Saturday, September 28, 2013

Plant biology in the age of MOOCs

MOOCs, massive open online courses, are revolutionizing the way we approach higher (and maybe even lower) education. Courses offered by Coursera, Udacity and edX reach students all over the globe, democratizing the availability of high-level advanced education. Many courses have had registrations of over 100,000!

Let me repeat that: Many courses have had registrations of over 100,000! Udacity's course Introduction to Computer Science had over 300,000 students. 180,000 took Machine Learning, and as seen in the table here, many of Coursera's offerings have had huge enrollments.

I have the honor and responsibility of presenting Coursera's first MOOC on plant biology: What a Plant Knows (and other things that you didn't know about plants). This seven-lecture series, adapted from my book What A Plant Knows, starts October 1. This course is offered as a "science for non-science majors" course, and several universities, including Tel Aviv University, are offering credit for this on line course.

My motivation for developing this course is a desire to popularize the amazing complexity of plant biology and plant research. As a biology professor, I have been repeatedly discouraged by the general ignorance of plant biology, not only in the general public, but also among my colleagues. On a practical level, this is manifested in reduced interest in botany-related courses and in plant research in general (and subsequent funding for plant biology research).

While many factors have contributed to the drop in popularity of plant-based research, part of the responsibility falls on us plant biologists who have done a rather lousy job of communicating both the excitement and importance of research in plants. We've left the playing field of public opinion empty for "brain sciences" and "personalized medicine" to prevail, and we've seen academic agendas dominated by both programs and infrastructure dedicated to such fields. While not denigrating the importance of these subjects, I think growing food for the world's burgeoning population should get at least equal attention.

My colleague Nir Ohad helping me in one of the lectures
With this in mind, I've designed What A Plant Knows as a scientifically valid, yet accessible, introduction to plant biology for the non-expert. It has not been a simple task. Doing "popular biology" is not inherent in our training as scientists. Presenting a popular version of plant biology without "dumbing it down"  is not trivial. Teaching to a camera is completely different than teaching to a lecture how filled with questioning students. With no feedback from facial expressions, and no questions, how do I know if I was clear?

And I cannot predict the responses of my peers. Will presenting such a popular course be considered selling out? Would the time I spent developing this course been better spent furthering the basic research carried out in my lab?

Hopefully, if even a small percentage of the tens of thousands of students who have registered for the course find a new interest in plant sciences, then we as plant biologists can tap into this interest to influence a new generation of scientists.


  1. After reading your book earlier this year, I signed up immediately when I saw there was a course for it too! Really looking forward to the course.

  2. Thanks Tim! I hope you won't find it too repetitive!

  3. I only found out about it yesterday, so I think perhaps too late. I've signed up to be notified about the next one. Wonderful to see this!

  4. Just found out about this course today, thanks to my sister. I'm just a plant lover, but I signed up right away and I'm definitely save to buy the book (in English, since there's no Spanish version) as soon as possible. :D

    Thanks for making this course available online!

    Best regards from Chile, South America. <3

  5. The combination of simplicity and highly scientific teaching approach of Prof. Chamovitz was charismatic. It would be quit difficult to find better and simpliest way of the same time for presenting plants so interesting to broad public.

  6. Will this course be offered again soon?