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Genomics online: Courses that reach more people, increase impact and improve careers

A conversation with Dr Pamela Black, Education Lead, Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences, Wellcome Genome Campus.

The Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences (ACSC) programme has been delivering cutting-edge biomedical training and conferences for more than 30 years. The programme recently launched a series of free online courses to complement its popular face-to-face events and to meet the growing demand for more flexible and accessible genomics-led training.

What prompted you to launch online courses?

As a leading provider of lab, computational and discussion-based courses that span basic research, cutting-edge biomedicine, and the application of genomics in healthcare, we were keen to enable as many researchers as possible to access training in genomics and bioinformatics.

Why did you feel there was a need for online courses?

We were unhappy at having to turn away so many applicants because our residential courses are oversubscribed. So, we developed ten free, online courses, open to all, with the aim to broaden global reach, and expand the diversity of our programme.

What is the appeal of online courses?

One of the most exciting things to have happened in terms of accessibility and diversity in continuing education is the rise of online professional development and social learning opportunities. Technology has opened the options for delivering advanced training, and there is growing recognition that online courses can boost education access for busy professionals, minority groups and researchers in resourced-limited regions. Learners are no longer restricted by timing, professional or other commitments, or, importantly, finance. We were keen to make online genomics training available to researchers and others who cannot travel to the Wellcome Genome Campus in Hinxton, UK. Since its launch in April 2018, our online programme has benefitted 11,000 learners from more than 140 countries.

How did you develop the online programme?

We worked with many leading scientists from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and other UK and overseas biomedical research and health organisations to develop courses on a range of topics, such as bacterial genomes, antimicrobial resistance, and computational tools for genome data analyses.

How does the online platform foster social learning?

We decided to partner with FutureLearn, UK-based digital learning experts, to present the courses. They have expertise in creating a social environment to support learning and encourage effective discussion throughout the learning process, which is tailored to individual needs. The course platform is excellent at providing a forum to talk through ideas, learn collectively and consolidate and enhance learning.

Are these courses new or based on existing ACSC programmes?

Our bacterial genomes series of online courses is based around our very popular face-to-face course ‘Working with Pathogen Genomes’. We designed the courses with Professor Nicholas Thomson from the Wellcome Sanger Institute to form a suite of training materials ranging from introductory concepts to advanced tools. Learners can choose some or all of the courses to meet their needs and to fit their career or project stage. We’re developing online courses with Health Education England and the University of Cambridge to help train the healthcare workforce in genomics and to increase provision of educational materials to those based in low-and-middle income countries.

What can learners expect from a typical course?

The courses are sponsored by us so they are free to everyone to enjoy ongoing access to all the material as well as a free certificate on satisfactory completion. Each course takes place twice a year, providing several opportunities to start, or return and complete the training. Content is delivered via a mix of videos, featuring scientists from leading international research institutes, articles, and tests and quizzes to check and validate learning. Some courses also include practical exercises and peer review activities, which reinforce learning and support course completion by the participants.

Is there a typical online course learner?

The courses reach a wide audience including biomedical researchers, healthcare professionals, undergraduates and even senior secondary school students. Our introductory course, ‘Bacterial Genomes: Disease Outbreaks and Antimicrobial Resistance,’ attracted researchers and clinical staff, as you might expect, but also undergraduates and interested members of the public who are keen to learn more about this topic. More advanced courses, developed with Dr. Anna Protasio from the University of Cambridge and her colleagues, are aimed at scientists and healthcare professionals needing to analyse bacterial genome data for research projects and diagnostic use.

These courses are valuable tools for Continuing Professional Development and some of the courses have also received professional accreditation.