Thousands fight a virtual pandemic in 'Epidemics' MOOC

October 17, 2013

More than 29,000 people are signed up for a massive open online course (MOOC) titled "Epidemics: the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases" that opened this week. During part of this course, thousands of participants will be simultaneously fighting a virtual epidemic on their cellphones and tablets.

The course, offered by Penn State University's Eberly College of Science, "is different from all the other massive open online courses out there in a number of ways," said Marcel Salathe, the assistant professor of biology and of computer science and engineering who leads the team of eight Penn State faculty members teaching the eight-week course. "This is a multi-faculty course, meaning learners are exposed to the material from a leading expert in the field. On a weekly basis, we will release a video discussing questions that the learners have posted in the forums, making the course much more interactive than traditional MOOCs. Finally, a virtual epidemic will be unfolding during the course, and the learners will be able to determine the fate of the epidemic with their mobile device."

The location-based game "Moocdemic" simulates the spread of an infectious disease, and lets players spread it and attempt to control the outbreak. It is playable from any mobile device with a Web browser. Users can play without partaking in the course and vice versa.

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 zero to 5 million users in just over a 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 weekly 'Ask Us Anything' videos and the epidemic 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

Registration for the epidemic game "Moocdemic" is online at

  • Logo for the online course "Epidemics - the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases"
    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated October 17, 2013