Thursday, October 11, 2012

Grammar and Syntax Make Their MOOC Debut in Course Taught by Stanford Scientist

Grammar and syntax make their MOOC debut in course taught by Stanford scientist

Stanford medical faculty member Kristin Sainani launches an online science-writing class.

Kristin Sainani is teaching her 'Writing in the Sciences' course online for the first time this fall.

Here's a really bad sentence: "This paper provides a review of the basic tenets of cancer biology study design, using as examples studies that illustrate the methodologic challenges or that demonstrate successful solutions to the difficulties inherent in biological research."

Kristin Sainani – epidemiologist, statistician and writer – teaches scientists not to write like that. She does it in a classroom at Stanford's School of Medicine, and, since late September, she does it online, reaching thousands of scientists and would-be scientists who find cell structure way easier to master than sentence structure.


From a seed grant to a MOOC

Sainani's journey to the world of lights and cameras began in the summer when she received a seed grant from the office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning. She knew she wanted to reach more students than had been able to follow her classes in the past, including those who found her PowerPoint slides and YouTube videos. But she wasn't sure how to go about it.


The seed grant helped pay for technical assistance for transforming her traditional course and slides into a massive open online course (MOOC). Next she had to decide which platform would host her course. She weighed options for how to present the course online. For example, should students work in teams? Would they grade each other's work? Would they be willing to share unpublished scientific research?

By August she was experimenting in various recording studios and seeking advice from Stanford Online. She considered Stanford's homegrown platforms (Venture Lab and Class2Go), the School of Medicine itself (whose educational technology team helps faculty innovate in their teaching) and Coursera, where she ended up. [snip].

The fall course was to be a dual project: on one hand, a "flipped" classroom for her regular Stanford students, who will watch recorded lectures on their own time and spend class time on interactive, hands-on work; on the other, an opportunity for people around the country – or even beyond, if English was the language they used professionally. [snip]

Cutting the clutter


One of the early modules of her class is called "Cut the Clutter," where she displays one bad sentence after another, then red-pencils her way to concision and clarity. Sainani has an engaging, friendly voice, and because she has slashed and burned her way through bad prose many times, she sounds natural as she explains, for example, that "successful solutions" is redundant.

Once Sainani opted for Coursera, she began recording weekly in the company's Mountain View studio. She would spend several hours at a time going through all the modules of each unit (eight units in all, divided into around six modules apiece), then upload the recordings onto a flash drive, ... .


Unit 5 marks the point where she leaves non-scientists behind. It covers all the components of a scientific paper: tables and figures, results, methods, introduction, discussion and abstract. She explains the point of a good table by showing a bad table, in this case comparing good witches and bad witches (her young daughter's current interest) using a series of entirely irrelevant criteria (smoker, employment status, age, blood pressure) and absurd numbers (age taken out several decimal points, for example).


Writing in the Sciences launched Sept. 25, with nearly 30,000 signed up, though, as in all online classes, the number of students who watch the videos and do the homework drops off sharply. About 11,000 filled out the student survey the first week, a good indicator of how many are actually taking the class. Of those, around one-third are graduate students and one-quarter are scientists or engineers.

Sainani's promotional video for Coursera shows her in front of shelves and shelves of scientific journals full of presumably boring prose. Her mission, she told prospective students, was to provide them with the training – and the tricks – to enable scientific literature to change. [snip]

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