Virology at Coursera

Virology2One of my goals as a science communicator is to be Earth’s virology professor. To do this I teach an undergraduate virology course at Columbia University and at iTunes University. This past summer I ported my undergraduate virology course to where I reached 26,000 students. My next virology course at Coursera, How viruses cause disease, begins on 9 January 2014.

How viruses cause disease explores the interplay between viruses and their host organisms. The course begins with an overview of how infection is established in a host, then moves to a virologist’s view of immune defenses.  Next we consider how the replication strategy and the host response determine the outcome of infection, such that some are short and others are of long duration. The mechanisms by which virus infections transform cells in culture are explored, a process that may lead to tumor formation in animals. We then move to a discussion of how viral infections are controlled by vaccines and antiviral drugs. After an introduction to viral evolution, we discuss the principles learned from zoonotic infections, emerging infections, and humankind’s experiences with epidemic and pandemic viral infections. The course ends with an exploration of unusual infectious agents such as viroids, satellites, and prions, followed by a discussion of the causative agent of the most serious current worldwide epidemic, HIV-1.

To create the Coursera courses, I divide the lecture videos from my undergraduate offering into 10-20 minute segments. I add annotations to indicate parts of the illustrations that I highlight during each lecture. Questions are also inserted in the videos to ensure that students are learning the desired principles. Weekly quizzes, a final exam, and discussion forums round out the Coursera experience.

Because others might benefit from the shorter videos, I have also made them available at YouTube. These videos are annotated, but do not have the built-in questions which are only available on Coursera. I would be pleased to learn how to add questions to YouTube videos.

A virology course for all

Virology class 2013The spring semester has begun at Columbia University, which means that it is time to teach my virology course.

The fourth annual installment of my virology course, Biology W3310, has begun. This course, which I taught for the first time in 2009, is intended for advanced undergraduates and convenes at the Morningside Campus. Until I started this course, no instruction in virology had been offered at the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University since the late 1980s. This is a serious omission for a first-class University. Sending graduates into the world without even a fundamental understanding of viruses and viral disease is inexcusable.

Course enrollment has steadily increased: 45 students in the 2009, 66 students in 2010, 87 students in 2012 and an amazing 195 students this year. I am gratified that so many students want to learn about the world of viruses. This year our class was moved into a wonderful lecture hall in the brand-new Northwest Corner building.

Readers of virology blog can watch every lecture in the course. You will find a videocast of each lecture at the course website, at my YouTube channel, and at iTunes University. The complete 2012 version of this course is available online, at iTunes University, and YouTube.

This year we will also be offering my virology course at Coursera. Details will be forthcoming.

To those who would like to know if the 2013 version of my course differs from the 2012 version, I reply: do viruses change? Some parts will be the same, others will be different. The goal of my virology course is to provide an understanding of how viruses are built, how they replicate and evolve, how they cause disease, and how to prevent infection. After taking the course, some of the students might want to become virologists. The course will also provide the knowledge required to make informed decisions about health issues such as immunization against viral infections. It should also be possible to spot badly constructed headlines about virology stories.

I am excited about teaching virology to 195 Columbia University students this year. But the internet makes it possible to spread the word even further. So far nearly 75,000 students registered for the iTunes University version of my 2012 virology course! As a professor used to teaching relatively small numbers of students in a classroom, this reach is truly amazing.