The wonders of Medical Neuroscience

MOOC. People have been hailing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as the next big thing in higher education. Accordingly, the number of people complaining about their failures is now substantial. MOOCs are following the usual hype cycle and we could close the post here. Then again, I recently became a MOOC disciple and need to vent some  praise of a course on the Coursera platform that people reading this blog should be aware of: Medical Neuroscience presented by Leonard White (Duke).

No WebMD. The course is a 12 weeks course that  in a classical medical neuroscience course for the health professions covering the basics of neuroanatomy, neuronal activity, the motor and sensory pathway, the developing brain and cognition. When I –  bioinformatician trained as an biotech engineer –  started working with clinicians a year ago, it was pretty apparent that I had to expand at least my vocabulary to converse  such as Ingo in our projects. I’ve tried a few books and courses, but only this course gave me some satisfaction in getting comfortable with the topic.

Blood supply

The blood supply – what I try to learn tonight (finally). Images taken from Wikipedia under public domain. Although I should have better drawn it myself to final get it into my head.

Time. I know what you’re thinking and you’re right. Where did I find the time to listen to  lectures, filling in quizzes and actual learning, amounting to 12 hours a week? However, once you’re hooked it get’s easy. Just don’t ask me anything in French (which I should be studying given my job in Luxembourg), discuss weight gain or sports. Also, you don’t have wonder why I no longer get mad when my commuter trains are delayed. You can’t even say I didn’t read any books. I actually did (Purves’ “Neuroscience”, the course textbook). The demands are reflected in the number of participants in this course are sobering: around 44,000 people signed up for the course, 8362 took the evaluation exam. I expect maybe 200 participants to complete the course from the numbers presented on the course website.

Frontal Neuroscience. One of criticisms on MOOCs in general is that the classes are presented as classical lectures, not in interactive sessions. Some topics are best presented as lectures and neuroscience is amongst them. The course is not revolutionary. On the contrary, it builds on the long experience of White in this profession and he makes only modest use of hangouts and discussion forums. Obviously, the course can not replace the fun and insight one might experience in working on brain specimen or doing experiments, but it’s so much superior to a simple text book. If you are giving lectures in neuroscience, you should spend some hours on the course – not only listening to a lecture or reading the tutorial notes but go as far as doing the quizzes. Don’t get mad when you’re getting only 80%. White is an amazing teacher and I found myself imitating his focus, calm style this morning when working with students (yes, that’s how pervasive online courses can get). Give your PhD students the possibility to learn neuroscience and don’t have a good neuroanatomist close by, consider this course. That’s unfortunately not a general statement for all MOOCs on Coursera or other platforms. Some courses out there are pretty horrible and I am writing this post also to ensure that White’s course comes back in the near future. You can add yourself to the watch list. I am confident that it will as he’s been mentioning the possibility to often in recent lectures. Obviously, I aim on passing and continue with my life elsewhere. Or other courses. Probably other courses.

Roland Krause

Roland is a bioinformatician at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine. He received his undergraduate degree in biotechnological engineering and a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Heidelberg. His postdoc was in computational biology at the MPI for Molecular Genetics, Berlin, shared with the computer science and math department of the Free University Berlin.

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