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.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Serendipitous, Cross-Generational Story that Lead Me to Coursera

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While working towards my Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I took an advanced graduate seminar entitled “Photobiology”, taught by Prof. Dov Koller. I knew very little about the subject, and registered for the course probably as much for its fitting my schedule, as for any other reason. Little did I know then that this 2-point seminar would have a lasting influence on my life, and even connect me to the Coursera course I am offering this fall entitled What a Plant Knows. 

Dov KollerDov was a large man, with a ready smile and an inherent ability to convey his fascination with the ways in which plants sense and respond to light signals. His research dealt with photo-tracking – the ability of certain plants to reposition their leaves or flowers to the position of sun in the sky. But Dov’s course was not primarily about his own research. Rather he introduced us not only to a biophysical description of light, but to the cutting edge research, being done around the world, on plant responses to light. 

I found this class so interesting, that I decided that for my postdoctoral research I would look for a lab studying light signaling in plants. In consultation with Dov I identified the best labs doing relevant research, and finally decided on the laboratory of Xing-Wang Deng at Yale University, where I would spend over three years studying the biochemical and genetic basis of photomorphogenesis – the plant’s morphological response to light signals. My publications during this time enabled me to get an academic position at Tel Aviv University in 1996. During these years and after, I enjoyed meeting Dov at seminars and conferences and in updating him on my work. 


So where’s the connection to Coursera? When I was asked this past Spring by Tel Aviv University to prepare their inaugural Coursera class. Several weeks after agreeing to do this, I was asked by the vice president of Tel Aviv University if I would meet with one of the founders of Coursera, who would be visiting the campus. This cofounder is Daphne Koller. Only after several minutes did I make the connection that Daphne is Dov’s daughter.

So as I start my course next week, I will be thinking of the Koller family, without whom I would not be teaching a class on plant senses (including plant responses to light). Without Dov, I would not have been exposed to the scientific field that became part of my life’s work, and the subject of my Coursera course. And without Daphne I wouldn’t have the opportunity to present to so many people the wonderful world of plant senses that so enthralled her father.


This is a story about the closing of a circle; a story that spans three generations and goes around the globe. My father, who passed away 6 years ago, was a lifelong educator, who cared passionately about teaching. He taught and inspired his students, and influenced the life of many, including Professor Danny Chamovitz. He also taught many, including myself, the love of learning and knowledge; my work on Coursera is a testament to his memory. It is a wonderful twist of fate that allows Danny to convey the ideas developed in my father’s research, via Coursera, to thousands of students around the world. I hope that they too continue to pay it forward, and propagate their knowledge and passion for learning to many others. [Pictured here are Daphne, her parents and her older daughter Natalie].