Archive for November, 2013

Friday, 29th November, 2013

MOOCS – evolution for educators

We are coming to the end of an online course –

Here are a few initial thoughts on the experience that may be useful when considering taking or developing online courses.

The subject:

The subject was one that had a clear reason for me to study (I will be teaching this topic soon) and this is helpful in terms of motivation to study.

In general it is probably important to consider the motivation before starting a course. In some cases ‘because it sounded interesting’ may not be enough.

The content:

The content was clearly presented by subject experts who were clearly able to speak from a position of authority, both in terms of knowledge of evolution and associated pedagogical content knowledge. This is helpful.

The level:

This turned out to be about right for me, though some parts introduced a lot of topic specific vocabulary without much or any scaffolding. In some sections the course was frustrating as it assumed quite a bit of knowledge. This would seem to be a significant challenge with this type of course as having the content and delivery predefined means it is not possible to be flexible to take account of students needs or abilities. This may account for the high drop-out rate that some of these courses have.

The learning environment:

The site was clear and easy to navigate and had a lot of resources – almost an overwhelming amount. The key lectures, essays, quizzes and assignments were easy to find. The discussion forums were much more passive in this group than in the previous course I took.


The weekly commitment was probably 2-3 hours or so over 4 weeks. This was manageable. Having the relatively short course period seemed a good idea as sustaining motivation over a longer period would be difficult.


This was mostly by multiple choice with multiple attempts allowed. It was relatively straightforward to complete these tasks, thought it was not always clear how the class material supported the concepts tested – other knowledge was assumed. There was also quite a high language comprehension level expected and I imagine this would be challenging for ESL learners.

The course also involved a written task with peer assessment. The task was quite interesting though it was difficult to see it as a developmental task  – mostly I relied on pre-existing knowledge for this task. The peer assessment involved three people reviewing the work I did, yet only generated one short and bland comment – this was disappointing.

Other issues:

It was useful to do this in parallel with Greg to have a real person to talk to about some of the things in the course – this is useful for motivation.

Timing matters – if this course had been during a reporting period it would have been difficult.

Friday, 29th November, 2013

23andme and me

A while ago I came across 23andme. This is a service that will look at your DNA and show you what information can be found from it. For me this seemed interesting because it went alongside the idea that we share a lot of information about ourselves – a lot more than we might have been comfortable with a while ago – and it is interesting to think about what we share and what the implications of sharing are. This connects for me with writing on blogs and posing on facebook and I am really not sure what is shareable and what isn’t.

As well as the public/private issues, it is also interesting to me to see what information is out there and how easily genetic information can be interpreted. So I went ahead and sent in my spit. So now I have the results.

Screen shot 2013-11-29 at 1.33.19 PM Screen shot 2013-11-29 at 1.32.32 PM Screen shot 2013-11-29 at 1.31.35 PM Screen shot 2013-11-29 at 1.30.59 PM

I am impressed at the sheer amount of information that is there, with long lists of health and ancestry data. There is also a lot of supporting small print. I think some of this will be useful for classes for a few reasons:

  • To show what information is stored in DNA and discuss the relationship between genotype and phenotype.
  • To show heritability
  • To discuss the ethics of collecting and storing this kind of information by third parties – how could this information be used in a wrong way.
  • To discuss evidence for claims.

At the same time the results came in, the company made the news as the FDA issued this letter stopping the company from promotional work. This is kind of neat since it suggests that there is an ambiguity about what is right and the company have a different view of their responsibility to the consumer than the FDA has. The FDA are concerned that people will make inappropriate health decisions based on the data and I can understand why. There is a lot of small print and clauses full of conditional language and it really does take an expert to read this.

The CEO replied with a letter that was a masterpiece in the stretching of language.

23andMe has been working with the FDA to navigate the correct regulatory path for direct-to-consumer genetic tests. This is new territory, not just for 23andMe, but for the FDA as well. The FDA is an important partner for 23andMe and we will be working hard to move forward with them.

This is a story to follow. I am looking forward to some interesting conversations with colleagues and students around this data.

My worry is that, in sharing this data (even the screenshots in this post) I contribute to moving to a situation where not sharing becomes synonymous with having something to hide. There is a right to privacy and we should not assume that people who do not share are hiding something.