Guest Post: “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution”…or are we?

PLOS Sci-Ed is pleased to welcome Eve Purdy to the blog today to discuss Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and her experiences with them. For more on Eve, please see her bio at the end of this post.

Revolutions are characterized by radical change. Education has always been about knowledge distribution and the creation of learning communities. To me, these do not seem to be radical ideas. However, some are saying that they will revolutionize education. Some feel that they are just a fad. They are generating conversation and they are changing the way students learn, or are they?

The “they” are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs have been on the education scene since 2008 when the course “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” created by George Siemens at the University of Manitoba registered 2200 students online. They are now available by the hundreds through websites such as as Coursera and Udacity that boast > 4 million participants. Despite attrition rates of >90%, MOOCs have the ability to reach more students in one course offering than in 40 years of teaching through an institution, as described in this article.

How do MOOCs work?
Anybody can register for courses on topics ranging from “Artificial Intelligence for Robotics” to “Microeconomic Principles” to “The Anatomy of the Upper Limb“. These courses, most often taught by a professor at a reputable post-secondary institution (Harvard, UCSF, Stanford etc. have joined the ranks), are offered for free and run for 4-12 weeks. Though courses vary, in most MOOCs, participants watch lectures on their own time, complete assignments, join discussion and submit/peer grade assignments.
I previously outlined my experience with the MOOC “Clinical Problem Solving” here. While MOOCs can supplement my medical school experience they cannot replace it. The same might be said for other practical laboratory and work environments.
xMOOCs vs cMOOCs

When thinking about the role of MOOCs in education, and for the rest of this discussion, it is key to make the distinction between xMOOCs and cMOOCs.


xMOOCs are an eXtension of existing educational pedagogies. These are the most common types of MOOCs featured on Coursera, EdX, Udacity etc. They allow professors to deliver information in the same way that they do in a university lecture-based course but to a much larger audience using technology. The “sage on the stage” is still central to the learning with some secondary discussion on class discussion boards and peer graded assignments. Technology does not change the learning model but it does extend it to reach a larger audience.

xMOOCs provide an opportunity to deliver information in a relatively cheap and efficient way. Universities might consider them as a method to reduce costs and provide the highest quality teaching for courses when the main goal is to deliver information to students. Whether or not this is a valid educational goal is the topic of another debate but for now, let’s look at an example:

Medical students must learn some amount of anatomy. Historically, each institution has had a unique curriculum organized and delivered by professors at each school. This results in excess administrative costs and manpower for information that is essentially the same. From experience, I know that when I learned about the arm at McMaster University then again at Queen’s University the biceps brachii was still the biceps brachii. We could encourage the most engaging and effective anatomy professors across the country to collaborate to create an xMOOC “Anatomy for Medical Students” then share this resource with schools who may or may not choose to use it in their curriculum. Programs could support these MOOCs with other learning opportunities such as labs and tutorials. Such a future is explored in a great article “Just Imagine- New Paradigms for Medical Education“. There are certainly problems with this approach but if the goal is to streamline the delivery of factual information, xMOOCs might just be the way to go.


cMOOCs (connectivist MOOCs) are different. They are a form of decentralized learning. The content is not central to the learning; instead, the process of learning is the learning. A single professor is no longer transferring knowledge in a top-down (vertical) approach as participants act as both students and educators by sharing information and engaging with each other, using technology as means to facilitate such interaction. Sounds a bit abstract right? To read more see this article. Though new to formalized education, this type of learning model is not new. It reflects the type of informal learning that colleagues engage in on a daily basis, but now the constantly evolving balance of learning with and from each other around a shared topic can be explicit and documented.

cMOOCs offer an opportunity to go beyond the material. Students become educators and educators become students. By creating a network where we learn to aggregate, remix, repurpose and share information we become aware that knowledge itself doesn’t make a doctor or an epidemiologist or a biologist. We become aware that how one interacts within a community is equally and likely more important than the knowledge. Universities might consider cMOOCs as a place to explore the already existing informal or “hidden” curriculum. Again, let’s turn to an example in medical education:

