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MCB80.1x Brings Innovation to the edX Platform

By Jessica A. Barzilay, Crimson Staff Writer

In Chinese ancient culture and tradition, a cricket may be captured and kept for good luck. In Molecular and Cellular Biology 80.1x: “Fundamentals of Neuroscience, Part I,” a popular introductory neuroscience class, a cricket may be captured and kept for neurobiological testing.

David D. Cox ’00, an assistant professor of MCB and computer science, is leading MCB80.1x, a new online counterpart to the Harvard classroom course MCB 80: “Neurobiology of Behavior,” as part of Harvard’s continually growing involvement in edX.

HarvardX, Harvard’s subset of courses offered through the free, nonprofit virtual education platform, has seen widespread success with courses like Computer Science 50x: Introduction to Computer Science. But MCB80.1x’s lab component—which includes the neural analysis of real life creatures like the cricket—is just one of the ways in which the new online class stands out from the pack.

“We’re trying to push the envelope on what we can do with an online course,” Cox said.

In addition to offering optional labs, MCB80.1x also features lectures filmed on-location and an online lesson format known as “guided interactivity.” Rather than deliver lectures in a classroom setting or lecture hall, Cox travels with a film crew to various scientific sites around Harvard and Boston to record clips for MCB80.1x.

Although only a portion of the semester-long course will be available online to begin with (hence the “.1”), Cox has already filmed segments in the Boston Aquarium, Harvard’s Museum of Natural History, and even in a Harvard Medical School Anatomy Lab, where he removed a human brain from a cadaver.

Richard M. Losick, the chair of MCB department, said that while half of edX’s mission is to draw an “audience that could be around the planet,” it also aims to enhance the experience of students enrolled in Harvard’s on-campus, term-time classes too.

Jeff W. Lichtman and Joshua R. Sanes, the MCB professors who teach the on-campus MCB 80 course with Cox, have promoted MCB80.1x as a resource for students enrolled in their class this fall semester.

“They introduced the fact that we would have online resources,” said Fola A. Sofela ’16, who is considering concentrating in Neuroscience. “It’s a great way to reiterate things that we learned in class and I think it’s going to enhance the class for people already taking it.”

Cox has been working on coding and designing the online course for about a year, with the help of freelancers around the world. His team includes everything from an illustrator in Thailand to a cartoonist in Tel Aviv to a composer in London, each helping to piece together the MCB80.1x online experience.

“At some level this is a big experiment at this point,” Cox said. “If we knew how it was going to turn out there would be no point in trying this.”

—Staff writer Jessica A. Barzilay can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JessicaBarzilay.

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