Expanding Online Education for Students Worldwide

UCSF Offers Courses in Medical Ethics, Clinical Research

UCSF pharmacy student Qin Gao was eager to take a course in research ethics, but heading to Uganda for a malaria medication study and juggling a busy schedule, she assumed she would have to wait.

“If it had been a year or two ago, that would’ve been the case,” said Chris Garrett, director of online education for UC San Francisco’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI). “Now we can keep students on track with their course plans no matter where they are, as long as they have an Internet connection.”

Higher education is experiencing explosive growth in online education and 2013 promises to continue this trend, especially among top-tier universities through Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. And UCSF is expanding its online learning programs to reach students around the world.

UCSF Reaches Global Audience with Massive Open Online Courses

In what was called a grand experiment in higher education, UCSF offered three free, online classes through Coursera earlier this year. The response was overwhelming. Here's a look, by the numbers:

  • # of Enrollees: 107,562
  • # of Countries Represented: about 160 countries
  • % of Enrollees who live outside the U.S.: about 60 percent
  • % of Enrollees Who Speak English as Their First Language: 50 percent

  • % of Respondents Who Said They Would Recommend the UCSF Classes: 98 percent

“As a public university committed to reaching underserved populations throughout the world, it makes perfect sense for UCSF to offer classes online,” said Joseph Castro, PhD, vice chancellor of Student Academic Affairs at UCSF.

In 2013, UCSF also offered three online classes to the general public through a multi-campus partnership with Coursera. The free courses include Clinical Problem Solving; Contraception: Choices, Culture and Consequences; and Nutrition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

“Through UCSF’s involvement with Coursera, as well as CTSI’s online education efforts, there is an excellent opportunity for UCSF faculty to experiment with new modes of instruction and to deliver their content to a global audience,” said Gail Persily, director of Learning Technologies and Education Services at the UCSF Library.

Among the courses in CTSI’s expanding online curriculum is Responsible Conduct of Research, an ethics-focused class designed by Bernard Lo, MD, director of UCSF’s Medical Ethics Program. CTSI’s Garrett acts as a course “concierge” for students guiding them through the process.

The six-week class covers the numerous ethical issues involved when conducting medical research on human subjects including informed consent, conflicts of interest, independent review boards, and research misconduct. A recent class enrolled more than 100 students, including Gao in Uganda and others in Canada and throughout the U.S.

Bernard Lo, MD

The offering is timely, as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is increasingly requiring updated ethics training for investigators being considered for funding, said Garrett, who also moderates the Perspectives on Online Learning blog.

For Gao, the option of an online course was valuable. “I could immediately apply things that I learned in the malaria research project I was working on,” she said. “The online course format also fit with my time constraints. As a fourth-year student, I am busy doing clinical rotations, with no time” to attend a traditional class.

The class is taught by Lo, who interacts with students during case studies and discussion, and leads them through his book, Ethical Issues in Clinical Research: A Practical Guide.

“Ethical issues that arise in research aren’t always black and white,” Gao added. “The course helps to view situations from different angles to find the best solution.”

Other CTSI online offerings include Designing Clinical Research, CTSI’s flagship clinical research course, as well as a Scientific Writing course planned for later this year.

The Designing Clinical Research course has been completed by hundreds of UCSF students and CTSI is now embarking on an initiative to make it available to researchers worldwide. The course is already available to researchers at King’s College London, and to Peking Union Medical College Hospitals and Roche/Genentech in China.

“It’s important to note that online courses have proven to be as effective as traditional classroom versions,” said Garrett, who cited a recent CTSI study to back up her claim. 

The study used NIH criteria to evaluate the quality of research proposals generated from students in both the online and traditional versions of the course. Proposals from the online students were rated slightly higher than those of classroom students, she said.

CTSI’s online courses are offered through Moodle, an open source virtual learning application with a social media component that allows students to network, study together, and compare notes.

UCSF's CTSI is a member of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards network funded through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (grant Number UL1 TR000004) at the NIH. Under the banner of “Accelerating Research to Improve Health,” CTSI provides a wide range of resources and services for researchers, and promotes online collaboration and networking tools such as UCSF Profiles


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