Remote Use of Web 2.0 Technology by MSc Structural Molecular Biology Students from the Global South

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Sansom, Clare
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PCF5 Sub-theme: Health // The School of Crystallography at Birkbeck College, London, has been in the forefront of Internetbased distance education at postgraduate level since the mid-1990s. The first Web-based certificate course, Principles of Protein Structure, was launched in 1996. Since 2001, we have offered a full Masters’ degree. The MSc Structural Molecular Biology is a two-year, part-time modular course: all students take Principles of Protein Structure in the first year, and in the second they are offered a choice between a specialist module in protein crystallography and a more general one, Techniques in Structural Molecular Biology. That course includes the theory behind some basic molecular biology techniques, the three main structural biology techniques of X-ray crystallography, nuclear magnetic resonance and electron microscopy, and some biophysics including an introduction to protein-protein interactions. Bioinformatics, in the form of computational analysis of protein sequences and structures, is covered where appropriate throughout the whole syllabus, and each course includes an element of independent project work. So far, about fifty students have obtained the MSc, and many others have passed one or more individual certificates. Some of these, taking the courses simply for continuing professional development, choose not to take examinations, so it is difficult to judge completion rates; however, since 2001 only six students who chose to take the full MSc have failed. // In the academic year 2008-9 the course structure will be changing to fit in with Birkbeck College’s Common Awards scheme, with the whole course worth 180 credits at Master’s level. Each taught double-module will be worth sixty credits, with the final sixty credits made up with project work. Exit points will be offered after sixty credits (for a Certificate) and 120 credits (for a Diploma). // Until very recently, the range of software that students use to display and interact with course material throughout the MSc programme of study has been relatively simple and straightforward. Teaching material is mounted on a dedicated web server, password protected and made available to registered students every few weeks, section by section. Principles of Protein Structure in particular, relies on the use of molecular visualization packages that allow students to manipulate molecules in three dimensions, to rotate, scale and alter display features in order to investigate aspects of their structure and function. We originally made extensive use of Rasmol (Sayle & Milner-White, 1995) which was perhaps the first affordable protein visualisation package that was fast enough to allow real-time image manipulation on desktop machines. We have now replaced this with Jmol, in which students can visualize interactive molecules embedded in web pages (Sansom et al., 2005). Communication between students and teachers has generally been using email discussion lists and a text-based virtual reality environment, the “MUD” (Multi-User Dimension) which allows students and tutors to “chat” in real time. This technology flourished briefly in the 1990s and can be thought of as a precursor of the “social software” that is currently extremely popular. It is now relatively little used, but educationalists class it as a valid example of text-based real time communication that can offer “the ideal teaching situation of a tutor-student discussion, though at a distance” (Laurillard. 1993). In an early evaluation of the course technology (Sansom & Moss, 2000) the students described it as one of the most popular features of the course. // Paper ID 327