Cognitive biases often result in errors in clinical reasoning. For example a physician may be more likely to order unnecessary tests in an otherwise healthy young adult with chest pain if they missed a rare but deadly diagnosis related to that presentation early in their career. This is an example of the availability heuristic that sees recent or easily remembered, often emotionally charged events affect current decision making. If not recognized, it may result in increased costs to the system and to patients. There are many types of biases in decision making, each with different implications for physicians and patients. Simply delivering information about these cognitive biases to learners will not result in understanding or improved practice. Instead, a group of participants (medical students, residents, doctors, nurses, patients etc.) from an infinite number of institutions could commit to exploring cognitive biases through a cMOOC. This would look like the delivery of some content that would serve as a jumping off point for discussion, curation and creation of content from a variety of perspectives. Through such a course the medical student might learn not only what the attending physician knows but also the language she uses and the attitudes she holds. The medical student might challenge the attending and the attending might challenge the student. Being a horizontal course every participant would be in a position to contribute. The attending physician would learn from the nurse and the resident from the medical student. Knowledge acquisition is not the endpoint for the cMOOC the community is. For topics in medicine (and other sciences) that are less well defined cMOOCs provide a unique technological platform, not defined by boundaries of space and time, for exploration.

Are MOOCs revolutionary?

Will xMOOCs mean that more people have access to information? Yes. Will cMOOCs provide a platform for wider learning communities to create knowledge together? Yes. Will this require historical institutions to adapt? Yes. Will this create new opportunities for learning? Yes.

Will that series of “yes’s” result in radical change? You tell me!

I am interested in your thoughts on and experiences with MOOCs. Please feel free to comment below or contact me on twitter @purdy_eve. A thanks to Javier Benitez whose thoughts and perspectives in our discussions about MOOCs in the context of medical education have shaped my own ideas.

And since we may or may not be “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution”

About the Author

Eve PurdyEve Purdy BHSc is a third year medical student at Queen’s University with interests in emergency medicine, medical education and social media in health care. She blogs at and you can always contact her on twitter @purdy_eve

Science Heroes: Why Science Needs A Celebrity Spokesperson

We exist in a strange society these days. Jenny McCarthy is viewed as an authority on vaccines and people listen to the opinions of Ben Affleck and Sean Penn when it comes to politics. Yet people who study and have dedicated their lives to these causes remain out of the limelight and hidden from the public. While everyone knows about celebrities who campaign on issues, how many people can name a researcher who study them? One  problem facing scientists is the lack of communication between science and the public: we’re perceived as living in the ivory tower of academia and are totally out of touch, or worse, we’re in the pocket of Big Pharma/Food/The Umbrella Corporation/Evil Faceless Corporate Interest.

But in reality, scientists are just regular people with an interest in one specific part of our world, and we want nothing more than for everyone else to find out work as fascinating as we do. It’s something that Jorge Cham of PhD Comics discusses in his TEDxUCLA talk, where he highlights how he was hired to create a video (that you may have seen) about the Higgs Boson.

There’s a definite gap between scientists and the public, and three questions immediately come to mind: 1) Why do scientists not engage, 2) How can scientists engage and 3) How do we find a celebrity to endorse “science”?

Why do scientists not engage with the public?

There are a number of reasons why scientists do not engage with the media, but they can be broadly grouped into three areas: 1) How it affects your reputation, 2) The time commitment and 3) Worries about the message being distorted.

There is a perception in the science community of “selling out” if you publicize your own work, and that you’re somehow “tainting” the name of science; although there is evidence for a (growing) number of people who view outreach as enhancing their reputation and consider it a way to differentiate themselves from the pack. A study of 648 epidemiologists and 706 stem cell researchers from the US, Japan, Germany, the UK and France who had published during 2002–04 in peer-reviewed journals revealed some interesting insights as to why scientists avoided the media (unfortunately, the article itself is behind a paywall). From the article:

Although “possible critical reactions from peers” were considered important concerns for 42% of the respondents, a similar proportion (39%) found “enhanced personal reputation among peers” to be an important outcome of media contacts.

