Penn State open online course 'infects' learners, causing a 'virtual pandemic'

A new "virtual epidemic apocalypse" game is one of the innovative components of a free massive open online course (MOOC) titled "Epidemics: the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases," that will be launched by Penn State University's Eberly College of Science on Oct. 15, 2013.

"As you are taking this science course, a virtual epidemic is unfolding, with the potential of infecting hundreds of thousands of people. Can we stop it and, if so, how?" said Marcel Salathe, the assistant professor of biology and of computer science and engineering who leads the team of eight Penn State faculty members who will teach the eight-week course.

"Our course is different from all the other massive open online courses out there," Salathe said. "Our students will take a leading role in controlling a virtual epidemic that is spreading worldwide in real time during the course by immediately applying the new scientific knowledge they are learning."

Salathe describes massive open online courses as an extremely rapidly unfolding movement throughout higher education for spreading knowledge globally. "It's impossible not to be fascinated by this new learning platform, especially for science courses" he said. "Coursera, the MOOC platform partnering with Penn State, went from 0 to 3,000,000 users just in its first year -- a growth rate that makes even Facebook look slow."

But Salathe also said there currently is one big problem with these free massive-enrollment courses. "MOOCs are exciting in the beginning, but interest quickly wanes and the percentage of students finishing the course typically is in the single digits." In contrast, he said, "Penn State's new epidemics course is going to break new ground in the MOOC world. This is not your grandmother's MOOC. We expect that integrating our epidemics game as a new form of learning within the MOOC platform will boost retention by making the entire learning experience much more engaging so that students will want to keep on learning until the last day of the course."

Students enrolled in "Epidemics: the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases" will begin by learning the basics -- the history of infectious diseases, important concepts of disease dynamics, parasite diversity, and the evolution and ecology of infectious diseases. They also will review such infectious-disease concepts as basic reproductive number, critical community size, epidemic curve, zoonoses, spill over, the human/wildlife interface, the roles of climate change and hot zones in the spread of diseases, and pathology. In addition, they will learn about transmission types -- droplets, vectors, and sex -- as well as drug resistance, superspreading, diffusion, social networks, and nosomical transmission. Students also will learn about some of the ethical challenges of disease control and how diseases ultimately can be controlled through vaccination, herd immunity, quarantines, antibiotics, antivirals and health communication.

In addition to Salathe, the other faculty members teaching the course include 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.

"We all are really excited to be exploring new ways to evolve this rapidly growing field of massive open online courses," Salathe said. "This new form of engaging a global community provides a perfect stage for launching a global virtual epidemic as a new way of sharing important knowledge about the science of epidemics with people all around the world."

Registration for "Epidemics: the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases," is online at

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Last Updated April 30, 2013