PCF5:Remote Use of Web 2.0 Technology by M.Sc. Structural Biology Students from the Global South

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by Dr Clare Sansom, Birkbeck College, University of London

The School of Crystallography at Birkbeck College, London, has offered graduate courses in structural molecular biology by distance learning since 1996. Over 40 students have graduated with the full M.Sc. in Structural Molecular Biology since that degree was introduced in 2001, and many others have obtained single Certificates after a year’s part time study.

Our successful students have come from many countries and four continents, but until very recently almost all students from the global South have been excluded from the programme because of the relatively high fees. However, advanced training in the molecular biosciences is seen as a key to building independent research capacity and the potential for technology-led growth in these regions. We were awarded six Commonwealth Scholarships for the M.Sc. course starting in October 2007, and by the time PCF5 is held these students will be close to completing the first module, Principles of Protein Structure. We have incorporated material into this course that is specifically relevant to the development needs of these students’ countries, and to the Millennium Development Goals relating to eradicating extreme poverty and combating infectious disease.

Structural biology is both a visual and a computationally-intensive subject, and students are expected to have access to sufficiently good computer and Internet resources to manipulate three-dimensional molecular images. The study experience can also be enriched by the use of Web 2.0 based “social software” and by software enabling student-tutor and student-student interactions in real time. Our Commonwealth Scholars are, likely to be at a disadvantage when compared to other comparable students when using these tools, but the degree of this disadvantage will depend on the software used. We have been exploring the use of a number of different Web 2.0 based tools by all our distance learning students, including blogs, Wikis, shared bookmarking sites, real-time communication programs and the “immersive virtual environment”, Second Life. In this presentation, I will describe the Commonwealth Scholars’ experiences with these tools, how easy they find them to use with the hardware they have readily available and the extent to which these technologies help them to engage with the course material and their tutors and fellow students. I will also demonstrate the use of some of the tools.

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