August 2013

The brains behind Coursera’s neuroscience offering

Coursera, one of the outfits offering massive online open courses, has had almost four dozen life sciences classes since its launch in April 2012. Henry Lester, professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology, earlier this year wrapped up a Coursera class of his own design. At the start of Lester’s “Drugs and the Brain” in late 2012, about 60,000 students were enrolled. In the end, about 4,400 students received certificates of accomplishment, denoting satisfactory completion of the course requirements. ASBMB Today’s editor, Angela Hopp, completed the course and later talked to Lester about his motivations for teaching it, the challenges he encountered along the way and the advice he’d give those tossing around the idea of one day teaching a MOOC. His responses have been edited for length, style and clarity.

Henry Lester
Photo courtesy of Bill Youngblood

Tell us about the origins of your “Drugs and the Brain” course.
In the late ’90s, the Caltech faculty decided that all Caltech grads need to have taken a course in biology — a pretty easy decision. The burden fell to those who could actually teach a required course in biology for nonbiology majors. Several tried teaching Biology 1, with lots of objections from the chemistry, physics and math undergraduates who felt that biology was simply memorization-rich and could not be derived from first principles.
Around the year 2000, I was serving on the National Advisory Mental Health Council. I offered to take over Biology 1, transforming it into a course that would convince Caltech undergraduates in chemistry, physics, engineering and mathematics to become neuroscientists so that they could find solutions for neural diseases. Many of us think that these are a major problem of the 21st century. So I conceived of a course in the neuroscience of disease.
At dinner, I told my family about this plan. My children, who were high-school students at the time, screwed up their noses and said, “Dad, this won’t work. We are late-stage teenagers. So are Caltech freshmen. We all think that we’re immortal. We have no interest in disease. Come up with a different plan.” I went to my room and sulked. At dinner the next night, I said, “I have a different plan. I’m going to teach a course called ‘Drugs and the Brain.’” My wife and children each put two thumbs up.
So I taught “Drugs and the Brain” to Caltech freshmen for seven years. Beginning in 2008, I modified this course to become a general “Introduction to Neuroscience” course for biology majors, taught with Ralph Adolphs. Ralph and I allow video recordings of our lectures for the benefit of the students. When Caltech made an agreement with Coursera, the vice provost for instruction asked whether I would take the trouble to adapt those videos for Coursera. As usual in people’s lives, you have no idea how much work is involved.
How much prep time was required for the course?
Beginning in June of 2012, I modified the material for the online course. Each of the 52 10-minute minilectures required six to eight hours. It’s not actually a Caltech course yet, although it overlaps heavily with “Introduction to Neuroscience.” Some of my introductory neuroscience course students took the online course for extra credit.
It looks like more than half of the “Introduction to Neuroscience” class at Caltech participated in the “Drugs and the Brain” class on Coursera to earn that extra credit. What kind of feedback did you get from those students?
The feedback was very positive and advised us to structure the course so that it would be a full Caltech course, independent of our “Introduction to Neuroscience” course. I intend to expand “Drugs and the Brain” and make it into a simultaneous online/Caltech course.
How did you determine when you should weigh in on discussions being held in the forums?
I set up a special forum for feedback on my lectures. That forum was informally known as “Mistakes in Henry Lester’s Lectures.” I carefully monitored that forum. I learned that there was at least one person more expert than myself on every topic, with the possible exception of my most recent paper on nicotinic receptor biophysics. (Editor’s note: Lester also weighed in on other forums but credits Ph.D. student Crystal Dilworth for skillfully doing the heavy lifting.)
About one-fifth of the “Drugs and the Brain” students reported that they had friends or family members with a brain condition of some sort, and some indicated in the forums that they had them themselves. How did that influence your course?
I think this is wonderful, and I was glad to see that the students regulated themselves in the sense of discouraging and not asking for confidential medical information and advice. It was helpful to have some students who had personal experience and very helpful to have other students who had professional experience.
I was amused at one student who requested information on generalized anxiety disorder — and who repeated this question three times simultaneously in three different forums. Another student said, “You know, I’m having trouble concentrating on just the video window on my computer, and it’s even worse on my phone. And could you please include material on (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)?”
Did you have experience with online-learning environments before you joined Coursera? How did you prepare?
No, so I had to learn production value and introductions and transitions from the wise counselors at Coursera and from our own digital media experts at Caltech.

“Drug and the Brain” overview

Week 1. Introductory concepts. Drugs, drug receptors, neuroscience. Resting potentials. Equivalent circuits.
Week 2. Drugs open and block ion channels. Dose-response relations. Desensitization. Epilepsy drugs. Drugs activate and block G protein pathways.
Week 3. Drugs block neurotransmitter transporters. Recreational drugs. Nicotine addiction.
Week 4. Drugs for neurodegenerative diseases.
Week 5. Drugs for psychiatric diseases. Developing new drugs.

By the numbers

Below are some findings from the post-course survey, which was completed by 4,353 students.
Top 10 student locations 

  1.   1. U.S. (1,358)
  2.   2. Spain (256)
  3.   3. Brazil (221)
  4.   4. U.K. (210)
  5.   5. India (165)
  6.   6. Canada (160)
  7.   7. Russia (126)
  8.   8. Australia (122)
  9.   9. Portugal (119)
  10. 10. Germany (110)

Students with degrees and professional certifications 

  • • 44% reported having undergraduate degrees in the sciences or humanities
  • • 26% reported having master’s degrees
  • • 10% reported having Ph.D.s
  • • 7% reported having medical degrees
  • • 75% reported having professional certifications in fields other than the health sciences

What were some of the most important points you took away from more than 2,000 comments that students contributed to the post-course survey?
For academic professionals, the quantum of professional achievement is the good paper published and the good career launched. I was not initially certain how either of those goals would fit into an online course. But I was gratified to see the amount of attention that a couple of dozen students paid to a field I’m trying to launch called “inside-out neuropharmacology.” Pleasingly, a couple of dozen students mentioned in the feedback that they found that this was the most exciting and interesting part of the course. So, as for the professional impact of teaching a course, it really did work in this instance.
Other Caltech colleagues ask, “Well, should I write a textbook, or should I teach a MOOC?” The now-obvious answer is this: “Write the draft of your textbook. Teach a MOOC with it. You’ll receive intense and complete feedback to improve the textbook.”
According to your post-class survey results, less than one-third of the students enrolled in “Drugs and the Brain” were based in the United States. Do you feel like that will influence how you teach it in the future?
There are going to be two fundamental issues … The first is language. I think that will solve itself with automatic translation programs and with study groups. The second is not so easy, and that is time zones. Three, four, five years from now — when the technology and communications and bandwidth are much better than at present — we’re still going to have to figure out how to deal with people for whom it’s the middle of the night. How can they communicate with people who are at their afternoon best here? I think that it does interfere with the quality of discussions and will eventually limit real-time video chats like Google Hangouts.
Do you have any advice for those who might be thinking about putting on a Coursera course?
My modus operandi was “Keep it as rigorous as you like intellectually but as simple as possible logistically.”
Another way to think about a MOOC distinguishes research on teaching from teaching of research. Research on teaching studies what works best for imparting knowledge and what gets students excited. The folks at Coursera and other places have a vast amount of information on that topic, and I have been really interested in what can be learned.
The question of how you teach a person to do research is also complex, and some ASBMB members are very interested! That’s going to involve writing and interactions with the course staff in ways that we’re only beginning to think about now.

Angela HoppAngela Hopp ( is editor of ASBMB Today. Follow her on Twitter at

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