For participants from a biology background the mathematic and algorithmic
parts of the Coursebook were a great challenge. That is why we used interactive
animation and visualization in two important cases (see section B).
Besides local problems installing the software, the reaction time of
the net was a central problem. Long response times complicate the
interaction in BioMOO, which is of great importance for the course. Sometimes
group sessions had to be postponed because of the ``net lag''. Switching to
a conference system in USA
was a sufficient solution in all but one case. On the other hand, travelling instructors
were able to avoid the cancellation of their lessons: on bioinformatics conferences
Internet access is usually provided and the class can be taught from
anywhere in the world - a phenomenon we called "Nomadic Instruction".
The organizational effort is high. In every course the new participants
are inexperienced in many Internet techniques and have to be introduced
cautiously. The participants' different time zones make the coordination
of meeting times difficult. All contributions are written on a voluntary basis
and it is not always easy to get them in time. The Hypertext Coursebook
includes hundreds of links to tools and other sources of information regarding
bioinformatics, requiring long term maintenance.
can be summarized as follows:
The evaluation of the course was, in general, very positive:
It is very encouraging that in spite of the technical problems the number
of participants finishing the course is similar to that
of a conventional seminar. The figure shows a part of the anonymous 1996
survey (30 out of 37 students sent feedback). Comments by
participants show that the course reached its goal:
"The course concept is clearly one which
should be strongly encouraged. However, like a non-virtual course, it requires
a significant amount of time and energy to keep up! Unlike a non-virtual
course, though, it is targetted for a very broad audience [...]"
"Net lag is a problem. Also it takes me far
more time to type things than to speak. This all makes communication via
BioMOO difficult - maybe it's something to get used to (I'm new to MOOs).
The course material is certainly very exciting and seems to be pretty much
state of art. I would appreciate if the www pages would stay there for
a while so one could refer to them later again to go through some details
"Summarizing I find there was much more self-discipline
needed to keep track with the course, to read the chapters in time, than
with real-life learning, because it's easier to back out when the subject
is on less interesting aspects. But, as a compliment and a fact, only technical
problems or illness could keep me away from my classes !"
During the course, a "virtual" sense of community developed,
especially when the decision was made to write an Introduction
to BioComputing comprehensible for laypeople, for the "Pirelli
In 1995, Certificates of Attendence were given out to 25 (out
of 34) participants, and in 1996 to 31 (out of 37).
Several newspaper articles (see enclosure) reported positively about
the course and our concept.
How Will It Go On ?
A 4-week virtual course on
"Bioscience Resources on the Internet"
has just been launched by Chin Hoon Lau, one of our
Summer 1996 students. It is co-sponsored by the Singapore
Society for Biochemistry and Molecular
Biology (SSBMB) and the Faculty of Medicine, National University of
Singapore. Although the course is mainly targeted to members
of the SSBMB, a few "International Consulting Students"
will be admitted, partly in return for their work as translators
to languages like Greek, Chinese, Italian and Spanish.
Hypertextbook and developed media
are available for more courses. Because the organizational combination
of computer science and biology cannot hold step with their scientific unification
there will be demand for such a course for many years to come.
We offer our experiences
and course material to organizers of other courses: from CGI-scripts
for the survey to assistance in the organization of the lessons.
We enlarged chapter 1 and 2 of the Hypertext Coursebook to the
WWW-based hands-on training "Sequence
Analysis with Distributed Resources", which has become a regular
course for computer scientists and biologists at the University of Bielefeld.
In a follow-up project we want to give students from Bielefeld the
opportunity to work on projects together with partners from industry and
science, over the Internet.
A model of an inexpensive and interactive course on the basis
of standard technologies has been developed. It shows that where need
and motivation exist, education on the Internet is possible today
- without technical effort !