Our regular readers are well familiar with the bioinformatics online courses, books and Rosalind developed by Pavel Pevzner’s group. The 2013 article “MOOC or MOOR: Is Research the Next Frontier for Online Education?” described what they were going to do, and a new article by (“Life After MOOCs”) provides their recent perspective on the experience.
Three years ago, Moshe Vardi published an editorial in Communications expressing concerns about the pedagogical quality of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and including the sentiment, “If I had my wish, I would wave a wand and make MOOCs disappear.”9 His editorial was followed by studies highlighting various limitations of MOOCs (see Karsenti5 for a review).
We share the concerns about the quality of early primitive MOOCs, which have been hyped by many as a cure-all for education.
When Will Massive Open Online Courses Disappear?
Was the printing press a worthwhile invention? This may seem like a silly question, but some of the backlash against early MOOCs reminds us of a criticism of the printing press made by the prominent 15th-century polymath Johannes Trithemius. Believing printed books were inferior to hand-copied manuscripts, Trithemius wrote, “The printed book is made of paper and, like paper, will quickly disappear.”
Anyone who has witnessed the beauty of a Renaissance illuminated manuscript can sympathize with Trithemius. Likewise, anyone who has attended a lecture delivered by a brilliant teacher in a small classroom can sympathize with Vardi. Yet in reality, contemporary higher education often falls short of this ideal.
We have the same vision as Compeau/Pevzner regarding the role of MOOC as an innovative technology, just like the arrival of printing press during Renaissance. However, the title of this blog post is about another matter.
The MOOCs got so much criticism, because they have been sold as replacements of classrooms and teachers. In reality, they are replacements or enhancements of textbooks. That is because the video-based MOOCs, just like text-based books, do not have the feedback element built in them. Motivated people may learn topics by reading textbooks, whereas videos from authors may make the experience more interesting. Seeing from that way, MOOCs appear like a natural progression (books –> books with black and white figures –> books with colored figures –> videos).
Pevzner and his team thought through that aspect and built Rosalind to add an interactive (and adaptive) element into their course. Everyone I introduced Rosalind to came to like it.
My only criticism of Pevzner’s approach of bioinformatics - it is devoid of fundamental questions and appears like an engineering discipline. That is a serious drawback, because a scientific field is defined by the questions being asked by its practitioners or as Carl Woese said - ‘a guiding vision’. Hopefully, as people come to terms with the technological breakthroughs, they will get back to asking questions as described here. In this context, readers may enjoy Carl Woese’s
[A New Biology for a New Century
Science is impelled by two main factors, technological advance and a guiding vision (overview). A properly balanced relationship between the two is key to the successful development of a science: without the proper technological advances the road ahead is blocked. Without a guiding vision there is no road ahead; the science becomes an engineering discipline, concerned with temporal practical problems. In its heyday the representation that came to dominate and define 20th century biology, molecular biology, was a rich and inspiring blend of the two. By the end of the 20th century, however, the molecular vision of biology had in essence been realized; what it could see of the master plan of the living world had been seen, leaving only the details to be filled in. How else could one rationalize the strange claim by some of the world’s leading molecular biologists (among others) that the human genome (a medically inspired problem) is the Holy Grail of biology? What a stunning example of a biology that operates from an engineering perspective, a biology that has no genuine guiding vision!
Look back a hundred years. Didn’t a similar sense of a science coming to completion pervade physics at the 19th century’s endthe big problems were all solved; from here on out it was just a matter of working out the details? Deja vu! Biology today is no more fully understood in principle than physics was a century or so ago. In both cases the guiding vision has (or had) reached its end, and in both, a new, deeper, more invigorating representation of reality is (or was) called for.
A society that permits biology to become an engineering discipline, that allows that science to slip into the role of changing the living world without trying to understand it, is a danger to itself. Modern society knows that it desperately needs to learn how to live in harmony with the biosphere. Today more than ever we are in need of a science of biology that helps us to do this, shows the way. An engineering biology might still show us how to get there; it just doesn’t know where there is.