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Bart Van Bockstaele

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  • 3 reviews
  • 3 completed
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Of the three Coursera courses I have completed so far, this was the smoothest one. The main lecturer, Dr. Joel Cracraft, speaks with passion, and the matter-of-factly tone of Dr. David Randle is quite reassuring. What these two people clearly share is an enthusiasm and high-level knowledge about the subject. This is a course for educators, and while it officially doesn't have any prerequisites, some understanding of basic evolutionary theory is certainly a plus. Dr. Cracraft quotes Dobzhansky who said that nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution, and he clearly and unambiguously shows why this is so. While evolution is as well founded as the heliocentric theory of our solar system and is accepted, taught and used to great success in biology as well as medicine, it strangely remains a controversial subject in the United States, because worshippers of the American version of the Christian deity often vehemently oppose it. That is, of course, their choice, but just because some iron-age fantastic stories are in conflict with evolutionary theory does not make evolution untrue, and this course gives educators a number of materials they can use to shore up their own knowledge and to respond to some oft-heard but usually baseless criticisms coming from the religious. Among other things, they recommend a book: Evolutionary Science and Society: Educating a New Generation The book contains an article by well-known Christian biologist Ken Miller. I read it thoroughly and I was actually astonished at how weak his arguments for Christianity are. It is worth reading, especially in combination with the rest of the articles. This course is the only one of the three I have completed that requires the writing of a short peer-reviewed essay. I was both excited and quite afraid of this, because peer-reviews are not necessarily trustworthy, but except for one reviewer who complained about me not giving enough 'empirical evidence', I was quite pleased with the grading. I remain puzzled with the empirical evidence comment though, and I can only guess that the commenter does not understand the nature of randomness, probability and statistics very well. Sometimes, peer-reviews say more about the reviewer than about the reviewed. It is a pity, because I had hoped for some heavy, but well-founded criticism, which I would have been able to use to increase my own level of understanding. The main subject of the course is the tree of life. That's seems quite logical, since this is what evolutionary theory is all about. For me, the highlight of the course was the construction of phylogenetic trees through two different methods: comparison of phenotypic characteristics and comparison of gene sequences. Even though my formal biological studies are thirty years behind me, and therefore very much out of date, I have kept up with the field, but I had never attempted to construct a genome-based phylogenetic tree, so this was a first for me, and I am very pleased with it. I had come to regard the genome as essentially a branch of my beloved field of computer science, but there is a difference between thinking about something and actually doing it. The course provides the necessary elements to do exactly that, and it is a great experience indeed. In short: if you have some background in biology and evolution, or if you have not but are willing to watch the lectures and read the materials until they 'sink in' this course is highly recommended.
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Paul Offit is one of the world's leading experts on vaccines, and a co- developer of one of the rotavirus vaccines. As such, it is a privilege to be able to follow his lectures, something only a happy few would normally ever be able to do, given the American educational (and medical) system of limiting access to education to those who can afford it. This course is not a traditional university course because it doesn't contain any in-depth information developers of vaccines and people with some responsibility above and beyond that for themselves and their own immediate family members would need. That said, it provides a lot of evidence-based information that should allow the lay public to understand what vaccines are, what they are for, how safe they are, why they are worth using and what their effects are on the general population. The course also provides information and evidence that allows people to evaluate the credibility of the claims made by the oft-vocal antivax movement. The team that supports the course is great. They are far more responsive than one would expect from a course with several tens of thousands of followers, and they don't respond with meaningless boilerplate either. Their replies are evidence-based, not some vaguely plausible made-up nonsense. Executive summary: if the subject interests you at all, you should take this course.
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While I am not an epidemiologist, I am quite familiar with the subject. This course is a very good introduction to the subject for people who are completely unfamiliar with it and who are not interested in the mathematics of it. The instructors are friendly, the video lectures are very clear, pleasant to watch, with great and cute graphics, and except for the very rare typo, as error-free as humanly achievable in the context of current knowledge. There were a few issues with the quizzes, which were not addressed. That is a pity, because it confused quite a few people. That said, there were only a few, maybe four or five, for a total of 8 quizzes with at least 10 questions each, so it is not exactly a reason to be negative. The most interesting part of the course, for me, was the information about how little American doctors generally know about evolution, and the influence this ignorance has on the quality of the medical system in the US. I find that hair-raising, and it makes me feel privileged that I don't have to face the possibility of being treated by an American doctor. It is a good example of the deadly influence religion can have on a society, even when it does not take up arms. It is really puzzling to me how a society that used to be the most advanced on the planet, could allow itself to slide down the ladder, for no other reason than superstition and belief in iron-age mythology. The lecture on evolution starts like this: “Earlier this year, I watched someone die from evolution.” It ends this way: “Evolution matters in medicine. It should matter to you, many of you will die from it.” The words may seem harsh, but the reality they describe is very much harsher. Death is rather permanent, and the people who are killed by ignorance of evolution are not coming back. I am mentioning this, because it demonstrates that this course is not some cheap commercial to show how wonderful everything is. While introductory and *therefore and unavoidably* a bit superficial, it does give a very objective and complete idea of the field and its importance for all of us. Overall, this was a delightful course, a pleasure to take and almost as entertaining and watchable as a well-made documentary, while giving more rigorous and trustworthy information. If you are interested in health issues, more specifically infectious diseases, this course is a must. It is more than worth your time. Take the course. You'll be glad you did.