Innovative web-based educational formats might add value to training initiatives for pathology residents and fellows and medical laboratory workers

In the final months of 2013, the regulatory fight between gene testing company 23andMe.com and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generated national headlines. In that encounter, 23andMe.com blinked and ceased offering health-related genetic tests to consumers.

However, the company continues to work to position itself as a major player in genetic testing and genetic medicine. In the second half of 2013, for example, 23andMe.com initiated a business campaign to position itself as a source of on-line information about genetics for educational purposes.

Their MOOC Will Teach about the Human Genome

Its partner in this effort is Udacity, another Silicon Valley company. It was last September with the two companies announced that they would collaborate in the fast-growing trend of “massive open online courses” (MOOCS).

Few Pathologists and Clinical Lab Managers Have Used MOOCs

Many pathologists and clinical laboratory managers may not be familiar with the concept of the massive open online course. This is the hot new trend in distance education. Via the web, unlimited numbers of students can have open access to the course. Interactive user forums are a feature of MOOCs.

23andMe.com and Udacity hope to reach exponential numbers of students—and potential customers for 23andMe.com. The two companies, both based in Mountain View, California, are collaborating to offer a MOOC on introductory human genetics, according to a 23andMe press release posted on The Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch.com. MOOCs are an emerging educational technology used for distance learning.

23andMe is a leading personal genomics and biotechnology company. It aims to By expanding public understanding of the link between genetics and health, 23andMe hopes to broaden its potential customer base.

Udacity is an interesting company. It sprang from a free computer science program at Stanford University. The courses were taught by three professors who later founded the education startup.

Consumer Understanding of the Role of Genetics in Personal Health

The 23andMe course, titled “Tales from the Genome,” provides an introduction to genetic concepts and technology, according to the press release. Its target audience ranges from high school, college and medical students to healthcare professionals and life-long learners. The two-fold aim is to give students a better understanding of: 1) the science of genetics; and, 2) the various ways genetics can inform personal health.

In their collaboration, 23andMe.com and Udacity want to tap the fast-growing trend of “massive online open courses” (MOOCs) to provide education about the human genome. Clinical laboratories and pathology groups may find that collaborating with local educational institutions on MOOC offerings that relate to medical laboratory testing is one way to build market recognition and establish credibility. (Graphic copyright 20 Million Minds Foundation.)

In their collaboration, 23andMe.com and Udacity want to tap the fast-growing trend of “massive online open courses” (MOOCs) to provide education about the human genome. Clinical laboratories and pathology groups may find that collaborating with local educational institutions on MOOC offerings that relate to medical laboratory testing is one way to build market recognition and establish credibility. (Graphic copyright 20 Million Minds Foundation.)

“As individuals are becoming more actively involved in their healthcare and more physicians incorporate personalized medicine into their practices, genetic information is becoming a fundamental element of basic healthcare,” observed Uta Francke, M.D., Senior Medical Director at 23andMe and Professor of Genetics and Pediatrics, Emerita, at Stanford University. “As a result, genetics education has never been more important, particularly for individuals seeking the best possible care for themselves and their families.”

Value Potential of Massive Open Online Courses

MOOCs have exploded in the last few years, according to a story in The New York Times. “[The MOOC format] is a fundamental transformation of education,” declared Sebastian Thrun, Ph.D., a pioneer in artificial intelligence and robotics and a Co-founder and CEO of Udacity. “[W]e can move education from… the medieval set of myths into modern data-driven society,” he declared. Thrun made the comments at a November 2012 meeting of The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

For-profit companies like 23andMe and Udacity are not alone in pursuing the innovative MOOC educational model. Academic centers, including Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology, are making considerable investments in MOOCs, according to a story published at Forbes.com.

Corporate Sponsors Are Funding Innovative Online Courses

Some large private businesses are also stepping into the MOOC education arena. They are putting up cash to sponsor the development of MOOC programs. Last spring, Udacity, Georgia Institute of Technology, and AT&T announced an initiative to offer the first professional Online Master of Science degree in computer science (OMS CS). A Georgia Tech press release provided the details of the story.

AT&T put up $2 million in seed capital for the collaboration, according to the release. Initially, the program will recruit students from AT&T and Georgia Tech corporate affiliates. What AT&T hopes to get out of the deal is access to a new pool of well-trained engineers.

“There’s a recruiting angle for us,” stated Scotty Smith, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at AT&T. “[B]ut there’s also a training angle.” Smith was quoted in a story published at FastCompany.com.

Some experts believe this is only the beginning. “There are partnerships waiting that haven’t been explored yet,” stated Michael Nanfito, Executive Director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE). He was quoted in the Forbes story.

Venture Capitalists Are Backing MOOC Enterprises

A crop of online education startups have attracted venture capital over the past 12 months, according to a Bloomberg.com story. Investors recognize the potentially disruptive impact on training of future scientists, doctors, nurses and others, observed scientific and medical librarian, Shannon Bohle, in a story at Scilogs.com, an affiliate of Nature.com.

Udacity raised $15 million in venture capital. Also based in Mountain View, competitor Coursera raised $44 million.

For pathologists and clinical laboratory managers, the 23andMe.com–Udacity collaboration is an example of how innovative companies and institutions are using the Internet and information technology to expand educational opportunities in ways that drive core business. In this case, it is to educate people about the human genome and, in the process, develop new customers for 23andMe.com’s various genetic testing services.

—Pamela Scherer McLeod

Related Information:

Study: Online Education Continues Growth

Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011 

Librarians and the Era of the MOOC 

Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States

A Surge in Growth for a New Kind of Online Course

Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather of Free Online Education, Changes Course