May 10, 2017

MOOCs, Coursera, and Neuroscience

As new technologies are born, they promise to revolutionize learning, however accredited education is still largely being done in a group with a single teacher. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were the hype around 5 years ago, however nowadays there’s a widespread scepticism surrounding them. My first, only, and yet-to-be-completed MOOC is an advanced lecture on Medical Neuroscience by Leonard E. White, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Duke University. This massive 6-unit course offered on Coursera covers Neuroanatomy, Neural Signalling, Sensory Systems, Motor Systems, Brain Development and Cognition. One of my flatmates found it; she downloaded all the materials and videos, and we decided to proceed with the gargantuan task together.

I’m a YouTube enthusiast: I enjoy having access to educational videos about, for example, physics, astronomy, and sociology. Therefore, the possibility of obtaining content created by elite, unreachable institutions such as those proudly displayed on Coursera’s modern and stylish landing page was, frankly, very exciting. In addition, the concept of “learn whenever, wherever you want” was attractive for me, since I’m not particularly motivated to commute for 45 minutes to attend a lecture at 8 in the morning: it’s a waste of time, I will certainly fall asleep. In conclusion, getting high-quality university-level lectures in my own kitchen with a friend at 10 p.m. resonated deeply with me.

I can say with confidence that we had quite a charming experience. For starters, the teacher would talk in calm and clear way. In addition, he would write directly on the slides, thus it was obvious where to look when he was explaining the mechanism of a cholinergic synapse. Furthermore, the unit dedicated to Neuroanatomy would show Professor White holding an actual brain, while describing where the different regions of the cortex are located. Some videos would end with a small practice quiz related to the topics of the lecture. The matter was incredibly detailed and complex, as neuroscience is, so my friend and I would study by reciting to each other the content of the handouts. Sometimes, the professor would show genuine and contagious excitement about a topic, and once a deer randomly showed up at his window, completely distracting him from his discourse.

The MOOC has such a good quality that our engagement survived through recess periods during the holidays and we managed to reach the third unit so far. Now, do I feel competent to take an exam and pass it with an excellent grade? Certainly, not. However, I think that I’ve gained a broad understanding of neuroscience and that I will retain the most important concepts such as brain structures and the propagation of action potentials. However, it is important to notice that we didn’t take any test on Coursera’s website, as we didn’t consider it relevant for us.

I think that our candid involvement with the course is partly thanks to our inspiring teacher: White was the recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award from physical therapy students at Duke University. At the same time, going through the process with a partner, encouraged us to learn, avoid daydreaming during show time, and continue with the course. Therefore, it seems that an excellent way of engaging students in learning is to combine multiple learners, a caring teacher, and an accountability measure…, which in theory is how our current educational system should work.

I would say that I have experience the best-case scenario for a MOOC, which seems not to be the general situation, as many people are very suspicious about these online tools. The best way in which MOOCs can have an actual impact in higher education is very straightforward: crediting by the providing institutions.

Thanks to Derek Muller from the channel Veritasium for a very helpful video on the topic of educational revolutions:; accessed on 07.05.2017


  1. You got me when you were writing that you probably falling asleep – I think that's not only your personal problem, it's a problem that many students have and although scientist found out that 8 pm is just too soon for our brain to work that way, even I am a early bird, I have troubles being concentrated in the morning –

    My question would be why you don't dare yourself the ability to pass an exam?

    1. Well, because I assume that the exam would have very detailed questions... And I can't remember so much information without preparing properly. You know, I think for this class I would need 3-4 weeks of sitting down and memorizing in order to feel actually ready for a test.

  2. I am not very familiar with MOOCs, somehow the format doesn't really work for me. I can't quite put my finger on it yet, but you might be up to something when you bring up Youtube. MOOC platforms and Youtube do offer similar content, but the interaction with/consumption of the materials is quite different. I think I have to think about that a bit more …

  3. I think it depends on which channels you are mean... For example, I would say that CrashCourse is just like a MOOC, only with high school level content. But yeah, stuff like Veritasium, Vsauce, or Scishow are definitely different, and more enjoyable as they are like little shots of knowledge :)

  4. K. Mayer says: wow, how nice that you collaborated on this assignment with your flatmate, this I would call "open education" ;-)) Did you also sift through the materials provided by coursera beyond just the video? Was there background material, a reader, ... ?