Style of the Course

peter Murray-rust (
Fri, 26 Jan 1996 17:27:34 +0000 (GMT)

With the course two weeks old we have had a little chance to get adjusted
and it would be very useful for some of those involved in running the
course to find out about the way that you (as students, consultants or
tutors) think about virtual education.

Firstly, we should all feel excited about being part of a very important
development in education. This course is unique; although it's not the
only educational project on the Internet there are many things that were
innovated last year in PPS95 and which are new in this course. So, if I
use the term 'prototype' I hope that suggests something that has been
carefully designed, but that will give us vital feedback as we progress.
And that there is also a lot of scope for innovation.

In reading everything that I write later, remember that this course is a
formal course of Birkbeck College, is formally assessed and accreditable.
A particular type of course has been designed and is being presented, but
there is scope within that for innovation and your ideas. If they aren't
appropriate at present, they may be very useful pointers for the future.

Methods of education
In PPS95 I reviewed a number of methods of learning (I prefer this term to
teaching) these included:
- personal tuition (e.g. Socrates)
- chalk and talk
- reading a textbook
- doing examples
- doing a group project
- tutorials
- group-based self-tuition
- writing reviews

(For computer languages there were 2 more - hacking someones else's code
- and reading the formal language specification (!)). In one group that
I taught (C++) I found that there was at least one person in each category!

We tried to incorporate all of these ideas into PPS95 (except
chalk-and-talk) to some extent, and you can see parts of them in PPS96.
We recognise that people have different ways of working and hopefully the
course allows for this.

A major part of PPS95 and one that sets it apart from many other
forms of distance education was the sense of community, collaboration and
innovation. Granted that the people involved in PPS95 were self-selcted
enthusiasts, but many of them felt that helping to create the course was an
excellent way of learning. Like yourselves, most course members had
full-time 'day-jobs' so that the time that they could devote was limited -
nevertheless many contributed material of great value.

The network revolution allows us to produce traditional
educational material in a more attractive fashion (re-usable, easily
distributable, etc) but it also gives us the opportunity to do new
things. Perhaps these are best thought of as 'extra-currcicular'
activities on PPS96 :-) - i.e. they are fun and challenging, but don't
count as part of the formal coursework or assessment. (So if you build a
virtual beer fermenter in BioMOO you still have to pass the exams :-)

Some students have very limited time and will want to know exactly what
they have to do each week. Unlike traditional undergraduates you all
have to look after the children, rush to the boss's meeting, etc.
Moreover, there are planned (and unplanned absences ) e.g. conferences,
holidays, etc. The tutors can't see you face-to-face so it's very
important that you give them the required feedback about yourself.
(Remember, it's impossible to know whether someone is reading mails - the
newsgrouop term is 'lurker' - this is NOT pejorative!) Particularly at
this stage of the course the tutors are trying to make sure that everyone
can use the e-mail satifactorily (this isn't always as trivial as it
sounds for some institutions don't always allow external e-mail, or
impose restrictions). So it's helpful if you can reply to tutors'
enquiries just to let them know that your are reading the mail , etc.

The first weeks

The course has a very dedicated set of tutors at Birkbeck and there are
not many institutions where the staff would have so wholeheartedly
embarked on supporting the course (I can say that because I'm not a
formal tutor :-). It's a new experience for them as well, so any help
you can give will be valuable. Although we've a lot of experience from
PPS95, the virtual interaction can take time to get used to. Don't be
afraid of raising problems because these won't be just yours - they will
probably be general. Amongst these are:
- I can't get my e-mail to work
- I can't mail the lists
- I have bandwidth problems
- I don't know how to download software.
- I don't get help from my sysadmin
- I haven't got a sysadmin
- I do it all from home over a phone and I have to pay the bills
- my boss doesn't approve of MOOs

Please share these with us - it may be that we can devise particular
methods of work or technology that helps. And sometimes the problems
(e.g. e-mail) may be general for everyone.

Some of you may feel that the course has 'started slowly',
particularly if you are adept at the Internet. What we've been doing is
like coming into a practical lab for the first time and some people are
learning how to light Bunsen burners, work safely, etc. Everything that
we are doing can justifiably be seen as part of 'bioinformatics' - i.e.
you have to be able to do ftp to work in bioinformatics :-) (I'll write
more on this later).

I (personally) believe that bioinformatics involves a large
element of collaborative ethos. We'll see this later when we see the way
that the databases are linked togther. Therefore learning to work in a
virtual group is extremely valuable. You may be able to make useful
suggestions from your own experience.

Extra-curricular activities

One of the really exciting things about PPS95 was that so many people
contributed so many good and useful things (material, ideas, advice, etc).
We aren't requiring anyone to do anything which isn't part of the course,
but if you want to we'd be very happy. (Again making it clear that this
is independent of the formal course.) Here are some things which
any course members might wish to be involved with.
- activities in BioMOO
- discussion groups
- journal club
- molecule of the month...
- creation of hyperglossary items
- creation of web pages
- creating something on your favourite protein.

and a lot more.

There's plenty of time, so after we've settled in you might like to
suggest things and see if anyone else is interested. (Don't be
disappointed if no one takes you up - lots of ideas don't fly first time).


It will be very interesting to get feedback on what people think that
they will get out of the course...


Peter Murray-Rust, Glaxo Research & Dev. (; (BioMOO: PeterMR)
Birkbeck College,, CBMT/Daresbury,