course was the direct engagement with the online learners through an online forum and an optional interactive epidemic simulation game, called MOOCdemic. “The forum acted like a huge, 24 hour classroom, where learners and faculty members could discuss topics from the course and new questions that were arising from the headlines of the day,” according to Ferrari.  Course faculty, and eight dedicated graduate students, participated in forum discussions throughout the course and selected questions for specific video responses each week. The online game, MOOCdemic, had over 10,000 players around the world and engaged players in the detection, spread, and containment of a real-time, virtual epidemic.

The Penn State “Epidemics” MOOC involved learners from 158 countries around the world. Over one quarter of learners identified themselves as currently employed, and over half of those were working in either health, science, or education fields. “One of the great benefits of MOOCs is the ability to generate an informed community of learners, who can drive an engaging discussion and help educate each other with their breadth of experience,” Ferrari goes on to say, “The goal of the forums and the game was to foster that interaction”.

In the HKUx “Epidemics” MOOC, Peiris is part of an inter-disciplinary team of eleven experts. He reveals, “Our experiences of fighting previous epidemics such as the 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong showed that we needed a comprehensive skillset to tackle the outbreak. That’s why we’re bringing together laboratory microbiologists, infectious disease epidemiologists, public health physicians and media journalists, both locally and internationally, to collaborate in this course.”

A particular highlight for Peiris is the capstone panel discussions on crisis management with leading public health experts such as Dr Thomas Tsang, former Controller of the Centre of Health Protection (an institution created in the aftermath of SARS). Peiris explains, “Sharing our collective experiences of combating infectious diseases with students around the world can lead to a better understanding of the threat of epidemics.”

The Penn State course launches again on 29 Sept 2014.  This year, the faculty have added new “case study” videos detailing current research on co-infections with multiple parasites, the role of the microbiome in maintaining health, and the mechanisms by which some viruses persist for years in our bodies.  The weekly video responses to forum questions will continue again this year, with guest experts brought in to address the current topics in the news, such as the continuing Ebola outbreak, MERS, and the resurgence of polio. The MOOCdemic game will also run again in tandem with the course.

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