What’s in a name?

When I was a postdoc, my university had a biology reading course for undergraduates. It was structured as a small seminar, and any postdoc or faculty member could choose a topic and lead a discussion group, provided enough students showed up. Excited, I wrote up a proposal on one of my favourite topics and handed it in. Time passed. Zero undergraduates signed up. Zero. I talked to the professor overseeing the course about possible reasons. “Maybe,” she said, “you should have chosen a sexier title.” I was astonished. How is “Computational Models in Biology and Biochemistry” not sexy enough?

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What I learnt from my first reading challenge

So, in August, I participated in my first tadoku (extensive reading) challenge. This is a brief update on what I learnt and why I am doing it again in October.

The aim of the challenge is to read and read and read (and record your reading) in a language that you are learning.The more you read, the more you win Points on the Internet, which is obviously awesome. On top of that, you learn the language. On top of that, you learn other things. Here are five things I learnt:

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Read to learn

I have always loved reading (well, ever since I’ve been able to read. Before that, I loved being read to. And before that, I can’t remember). And I have always had the suspicion that reading has helped me learn languages – first my own, and then others.

Now, when reading in a foreign language, I don’t have a dictionary by my side. I tried at first, but I found it tedious. If I don’t understand a word or a sentence, I’ll just read on. Maybe I’ll understand the next. Or not. But here is what I think: If a word is not important to the story, then it does not matter anyway. If it is important, it will likely show up several more times. If that happens, then its meaning will probably become clear from the context. If it does not become clear from the context but is obviously important, then at some point not knowing the meaning of the word will become sufficiently annoying, and I will finally get out the dictionary and look it up. This rarely happens, however.

For a long time, I have thought that this method of reading is just me being lazy. Turns out, it’s not. It is, in fact, a thing.

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Start MOOCing

I have recently registered for my first Massive open online course (MOOC). Basically these are online classes, delivered by university professors and accessible for free by anyone, anywhere in the world (provided they have internet). A tremendous idea! I decided to take a class on probabilities, both to refresh my knowledge in this area, and to get an idea of what these courses are like. Let me walk you through the experience so far:

First, I got an account at EdX, one of the companies that provide MOOCs. On the front page, you can see a list of participating universities:


You can browse the courses on offers. I decided to enroll for Stat 2.2X, a class offered by BerekelyX, after looking through the course description and requirements:


This course will take 5 weeks (I am currently in Week 2). Each week, the instructor uploads lecture slides and videos, which students can watch at their convenience:


At the end of each week, a problem set is due, which students can enter through the web interface. In addition, there will be a mid-term exam, and a final. Students can follow their progress through their course with the help of an online progress chart:

progress chart

So far, I am having great fun. The delivery of the lectures is great, and plenty of material is provided for further reading and practise. The workload is considerable (and especially, it’s impossible to take a week off), but since the entire course only lasts a few weeks, that’s fair enough. Students are provided with an online forum where they can discuss problems or ask for help (provided they don’t post answers to the assignment questions).

I have read about how MOOCs are a great resources for high school students preparing for college and for students in developing countries (there is a great article here, if you can read German). For me, it’s a great opportunity for continued professional development and lifelong learning. Also, I just really like doing problem sets. But maybe that’s just me …