The 42% isn’t entirely surprising. Many scientists are wary of what has been dubbed “The Sagan Effect.” The basic gist is that if you have time to communicate, you’re not spending all your time on research, and that’s what “real scientists do.” Sagan’s biographers suggest that he was denied membership to the National Academy of Science on the basis of his popularization of science. Thankfully, this perception is changing, albeit slowly.

The “Sagan Effect” remains a strong deterrent for many scientists who want to engage with the public | Image Courtesy NASA and Wikimedia Commons

But continuing on this point, communicating with the media is a significant time commitment – an article in Science Magazine interviewed Molly Crockett, a final year PhD student, who had a study picked up the media. She said “The week the research went out [was] pretty much devoted 9 to 5 to dealing with the press.” For professors and others who sit on multiple committees and have other commitments  this alone might be enough to put them off publicizing their work, given that this may not even be considered as part of their annual evaluation and the fact that we live in a “publish or perish” society. Again, this varies by organization. Some ask for your academic publications and presentations as well as any media appearances you may have made and do consider that.

Finally, there is a worry about the message being distorted:

Nine in 10 respondents identified the “risk of incorrect quotation” in stories as an important disincentive, and 8 in 10 felt that the “unpredictability of journalists” was also a problem.

I can’t honestly say that I buy this one. All the reporters that I’ve dealt with have been very professional and very respectful, and have asked for clarification when they didn’t understand the science. Indeed, almost all requested a copy of the publication beforehand to read it themselves to come fully prepared. But this doesn’t do much to assuage doubts, and researchers will continue to be skeptical.

How can scientists engage?

The current model of information transfer is rather archaic, and was designed for a system where the media acted as the gatekeepers to the public. Jacquelyn Gill of Contemplative Mammoth sums it up well:

For most scientists, I think the scientist-media model looks something like: 1) Publish ground-breaking paper in top journal. 2) Wait for university press office to write press release and maybe contact you. 3) Wait for phone calls and e-mails asking for interviews. 4) Answer questions. 5) Sit and wait for articles to be published while experiencing a mixture of nervous excitement and dread.

It worked well back in the days when we couldn’t engage with people directly. Reporters reported, researchers researched, and eventually you came together to communicate your research to the public. But now, with the advent of social media and the wonderful world of the internet, you can connect with people directly. Blogs, Twitter, even sharing studies on Facebook and LinkedIn groups are all ways to connect with others. If you want to communicate in a professional capacity, many organizations have guidelines (example: the Social Issues Research Centre). There is also a list of resources at the end of this article.

How do we find a celebrity to endorse “science”?

I started this post by talking about Science Celebrities. We have a few notable “famous” scientists – Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are both phenomenal science communicators. Both do a great job raising the profile of science, and showing that science can be fun and highlight why it is so important. There’s also the Rock Stars of Science Campaign which shows scientists as rock stars to try and make science “cool,” and features Joe Perry as their celebrity rocker (Link available here – WARNING: Link autoplays music when you click it. Ugh.)

But you don’t have to do something big to be a celebrity. And you don’t even have to be a PI to inspire others.

Because the best science celebrity is you.

Okay okay I know that sounds corny, but bear with me here.

I’ve alluded to how the balance of power has shifted. How we are now more able to connect with the public than we have ever been in the past, and how we now have the tools and abilities to be able to engage with people directly using a multitude of methods, ranging from using social media to going into classrooms to give talks and presentations.

Many scientists have embraced blogging as a platform. I’m not even going to try and list them all, but some big sources of science bloggers include our own PLOS Blogs network, ScientopiaScientific American, the Nature blogs networkScienceBlogsResearch Blogging and Science Seeker. Many of the authors are active on Twitter and Facebook as well, which all help to engage people electronically. You don’t even have to be “serious.” Sites like PhD Comics, XKCD and Science Is Awesome all engage people using humour.

