All posts by Aamirah Sonday

Learners share how the Understanding Clinical Research MOOC has helped them

StatsMed_courseImg_2_1920x1080Rafaella Gaetano is a young clinical research fellow working in the field of rare diseases at a hospital in Italy. She took the MOOC, Understanding Clinical Research: Behind the Statistics in order to get to grips with statistics in medical research and found the course extremely useful – simple and easy to follow, with appropriate material for her context.  

Rafaella’s story is very gratifying for Dr Juan Klopper who created the course in response to the ongoing problems his postgraduate medical students were having when starting out on their research.

As Rafaella explained, the course really helps to bridge the gap between the researcher and the statistical consultant. Frustrations are common when an inexperienced researcher approaches a statistical consultant for help – there is no common language or understanding on which to base the discussion. That is also why the UCT Clinical Research Centre is promoting the free online course enthusiastically – there is a shortage of taught support courses for clinical research, and an online offering allows for a great deal of flexibility of when you can take it.

Raphaella also found the flexibility very appealing as it allowed her to fit the course in around her work and other commitments rather than the other way around as is the case with face-to-face taught courses. Dr Klopper structured the course for those without a statistics background and to enable people, who had been previously very intimidated by statistics, to follow the material easily. The course promotes itself by specifically offering help:

If you’ve ever skipped over`the results section of a medical paper because terms like “confidence interval” or “p-value” go over your head, then you’re in the right place. You may be a clinical practitioner reading research articles to keep up-to-date with developments in your field or a medical student wondering how to approach your own research. Greater confidence in understanding statistical analysis and the results can benefit both working professionals and those undertaking research themselves. If you are simply interested in properly understanding the published literature or if you are embarking on conducting your own research, this course is your first step. It offers an easy entry into interpreting common statistical concepts without getting into nitty-gritty mathematical formulae. To be able to interpret and understand these concepts is the best way to start your journey into the world of clinical literature. That’s where this course comes in – so let’s get started! The course is free to enroll and take. (from the course enrolment page)

After launching in December 2015, now almost one year later, over 20 000 people have signed up for the course – which offers a new cohort every six weeks.

Reviews left on the course site and on class central have been very positive and it has received a 5-star rating on Class Central, a public MOOC aggregator site.

“What a great course! I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in clinical research and wants to understand how statistics is used in clinical research. I loved all aspects of the course. The lecture videos were short and crisp. Dr. Klopper is very engaging and explained even the hardest concepts really well.”

“It was an excellent course; comprehensive and very well-explained, indeed without needing to apply much mathematics. Therefore, the course is perfect for most researchers, doctors or allied personnel wanting to learn or enhance their understanding on the statistics behind research, beginners or semi-advanced. I would only recommend the teacher to include an extra week on survival analysis, a very important and frequently misunderstood topic. Thank you for the nice course.”

“These course gave me exactly what I needed as a med student in my clinical years- a practical guide to interpret and evaluate the results of clinical studies presented in articles. The lectures are clear and well organized. The lecture notes are priceless, and will serve me well in the future. Thank you Dr. Klopper for making this high value course and helping with my medical education:)”

“I would like to thank Juan and the organisers of this course. I would recommend this course to everyone who needs to know about stats. This is the first course on stat that I have completed and understood in great depth. This course helps you to develop deep and thorough understanding of choices of stats tests and justification for the choice. I can’t thank Juan enough. You’ve made difficulties in understanding stats in articles decrease to a great extent. I like that fact that you pull all the learnings together with a case study on how to link it all together. Thank thank you so much. I already recommended to a colleague. I will spread the news.”

Each time the course runs, there are over 1 000 people registered from across the world. Learners from 91 countries have taken the course and found it helpful – including people from India, Egypt, Canada, Mexico, Nigeria, the US, South Africa and let’s not forget, Italy! The course has proven its ability to cater for a need in many healthcare professionals who do not feel confident in reading and understanding clinical research statistical results. About 40% of those enrolled are postgraduate students – the primary target audience, but 60% are working professionals whom Dr Klopper knew needed support in interpreting and evaluating current medical literature, an essential basis of modern medical practice.

Julia is a language for the future – a sentiment shared by educators on the Julia Scientific Programming MOOC

Dr Henri Laurie (left) and Dr Juan Klopper (right) during the filming of the MOOC Julia Scientific Programming

We recently sat down with lead instructors, Dr Juan Klopper (department of surgery) and Dr Henri Laurie (department of mathematics and applied maths), of the Julia Scientific Programming MOOC on the Coursera platform. This 4 week course offers an introduction to the up and and coming programming language.

“Julia is a language for the future”, words by Dr Juan Klopper, lead educator in the Julia Scientific Programming MOOC. Julia is a modern dynamic programming language designed to address the requirements of high-performance numerical and scientific computing. It is the latest installment in UCT’s suite of online courses and although the topic may seem quite niche, both educators on the MOOC, Dr Klopper and Dr Henri Laurie say their main motivation behind doing this course is to educate those without a scientific background in computing.

