Vincent Racaniello: Earth's Virology Professor

P&S professor offers free virology course via Internet

July 26, 2013
Vincent Racaniello Columbia University Medical Center virologist

For most of his 30-plus years at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, Vincent Racaniello taught virology in the same way: He stood up in front of a small number of graduate students in a lecture room and talked.

But five years ago Racaniello—tired of misinformation about viruses spread by mass and social media—decided to offer his expertise to a wider audience. The weekly podcast This Week in Virology was born in 2008 and soon began reaching thousands of listeners.

Now Racaniello has his sights on reaching an even wider audience: the world.

Anyone with an Internet connection can sign up for Racaniello’s new introductory virology course, Virology I: How Viruses Work, through the Coursera platform. The 11-week course starts August 1, and more than 20,000 people have already signed up. (Virology II will be offered in the autumn.)

We recently spoke with Professor Racaniello (via email) about the upcoming Coursera course, one of the first offered by a Columbia instructor.

Why did you decide to offer a virology course on Coursera?

I've always enjoyed teaching. Four years ago, I decided to start an undergraduate virology course at Columbia. Such a course had not been offered since the 1980s, and I thought that this was a serious omission for a first-class university.

The goal of Biology W3310 is to provide an understanding of how viruses are built, how they replicate and evolve, how they cause disease, and how to prevent infection. The course also provides the knowledge required to make informed health decisions about thorny issues such as immunization against viral infections.

Sadly, the press is often confused when it comes to explaining viruses. Students of my course will be better prepared to read information in the lay press about dual-use research, outbreaks of new viral diseases, and the fact that some viruses are actually good for us. And if some Columbia students one day become journalists or politicians, they will be better equipped to understand viruses.

Course enrollment has steadily increased: 45 students in 2009, 66 students in 2010, 87 students in 2012, and an amazing 185 students this year. I am convinced that the course is so popular in part because of my wide exposure in social media: blog, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, Google +.

As part of the course, I routinely record video and audio of each lecture and make them available to everyone in the course and to the rest of the world. I also place the lectures on iTunes University. In the past two years, nearly 100,000 students have registered for the iTunes U course. For a professor used to teaching relatively small numbers of students in a classroom, this reach is truly amazing.

In the past year Columbia signed an agreement with Coursera, and I was asked by Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia's Chief Digital Officer, and Maurice Matiz, director of the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, to put my course there. I jumped at the opportunity: Some Coursera courses achieve over 100,000 enrollment!

It is my goal to be Earth’s virology professor, and this is my virology course for the planet.

Virology with Vincent Racaniello

What’s different about teaching online vs. in person?

The main difference, of course, is that you don't get to see students face to face. However, many students who take my Columbia virology course don't come to lectures; they do very well just listening to the recorded lectures.

The online lectures are the same ones I give in the Columbia course, except for Coursera they are broken into smaller segments, contain embedded questions, and have opportunities for online tests. There is also a Coursera discussion board that will allow students to ask questions and discuss the course.

One significant difference is that there is no limit to how many students I can teach online. Technologies like Coursera bring information to many people. Because the courses are free, it is possible to educate individuals who would not be able to attend Columbia or another great university. I believe this is a win-win situation. Universities have nothing to lose; they will still attract many great students. And the online courses bring additional recognition by disseminating the great work done at the university, which can only lead to more students being interested in attending.

Educating the world is wonderful because it can potentially elevate the knowledge of everyone in society, not just those who are able to attend university.

What advice do you have for other CUMC professors who are interested in offering an online course?

I think it would be great if other CUMC professors gave online courses. The first step is to have a great course to begin with. This is not easy and takes a lot of work.

One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to teach most of the course yourself—do not give a team-taught course. Such courses are uneven and suffer from a lack of coherence. Having one or two professors teach a course is much better; students get to know the professors, and in turn the professors can infuse the course with their personalities. This is just as important as the course material.