BY BRIAN ULLMANN '92 ILLUSTRATION BY KELSEY MAROTTA '14
“Mad Men.” Gorging on detailed bioinformatics was not like watching Don Draper work his creative magic. Especially in the comfort of my own home, with my Xbox winking at me. Methylated neurotransmitters. Epigenetics. DNA transcribers. Nucleotide sequences. Two hours in and I was drafting an email to my editor explaining how my grandfather had taken ill (sorry, Pop Pop) and I wouldn’t be able to turn in my story. I pressed on. After the first week’s lectures on the biology underpinning genomics, the second week’s topics lightened up. The Human Genome Project. Mutations and evolution. The language gene. Heck, there was even a close-up photo of a cat penis. Week 3 was subtitled “My Genes Made Me Do it.” The role of genes in disease. Heritability of IQ. How love (and orgasms) can impair judgment (duh). Scientists have even found evidence that a person’s political opinions are rooted in his or her genes. Despite my binge studying, I was still eight days past the due date for the exam. Fortunately, the only penalty was a 10 percent reduction in my final grade. Because part of my magazine assignment was to assess learning, I decided to take the midterm without referring to my notes, and managed to get 30 out of 32 questions correct. Even with the penalty, I earned a solid B. Feeling pretty good about myself, I took a breather. It wasn’t until I received another email, “Week 6 Now Available!” that I started to play catch-up again. The dread returned. My anxiety had nothing to do with the professors themselves. Raymond St. Leger and Tammatha O’Brien were engaging and energetic presenters. His British accent and her infectious enthusiasm for nucleotides and diploids made for entertaining viewing. They later told me that they had to consciously restrain themselves from wandering off set. Lecturing to a small camera lens was quite different than to a 400-person lecture hall. St. Leger’s Week 4 lectures, subtitled “My Genes Didn’t Make Me Do It,” centered on the role of our environment. Week 5 brought an “Introduction to Genetic Engineering.” (Finally,
some instructions on how to genetically create my own monster!) The future of genetics dominated the final week. Transgenic research. Human growth hormone. Genetically engineered food. The compelling topics screamed out for debate. Coursera, the firm UMD works with to deliver MOOCs, offers online discussion boards (moderated, in this case, by the professors’ graduate assistant), but I was never able to get engaged in a meaningful discussion. Perhaps it was because I’m a product of my own classroom-based learning experience. Or perhaps it was because I was trying to engage in debates on topics that most students had put behind them weeks earlier. Even at 43, being called “sluggard” online would sting. After the final lecture and the final exam—again, I scored a 30 out of 32—I wanted to learn about the experience from the professors’ viewpoint. According to St. Leger and O’Brien, nearly 30,000 students enrolled in the free course, with over half actively participating by watching videos and taking quizzes. Nearly 4,000 people took the final exam and earned a handsome Statement of Accomplishment. Not bad for a noncredit course. The professors signed on to do it again this semester after refreshing the syllabus; the science of genetics progresses so quickly that some of the material from just months earlier is already out of date. As for me, I think the course did deliver quality learning to more students than the professors could otherwise teach in an entire career. I learned a lot, though I’m still not sure what the cat penis was all about. Maybe I’ll take the class again. Right after I complete another mission of “Halo 4.” TERP See the latest options for MOOCs at Maryland at coursera.org/umd.
FALL 2013 TERP 27