“Julia is a language for the future”

“If you want a language to reach everybody you need to teach it from the ground up, it needs to go way beyond [being used by] developers,” explained an impassioned Dr Klopper. “In my mind Julia solves a lot of scientific and computing problems but is being used mainly by people with a background in scientific computing.” It is characterized as a language that is fast, easy to use and easy to learn, making it accessible and suitable to learn as a first programming language.

Dr Laurie plans on teaching Julia to his first year undergraduate students at the University of Cape Town. My hope is “that people do the course and become enthusiastic about Julia as a programming language”. “I have high and low expectations. Low, that UCT students will be able to use the programme and use it well enough for the demands of the undergraduate assignments” and “at the high end of the expectation; that people do the course and become enthusiastic about Julia as a programming language.”

A successful outcome of the MOOC for Dr Klopper would be if one person were to say they understood Julia because of this course.

For Dr Laurie it has been an interesting experience making his first MOOC; creating the online course has been fun and enjoyable, he said. When looking at MOOCs and online courses in general he has been intrigued by how rapidly “self-education” has taken off, although he still believes that a university education with face-to-face education is important.

On the other hand Dr Klopper promotes the future of MOOCs in higher education, although “not as a replacement of it, that was a silly dream,” he said, making reference to the initial overblown hype in the popular press of MOOCs bringing about the end to campus teaching. “There are a lot of courses that lend themselves to this form of education. People are getting the opportunity to educate themselves.” “I believe, not that MOOCs are a disruption of education but the democratisation of it.” Technology today allows for the physical constraint of a university’s capacity to be “null and void”.

Elaborating on why the MOOC format was suitable for the Julia course he explained that as Julia is a new language there are not many open educational resources (OERs) available on it. Although it may be new, Julia has been ranked as one of  the top 50 computer programming languages”.

Other than enjoying the process of making the MOOC Dr Klopper explained how he too learned new things, “it’s a whole other world compared to my day job and I didn’t mind taking after hours to get it done. I especially liked that I had to learn new things during the making of it and that I learnt from the people at CILT (Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching). What did I know about proper teaching, what did I know about assessment, that pushed me a lot. Learning those things from those experts, that was my personal gain”. He added that it may be helpful for academics at the university to engage more with educational experts to design better teaching programmes.

To learn more or to sign up for the course please visit

Exploring the challenge of mitigating climate change while promoting development

Climate Researchers at research collaboration workshop, Cape Town 2014. Photo credit: MAPS

The Climate Change Mitigation in Developing Countries course was developed by the University of Cape Town (UCT), and is being run on the US MOOC platform Coursera. One year on, this post looks at how the course has been received by participants and what their feedback has been about the central premise of the course, which is how to mitigate climate change while promoting development. The participant comments in this post have been drawn from the public ratings and comments left by learners.

Overall, the course has been well received and rated highly by participants with one remarking that this was a “Super-awesome course that taught me about the super-wicked problem of our time and how to effectively achieve climate change mitigation and development objectives from developing countries context.”

How can we mitigate climate change, while promoting development? These issues are both part of a complex system, and reconciling the two is what’s known as a “super wicked” problem. These are not easy to solve and there is generally is no one “correct” answer. Meeting conflicting demands of development and mitigation requires that stakeholders and decision-makers go through a process of co-producing knowledge about the system. In South Africa the Mitigation Action Plans and Scenarios (MAPS) initiative was developed to do just this.

As the course explains MAPS processes and uses its case studies from developing countries such as Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru as examples, with one participant finding that the course “explains the issue of how developing countries are facing climate change and on that aspect it presents the information not only the way they deal with it but the obstacles they encounter in the process. It also introduced very interesting concepts that could be used outside of this course.”

Along the way, participants learn about the importance of procuring a government mandate for the work, gathering credible data, how to select which scenarios to explore, what models are available, and their advantages and disadvantages. According to the case studies there is usually a gap between what the mitigation models indicate is achievable, and what is likely to be required to avoid severe climate change consequences. The course discusses possible solutions to closing this mitigation gap and the MAPS team share some ideas. Near the end the concept of “bridges” – between knowledge and domestic policy, and from domestic policy to international contributions and agreements is discussed. Through this holistic approach to the topic participants are exposed to a multifaceted view of climate change, with one commenting that the course was “outstanding, in terms of interest, inspiration [and] technical content‘ adding that it helped in “stimulating new ideas” and “learning from other course participants”.

Climate Change Mitigation consists of a series of online video lectures, peer-reviewed assignments and graded quizzes, and interactive discussion forums. Lead educator on the course is climate change expert Professor Harald Winkler, head of the UCT Energy Research Centre, and a long-time member of the South African delegation at the United Nations climate change negotiations. This course explores the challenges faced by developing country governments wanting to grow their economies in a climate friendly way, and addresses the complexity inherent in lifting societies out of poverty while also mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. It achieves this without being too technical making it “An excellent course to understand the mitigation process”, according to a recent participant.

The course is suited to climate change practitioners, development workers, students, lecturers and teachers, or simply those who are curious about how climate mitigation is understood.

As Professor Winkler explains: “This course is for those who want to tackle the tough challenges of development and climate change … I really hope that this course will inspire you to take action and to make a difference in your context. It’s only by everyone acting together that we can hope to solve the development and climate challenge.”

See the course overview on the  sign-up page