Oct 23, 2014

Nick Provart connects biology and informatics in his two MOOCs

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From his first job in agriculture, to his position today at University of Toronto, Professor Nick Provart has been “delighted” to work with plants and computers. His two courses, Bioinformatics Methods I and II, teach students how to combine their knowledge of biology with a working understanding of popular software systems like Cytoscape and BioConductor. He teaches these courses as a computer lab, and now, he’s popularizing them on the Internet as well.

Here, we chat with Professor Provart about what students will learn from his course, and where he sees it going in the future:

Tell us a little more about your course, and the decision to teach it online.
Bioinformatic Methods I and II cover a wide range of topics from multiple sequence alignments to phylogenetics, protein structure, protein-protein interaction networks, gene expression analyses and even metagenomics. The version of the course taught at the university runs as a computer lab, so it seemed natural to create a Coursera version.

Who is the target audience for this course? What should one expect from it?
The target audience is upper-year undergraduate students in the biological sciences, or biology graduate students who are just beginning their studies and need a refresher on some of the topics mentioned above. Computer scientists who are interested in biology might also find this course useful — the biology isn’t too complex.

After finishing Bioinformatic Methods II, students will be familiar with databases and tools for exploring patterns in proteins and promoters, analyzing protein-protein interaction networks as well as protein tertiary structures, and using gene expression databases to make hypotheses. Bioinformatic Methods I provides further practical approaches for sequence analysis.

Do you teach the same course to students on campus? If so, in what ways does the MOOC version differ from on-campus version?
Yes, the courses are each based on a semester-long course I teach at the University of Toronto. The Coursera version differs by being computer-graded. Additionally, there are only two assignments for the online courses versus four lab reports that on-campus students are required to do. The content is completely the same, however.

What advice do you have for people taking your MOOC?
These MOOCs are a bit different because they are lab-based, with only a small component of recorded lecture (the “mini-lecture”). As such, students should expect to actually use real websites to do the analyses described in the lab manual!

What have you enjoyed most about teaching this MOOC? What surprised you?
The interactive forums for both Bioinformatic Methods I and II were well used and I was happy to have had several meaningful conversations with students using them. That was a nice surprise.

How do you see MOOCs and their role in education evolve from here? Will universities offer credit for MOOCs? MOOC-based degrees?
I can only speak for these two MOOCs I put together: I can see our department offering these as part of a Bioinformatics Specialization on Coursera, as part of the Signature Track program. This would give those who are thinking about changing careers an opportunity to have something to show employers.

It is too early to tell how universities will respond to MOOCs. For some students, especially those who are very self-motivated, online learning is great. But listening to a great seminar in person is also a fine way to learn.

What’s an interesting fact about you that not many people know?
When I was fifteen, I worked in the agricultural sector detassling corn for hybrid seed production. There was a loophole that allowed student workers to be paid less than minimum wage, but I managed to save up $500 that summer, and I bought a Commodore VIC20 with it — which had a whopping 3 KB of RAM. I am delighted to still be able to work with plants and computers, although at a very different level!