The emergence of a potential pandemic has always been a favorite topic for Hollywood, which has given us some good films in the genre in recent years such as The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak and Contagion. While humans eventually defeat the virulent virus in these storylines, there is an implicit and underlying message in each movie – there is a very real threat that one day society will have to deal with a virus or drug-resistant bacterium that quickly evolves and spreads rapidly on a global scale and therefore becomes extremely difficult to contain.

Is society prepared to deal with such an eventuality? Highly pathogenic organisms continue to rear their ugly heads. Over the last decade we have already encountered the influenza A virus subtype H5N1 and the coronavirus, which caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

The more we know about the biology of the pathogen the better able we are to counteract the infectious threat. Such was the case with SARS, the genetic make-up of the implicated coronavirus was rapidly determined. As a result, since 2004, there have not been any known cases of SARS reported anywhere in the world. (See the article "Emerging Virus has WHO's Attention" in this issue.)

Education about how these viruses appear in the ecosystem and the type of surveillance and countermeasures that are required is also important.

Helping to understand how an infectious disease agent takes root and eventually manifests itself into a pandemic capable of infecting hundreds of thousands of people is one of the teaching goals of a free massive open online course (MOOC), titled "Epidemics: the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases," that will be launched by Penn State University's Eberly College of Science in the fall of this year.

A new "virtual epidemic apocalypse" game is one of the innovative components of the syllabus embodied in this new form of learning platform, Marcel Salathé, assistant professor of biology and computer science and engineering at Penn State, told BioWorld Insight.

He will be leading a team of eight Penn State faculty members who will teach the eight-week course that will start with the history of infectious diseases, address important concepts of disease dynamics, parasite diversity, and the evolution and ecology of infectious diseases.

Students will review such infectious-disease concepts as basic reproductive number, critical community size, epidemic curve, zoonoses, spill over, the human/wildlife interface, the roles of climate change and hot zones in the spread of diseases, and pathology. In addition, they will learn about transmission types – droplets, vectors and sex – as well as drug resistance, super spreading, diffusion, social networks and nosocomial transmission. They will also learn about some of the ethical challenges of disease control and how diseases ultimately can be controlled through vaccination, herd immunity, quarantines, antibiotics, antivirals and health communication.

The teaching and research potential of massive open online courses, which are internet-based teaching programs that can accommodate thousands of students simultaneously, are the main reasons why academia is rapidly embracing MOOCs.

They are an interesting and growing phenomenon and an ideal new learning platform for science courses, Salathé noted.

For example, in a recent article in Nature titled "Online learning: Campus 2.0" it attributes that the global excitement surrounding MOOCs started to build from the summer of 2011, when a free artificial-intelligence course offered by Stanford University attracted 160,000 students from around the world.

"Although MOOCs are an exciting new way of teaching, students quickly lose interest and the percentage that actually completes the course typically is in the single digits," said Salathé. "Nevertheless, given the initial high number of enrollees, many thousands still complete the course."

In order to help improve course retention for their own epidemics course students will be able to take a leading role in controlling a virtual epidemic that is spreading worldwide in real time during the course by immediately applying the new scientific knowledge they are learning, Salathé said.

With the growing demand for advanced learning and scientific research MOOCs look like they are going to be an ideal way to accommodate this interest.

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