Coursera Epidemic MOOC logo

One of the issues that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) face is low retention numbers, but a Penn State MOOC has bucked that trend. “Epidemics–the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases” is a Penn State course offered via the MOOC platform Coursera, and in its first year it has posted retention numbers twice or better than that of other Coursera MOOCs.

Coursera statistics show that their retention numbers are anywhere from 3 to 7 percent, while the epidemics MOOC had retention numbers of approximately 14 percent. Matt Ferrari, assistant professor of biology, notes that the structure of the course, taught by a diverse group, is one of the reasons for its success, along with the subject matter. “We designed this so it would be appealing to everyone,” he said. “Plus, infectious disease is something that’s all around us, all the time, and everyone’s impacted by it. Everybody gets a cold at some point in the year.”

The group of eight faculty members and 10 graduate students running the epidemics MOOC made for a unique and diverse team, Megan Kohler, an instructional designer in Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT), said. The lead faculty member was Marcel Salathe, an assistant professor of biology and of computer science and engineering. Joining Salathe were Ottar N. Bjornstad, a professor of entomology; Andrew Read, the Alumni Professor in the Biological Sciences; Rachel A. Smith, an associate professor of communication arts and sciences and of human development and family studies; Mary L. Poss, a professor of biology and of veterinary and biomedical sciences; David P. Hughes, an assistant professor of biology and of entomology; Peter Hudson, the Willaman Chair in Biology; and Matthew Ferrari, an assistant professor of biology. Also on the team was Megan Kohler, instructional designer with Teaching and Learning with Technology, who worked with the faculty and graduate students to design the epidemics MOOC.

Ferrari noted that a goal of the course was to help people learn how to process everything they hear in the media about infectious diseases and pandemics, noting that there is a lot of confusing information being shared. Hopefully, he said, by the end of the course people would have the basic vocabulary and the basic skills necessary to really process all that information.

While they reached a broad spectrum of learners, Ferrari noted that there were people who actually worked in the healthcare industry enrolled in the MOOC, such as medical technicians and people who work in hospitals. “These are people who are surrounded by these biological processes and concepts all the time, but they wanted to learn a little bit more about what is going on in the environment around them,” he said.

Spencer Carran, graduate student in biology, agreed with Ferrari and noted the different types of professionals who would find the course useful. “This could include medical students or physicians wanting a better grounding in public health questions, epidemiologists interested in learning more about infectious disease specifically, ecologists who might like to see how aspects of the field relate directly to human populations, or mathematicians/statisticians to see where some methods of their fields are applied,” Carran said.

Carran’s role in the course was one he shared with nine other graduate students, monitoring the MOOC’s discussion group forums. The graduate students acted as moderators for the discussions, making sure the discussions were civil and met the needs of the MOOC students. Each graduate student handled a forum that best met their research interests; in Carran’s case, he monitored discussions on vaccination and population dynamics as applied to public health management. He even created subforums based on new interests that cropped up as the course progressed. “When a reasonably sized subset of students took an interest in learning and discussing more about mathematical modeling than was covered in the main course, I created a new subforum and compiled additional resources for them,” he said.

The amount of people monitoring the forums is a factor that Kohler believes played a part in the MOOC’s success. She gave an example of a graduate assistant who spent up to ten hours per week just working on the MOOC discussion boards, figuring out what questions people were asking and responding to them.

“I think that is another aspect of why this course was so successful,” Kohler said. “We had almost 20 people going into the discussion boards and actually interacting and engaging with learners. Whereas in a typical MOOC, you’ve got one faculty member doing that and there’s just not enough time for them to respond to everyone.”

Along with forums, another interesting aspect of the epidemic MOOC is gaming. The course featured two games that were developed by students of Salathe’s, Todd Bodnar and Ellis Campbell. Ferrari said the games can be played on either a mobile device or laptop and include two games, “MOOCdemic” which was developed by Bodnar, and “Vax” which was developed by Campbell.

These games feature a virtual epidemic unfolds throughout the course of the MOOC. In the games, students would look for signs of illnesses, and they would get alerts on their mobile devices that they would have to investigate. At one point, a mutant strain of the disease would arise, and infect some of the players, who would in turn infect other players. “It was fun for us, the faculty, in that we were able to then watch how this thing spread through the community of players,” Ferrari said. “The games ended up being a really useful tool in the course because it engaged students. They were active in something all the time, everyday, even when they weren’t watching the videos. And we made all the data that came out of this freely available. So students were making maps and visualizing where all the other learners were.”

The map part of the game had an added benefit, Ferarri notes. “The game’s map ended up being a really powerful thing,” he said. “Because you could see that you were part of this big community of people that were both playing the game and learning about this stuff at the same time. So I think that was really engaging.”

The games also addressed specific aspects of epidemics. For example, Vax helped students get a feel for some of the challenges in public health management decisions and introduced a competitive aspect as students tried to beat high scores for containing an epidemic. “The games gave students the ability to participate in something that unfolded in a unique way during class, making the MOOC more dynamic and interactive than the too-common MOOC model that mostly boils down to leaving static content sitting around Internet and hoping people take an interest,” Carran said.

To pull all of this together, Ferrari said that they needed a facilitator/project manager, a role that he gave credit to Kohler for filling in a capable manner. “Megan just kept everything on track. Kept us all going, encouraged us we needed it, reminded us when we weren’t getting things done, and then facilitated all the development between us on the academic side and the WPSU studios on the technical side in terms of getting the animations created and getting the videos put together,” he said.

Ferrari said that Kohler was important in this role because the faculty wanted a high-quality look and strong content, but lacked some of the technical skills needed to take the MOOC to a higher level. “We just didn’t know how to get from content that we could write down on a piece of paper,” he said, “To a video based on that content that was actually going to get shown to the learners online. And Megan and the other folks at TLT who helped to facilitate that were absolutely instrumental in making this thing work.”

To learn more about MOOCs, please register for the “MOOCS By Design” Webinar to be held April 14-18 from 3:00-4:30 p.m. EST at

Share →
Skip to toolbar