Somewhere in Senegal, or maybe France, a student taking the HarvardX course “Fundamentals of Neuroscience” is anesthetizing a cockroach and studying the insect’s legs, in order to watch the electric patterns and hear the sound of its neurons at work.
You couldn’t ask for a better illustration of course creator David Cox’s belief that science is for everybody and, at its best, a DIY-endeavor.
Initially rolled out three years ago, “Fundamentals of Neuroscience” was one of the first MOOCs (massive open online courses) offered by HarvardX and it remains one of the most ambitious, both for its subject matter and its presentation.
It’s also been a popular success, with participants from more than 150 countries at last tally. The course, more like a sequence of stackable or standalone modules, has seen more than 210,000 unique visitors spend 120,000 hours exploring it.
“We cover the full range of biophysics, from the smallest part of a neuron up to the collective action of the brain,” says Cox, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and of computer science. “It’s a big, broad survey that builds up to the full organism, and we’ve organized the course from small to big.”
Three of four planned parts have been offered so far: “Electrical Properties of the Neuron” covers the fundamentals of how the components work; “Neurons and Networks” shows how they interact with each other; and “The Brain” examines how the organ functions and how sensory perception works.
But when those concepts are translated into the online format, the real fun begins. And yes, fun is the operative word: Cox and his collaborators favor a vibrant visual and directorial style for their course, taking full advantage of multimedia. The course sections come with futuristic synthesizer music, moving charts and graphs, and fanciful animations.
One such piece, “The Synapse” — produced and narrated by Nadja Oertelt, the course’s original senior project lead and producer — verges on the psychedelic with its Claymation imagery. Deep red electric charges shoot through the animated brain, a floating skull and crossbones represent psychic disorders, and, when Oertelt mentions how perception is seasoned over time, a guiding hand “opens” the head and seasons the brain with a shaker of salt.
“I think that it’s arbitrary to make a distinction between what is entertaining and what is educational,” Oertelt says. “The reality is that we need a more diverse scientific workplace, and we need to open that space to everybody. The way to do that is to make it feel friendly, not like something only a faculty member could understand.”
Cox met Oertelt when both were at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he as a graduate student and she as a research assistant. She is currently a senior producer at the digital media website Mashable. Both were inspired by the educational TV they grew up watching, and Cox credits Oertelt for giving the course its coherent look and feel.
And lest you conclude that online education isn’t brain surgery, sometimes it is. For one grittier segment, Oertelt interviewed a patient with Parkinson’s disease, and the camera followed the patient into the operating room where he received deep-brain stimulation to improve his motor functions.