Blogging not your thing? There are a several programs aimed at bringing science to life for youth. Two of the big STEM ones are Let’s Talk Science and Actua, which pair undergraduate and graduate students with teachers to present in classrooms. If you’re in Canada, CIHR has the Synapse program that will send you regular emails about upcoming mentorship opportunities in your area. Many of my colleagues are heavily involved in WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), which is only one of many organizations that are set up to encourage young girls to consider STEM careers.

The fact is that there is a communication gap between scientists and the public. When obtaining funding has become more and more difficult (only 18.4% of R01 grants get funded), it becomes imperative for us as scientists to continue to campaign and ensure the public realizes the importance of scientific research. Engaging the public using social media, giving talks and lectures at a level that your audience can understand and making science accessible to all will make you a Science Celebrity to those watching.


Facing the research-practice divide in science education

Science education researchers and science teachers have much to offer each other. In an ideal world, knowledge would flow freely between researchers and educators. Unfortunately, research and practice tend to exist in parallel universes. As long as this divide persists, classrooms will rarely benefit from research findings, and research studies will rarely be rooted in the realities of the classroom. If we care about science education, we have to face the research-practice divide.

How did it get this way?

When we talk about research and practice, we’re talking about academics and teachers. In the most typical case, we’re talking about professors of education working at universities, and teachers working at K-12 schools. The divide has its roots in historical and current differences between researchers and teachers in their training, methods, work environment, and career goals that have led to misunderstanding and mistrust. In a 2004 paper titled “Re-Visioning the academic–teacher divide: power and knowledge in the educational community” Jennifer Gore and Andrew Gitlin describe the state of the research-practice divide through the lens of the two groups of people involved, and the imbalance of power between them. Historically, they argue, the framework of science education research has been that researchers generate knowledge and materials that teachers need, but rarely recognize the need for teacher contributions. This assumed one-way flow of knowledge has certainly sparked animosity between the groups, deepened by cultural differences associated with differing career paths.

Of course, some people have been both K-12 teachers and academics in their careers. To get this perspective on the issue I reached out to a colleague, Assistant Professor of Science Education Ron Gray (Northern Arizona University). Ron has been a middle school science teacher, a teacher of science teachers, and is now a science education academic. When I asked him about the experience of transitioning from teacher to academic, he recalled:

“I don’t believe I had seen a single primary research document in education before earning my doctorate.”

Most K-12 science teachers are fairly disconnected from the research world once they leave universities and enter schools. They lack university library access, yet currently many of the best journals in the field, such as the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Science Education, and the International Journal of Science Education are not open access, and require a per-article fee to read. So how does research reach most teachers? I talked to a few science teachers about where they encounter science education research studies — many used science and education pages on Facebook, one got papers sent from an administrator, and some read practitioner journals. Many science teachers are members of the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA), which publishes practitioner journals and holds national and area conferences where teachers can hear about research findings. NSTA plays an invaluable role in working to connect research and practice. However, for perspective, NSTA has about 55,000 members, most but not all of which are practicing science teachers, but there are currently about two million practicing science teachers in the U.S.

The disconnect also stems from unfortunate misperceptions of professors by teachers and teachers by professors. Both groups often discount each other’s knowledge bases and workloads. Professors can harbor elitist attitudes about teachers, discounting the value of practical classroom experience in determining what works in education. Teachers frequently claim that professors suffer from “Ivory Tower Syndrome” — the assumption here is that professors live cushy lives, sheltered from the realities of schools, and therefore can’t produce knowledge that is useful in today’s classrooms. A high school teacher quoted by Gore and Gitlin explained:

“A lot of what [researchers] think is based on the past and they are out of touch. And so we call it the Ivory Tower. Welcome to our world.”

When I asked high school science teacher Laurie Almeida how she perceived the credibility of science education research, she responded:

“Somewhat credible. I work at a difficult school, so I feel that some of the research is way too out of touch with the reality of my school.”

