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SysMIC: an interactive distance learning course

The SysMIC project team explains the project, which involves a consortium of universities providing a distance learning course via an online, interactive web environment.

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11 September 2013

Teaching maths to biology PhDs

The project began because the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) found most people doing biology-related PhDs were not particularly literate in mathematics.

The Council’s vision was to apply more research funding to systems biology, which focuses on building mathematical models of various aspects of biology.

They were keen to help provide training so more people can work in this area and interdisciplinary research could become more widespread.

You need to be more mathematically literate to understand biology in general these days: those who aren’t can find it difficult to keep up with cutting-edge research.

A call was made for bids to provide a set of distance learning courses focusing on biologists’ mathematical skills.

Universities collaborating to create a training solution

UCL formed a consortium for a successful bid with:

Creating a tailored online learning environment

Moodle, UCL's online learning platform, only allows registered UCL students to log in, so we decided to host our own online version of the platform.

Distance learning materials are significantly harder to prepare than lecture materials because when online you can’t finesse your way around errors and you can’t explain things that are unclear in the notes.

For that reason, we are developing relevant interactive online tutorials and support resources.

We chose to format materials in the LaTeX system, which is used extensively in mathematically oriented scientific papers as it lets you draw tables and add mathematical notation to documents, and are now developing our own interactive system which does things like revealing answers to questions, allowing students to change the parameters of graphs and so on.

We plan to spend between now and November adding more features – for example, we want students to be able to log in and add their own markers containing comments.

These would be shared so that, rather than students having to go separately to a forum and see whether anyone has been talking about that particular part of the text, they can expand the marker and join the conversation. It will become a much more dynamic document.

Involving PhD students to provide live support

Unlike many online courses, we also offer forum support (which comes from a group of second- and third-year PhD students at UCL) and in-person meet-ups.

We have funding to run 18 one-day workshops and six residential retreats around the country per year, and we’re looking into setting up video-conferencing for students who can’t physically attend.

Of course, when a PhD student is working on a complicated research question, which does become a possibility during the third module, they need to consult their own tutors. However, homogenising the aspects that have been identified as being important for everyone and providing them online saves individual universities having to develop their own material.

Launching the course

We began work on the course in January 2012 and started running it in November with a pilot group of UCL PhD students, with Dr Chris Barnes taking responsibility for a large share of the teaching.

It then became available to all of the BBSRC-funded PhD students in January 2013 as a three-module course, at six-months each, so they’re just coming up to the end of the first module now.

We’ve got a number of years in which we can refine and improve what we’ve done, but we’ve got off to a really good start and the student feedback has been positive.

From a cohort of 130, we’re expecting a completion rate of around 50%, which for a free and non-compulsory e-learning course is pretty good.

Implementing assessment

For now, there isn’t a formal assessment because it’s a challenge to get a course like this accredited by any individual university.

However, we do have various ways of gauging an individual’s engagement with the course – looking at the scores they’ve got for the online tests, forum contribution etc – and we are even planning to formally acknowledge people who have made suggestions on how the course could be improved on the website.

We’ve also been given an E-Learning Development Grant to investigate the possibility of recognising students’ work using Mozilla Open Badges.

The future: making training available to all

In the future we hope to be able to take SysMIC outside academia and into commercial industrial and biomedical spheres, providing training that is focused around the skills that are needed in the workplace, rather than the knowledge that universities think people ought to have!

In the shorter term, though, we’re doubling our intake in November, which is very positive for the students as they’ll have a wider support network. In terms of platform, the UCLeXtend project team are working on ways of providing UCL courses to non-UCL users, and we are planning to participate in their pilot project.

Everyone providing online courses is faced with the conundrum of how to get high recruitment, high retention and high quality all at the same time – and that’s what we plan to crack.


Case study produced by Gerold Baier, Chris Barnes, Phil Lewis, James Smith, Nadine Mogford, Adrian Shepherd and Geraint Thomas.