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Monday, August 5, 2013

Experiences with an online genetics class

For the last 12 weeks I took a class through Coursera titled "Useful Genetics" taught by Dr. Rosemary Redfield.  She is a professor of Zoology from the University of British Columbia.  Since it was free, and on genetics, you know I couldn't pass it up.  When I first signed up for the class I wrote a post on it, which you can read here.  We found out from the professor at the end of the course that it will be offered again in September.  In light of this I thought I would take a few minutes to tell you about it, why it might be useful for genealogists, and what my personal experiences were.

Dr. Redfield was an energetic lecturer and made the videos animated and lively.  From the course website, she states her objective was to “provide a solid understanding of the genetics principles and issues that affect us all, in the framework of a college-level course in basic genetics.  Useful Genetics was developed specifically for Coursera - there is no equivalent face-to-face course.”  She wrote an article in July 2012 describing why she designed this new style of genetics course for the 21st century student.

There are no pre-requisites for the class and it is taught as an overview of the subject that will interest people who want to know more about how genetics may impact their lives.  Yes, there is quite a bit of scientific discussion and in depth explanation of biological and chemical processes, but only enough so that you can understand the bigger picture the professor was lecturing on.  However, while the course offers a graded option, you can audit it without worrying about passing the class.

In all there are 10 modules, a midterm, and a final equaling 12 weeks of work.  Each module has several short lectures which are usually 2-3 hours of watching time.  There is also a practice quiz, in some modules questions for discussion, and a graded quiz. Finally, I was very happy to dsicover there were no textbooks to purchase. Several links to free textbooks are listed which you can download as well as articles and further readings on related topics to supplement the lectures. Luckily I kept all my genetics texts from college and
found that most of the information had really not changed since the mid 90s.

In the lectures plant and animal genetics are discussed in addition to human genetics.   For the genealogists out there, she includes an entire module that covers personal genomics.  In it Dr. Redfield covers what we like to hear about, why we are who we are.  In that lecture series you receive a detailed discussion on inheritance of genes as well as a description on genetic testing for health and genealogy purposes.   

From the website, here is the description of the class modules:
  • Module 1. How different are we?  Introduction to DNA, genes and chromosomes and the relationships between human populations.
  • Module 2. How DNA molecules change.  The causes and consequences of mutations.
  • Module 3. DNA differences and gene functions.  How genetic differences affect the activities of individual genes.
  • Module 4.  Predicting the effects of genetic differences.  How interactions between different genes determine their effects; genetics of cancer.
  • Module 5.  Personal genomics.  Kinds of DNA typing and genome analysis, and what can be learned from them.
  • Module 6.  The mechanics of inheritance.  How genes and chromosomes are transmitted through the generations.
  • Module 7.  Inheritance of genetic characteristics.  Analyzing genetic probabilities and risks in populations and families.  Plant and animal breeding.  Genetically modified organisms.
  • Module 8.  Linkage, sex-linkage and paternity.  How the organization of genes on chromosomes affects their inheritance.
  • Module 9.  Heritability.  How the effects of genes are identified and what can be learned from this analysis.
  • Module 10.  Lots more cool stuff we now can consider.  Mitochondrial genes and mutations, genetic mosaicism, fetal DNA in mothers, epigenetic inheritance, and other topics students may suggest.
The forums are like the discussion groups and office hours you would go to in a traditional college setting.  You can get clarification on videos, help each other on practice problems, talk about the quizzes, discuss genetics in the news, and much more.  This is where you can have as much, or as little, interaction with the course as you like.  Personally, it was very overwhelming for me and I participated in the forums just on the quizzes and practice problems section.  The other boards could get heated at times and I really didn’t want to get involved with that.

For those that really want to get the most out of the course, make sure you complete the quizzes and problems.  The practice quiz will help you gauge what you do and do not know before you take the graded one.  I found that printing out the discussion problems before I started watching the videos was very helpful.  It allowed me to watch the video, look for important information, and take notes next to the questions on where to find the answers for later reference. 

All the quizzes, midterm, and final are multiple choice questions.  You can take the practice quiz as many times as you like but the graded quizzes and exams you can only submit once.  Multiple choice questions can be good or bad depending on how you take exams.  Personally, I always do worse on multiple choice quizzes and better on essay or short answer. You may not have this problem, but I wanted to make sure you knew.

In the course wrap up it was revealed to us that we were participating in the inaugural class.  Our feedback, suggestions, and experiences were being taken in to adjust and tweak the class for the future sessions.  I think that genealogists who have an honest interest to learn more about the ins and outs of genetics would benefit from this class.

Let me know if you take this class and if you enjoyed it as much as I did.  Even if you only audit the class, and don’t take it as a graded class through the signature track program, I am sure that you could still learn a lot.  It has been about 15 years since I sat in a genetics class and because the science has changed I was able to learn more. Plus brush up on skills that were fuzzy from lack of use.

Now to wait for my final grade to come in.


  1. I was glad to read your comments. I am signed up to take the next session that begins in September. I am currently finishing up a course in epigenetics through coursera which is excellent. Within that class there have been several people who were taking Useful Genetics at the same time. They were very frustrated and warned us against taking it. A lot of frustration apparently was because of some of the questions on the quizzes/final where no explanation was provided for incorrect answers. In one bold move, they convinced the professor from epigenetics to choose the correct answer on a multiple-choice question from the exam. She went through each possible response and explained why none of the choices was exactly right. She was sure what answer should have been chosen, but said the teacher incorrectly used the word fetus when it should have been embryo at the stage of development discussed. At any rate, I'm going to take the course and see how it goes. I also HIGHLY RECOMMEND Eric Landers' course, "The Secret of Life" offered through It is very science-based, however. A new session begins in September.

    1. As a person with a background in genetics I thought this would be a relatively easy review course for me. I was, at times, extremely frustrated with the professor and course. However, I figured it was being out of practice and my first course "back" since college. My husband laughed when I would argue out loud with the computer screen.

      However, in the last video of the course I was very happy to hear the professor talk about our grievances and how we made her look at the exams and quizzes differently. She was surprised that we had many of the same complaints as her former students. Since we were regular people taking the class, and had the same problems, she saw how the course needed to be restructured.

      That being said, I scored in the top 80% of the distribution of grades on each module, midterm, and final. If she does a bell curve for the grades I should end up with ~ 75-85%. If she does raw scores it will be more like ~ 50-60%.

      even if you just audit the class there is a ton of excellent information in it. I would recommend it just for the lectures and the supplemental information.

      Thanks for the tip on the other course. I will check it out.