An ivory tower of sorts. Sather Tower, U.C. Berkeley. Photo by Bernt Rostad.
An ivory tower of sorts. Sather Tower, U.C. Berkeley. Photo by Bernt Rostad.

There is sometimes truth to the ivory tower criticisms; Gore and Gitlin noted that in some academic circles, the more closely research is associated with practice, the more devalued it is. Furthermore, science education research is far from perfect. Small-scale studies with limited applicability are published more frequently in science education than they are the natural sciences. This trend hasn’t escaped notice from teachers either. When I asked about the perceived credibility of science education research among teachers, science teacher Toni Taylor told me:

“Too often I see ‘research’ that includes only a small sample population which makes me question the validity of the research,” and “Sometimes I feel like science education simply tries to reinvent the wheel.”

However, a lot of the mistrust between the two groups is based on their misunderstanding of each other’s professions. Teachers do not always appreciate that many researchers are often in the classroom regularly, conducting classroom-based studies and collecting data. This “back of the class” view can be highly illuminating, and is a valid way to know classrooms. Some researchers got their start as K-12 teachers. And higher education is certainly not immune from classroom management issues or over-filled schedules. Professors have stress — just ask the #realForbesProfessors (this hashtag exploded on Twitter following the publication of a Forbes article claiming that professors have one of the least stressful jobs). Similarly, researchers can forget that experienced teachers have a wealth of knowledge about the specific interactions of classroom context, pedagogy, and subject matter.


What can be done?

My conversation with Professor Ron Gray about what academics can do to better connect with teachers aligned well with calls in the literature for more researcher-teacher partnerships. He said:

“The best way would be to get back in the classroom but the tenure process just doesn’t let that happen.”

His response highlights the rigidity of teacher and researcher career paths. Even a former teacher who switched to the researcher path can’t switch back again without ultimately losing “traction” in both careers. Perhaps we should question the wisdom of entrenching people interested in science education in one narrowly-defined career trajectory or another. Instead, career advancement could reward the accumulation of diverse but synergistic experiences. Science education is a multidisciplinary endeavor, involving science, social science, and communication skills — why shouldn’t our career options reflect this?

Similarly, certain aspects of teacher training might be due for a change. Teacher education could be a crucial time to break the mold  that has placed researchers as producers and teachers as consumers of research. Gore and Gitlin suggest that student-teachers at the undergraduate or master’s levels could be attached to ongoing education research projects as research assistants. They would become intimately familiar with the purpose and methods of educational research and could become significant contributors to it. This would take some restructuring, as many programs focus on more “immediate” concerns such as classroom management, but the benefit could be the production of teachers who recognize the value of research and feel capable of making contributions to it.

The open access movement in scholarly publishing could also have a crucial role in breaking down barriers. Toll-access journals can function as practically impenetrable “ivory fortresses” where valuable knowledge is locked away from practitioners. However, open access will likely prove necessary, but not sufficient in closing the research-practice gap. Teachers I’ve spoken to are very positive about open access but guarded about how much more time they’ll spend reading research articles. Time is a huge issue for teachers. But the alternative — locking up research findings in places where both time and money can be barrier for teachers — is certainly not helping to connect research with practice.

For the short-term, most education research articles are still in toll-access journals. For those without easy access to the primary literature in science, research blogs have become an incredible resource. However, the science education research blogging community pales in comparison to the science research blogging community. While teachers can find the latest science news and engaging resources to share with their students by following the science blogging community, they are not as likely to find quick-and-easy write-ups of science education research findings that are relevant to their pedagogy, curriculum development, assessment practices. As the Sci-Ed blog establishes itself, I hope that my fellow writers and I can attempt to partially fill this role. And I hope that many others in science education continue to follow the research blogging model.


Jennifer M. Gore & Andrew D. Gitlin (2004): [RE]Visioning the academic–teacher divide: power and knowledge in the educational community, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 10:1, 35-58.