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From the outset of our MOOC design and production, rather than looking to existing MOOCs for inspiration, Dr. Seung and I scoured the web for the video content that people love. YouTube channels such as Minutephysics and Vsauce got our attention: with millions of subscribers and hundreds of millions of views, it seemed that they were doing something right. Some takeaways that we carried into course production: our videos would 1) start with a question, 2) teach by answering the question, and 3) last no more than a few minutes.

How did this course come to be?

I first encountered Dr. Seung in fall 2011 in my first neuroscience course at MIT. He managed to keep the 90 minute lectures engaging with anecdotes, jokes, jelly beans, and dating tips. I never knew what he’d say next, but always remembered it.

Intrigued by Dr. Seung and his research, I met with him that semester to discuss doing my undergraduate research in his lab. After spending a few weeks mapping circuits of neurons in the retina (the sheet of neural tissue at the back of the eye), I experienced the well-known shortcoming of the technique: it was painstakingly slow. “Mapping the brain” sounded ludicrous when we were mapping one neuron per researcher per week, and an entire brain contains 86 billion of them.

True to character, Dr. Seung thought we could do better. I soon found myself working on the launch of EyeWire, a website created in the Seung lab to crowd-source and gamify (and hence, accelerate) the mapping of neural circuits in the retina. I was faced with determining how to teach the EyeWirers, a rapidly growing global community of players, about the research to which they were contributing. What does it mean to “map the brain?” Why were we starting with the retina?

As we were considering improving engagement of gamers on EyeWire, across campus, MITx was working to educate a group that looked a lot like our community. Given my interest in educating EyeWire’s citizen scientists, and MITx’s goal of improving engagement across its courses, Dr. Seung and I were asked to conduct an experiment in online learning. We set a challenge for ourselves: could we condense the content presented in a 90 minute lecture into a fun 5 minute video?

Photo of author Claire E. O'Connell and Nathan Kit KennedyIt took a lot of reflection and research to make this happen, and required some nontraditional team members to jump on board. Nathan Kit Kennedy, a UC Berkeley graduate in Film Studies, has hand drawn and animated nearly every illustration in the course videos. Each video contains over 70 hours of Nathan’s artistry. He’s also directed and co-produced the series.

Julian Samal, a Berklee College of Music student, composes and produces music to enhance the clarity and memorability of information presented in the videos. If you find yourself dancing during the videos, you’ll have Julian to thank.Photo of Julian Samal

Beyond the videos, the course provides the uncommon opportunity for students to connect with real research that is relevant to the course materials by integrating EyeWire. We’re providing a leaderboard to enable students on edX to compete against each other for the duration of the course.

We hope to see you on November 18th when we launch the course and dive into the mysteries of vision! Dr. Seung, the course team, and the edX community will be there to support you the whole way. Register and join us for a great time!

By Claire O’Connell, designer and instructor, MITx 9.01.1x Light, Spike, and Sight: The Neuroscience of Vision

Photo of Claire O'ConnellClaire E. O’Connell graduated from MIT in 2013 with an S.B. in Brain and Cognitive Sciences and is the instructor and designer for 9.01.1x. In addition to her role on the 9.01.1x team, she is a member of the teaching staff for MIT’s advanced undergraduate research program in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. During her undergraduate career, she received the MIT Walle J.H. Nauta Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Research in Neuroscience, and worked in the Seung Lab to develop educational materials for EyeWire. She presented her undergraduate work in her TEDxAtlanta talk: “A Game that Maps the Brain” and at Biovision: the World Life Sciences Forum. During summer 2013, she developed and taught courses on neuroscience and connectomics in high schools across the US as part of Spokes America, a science and engineering outreach initiative she cofounded (supported by Texas Instruments, edX, and the U.S. Department of Education).