Going Viral

Digital epidemiologist Marcel Salathé designed Penn State’s first science MOOC and Moocdemic, a location-based epidemic simulation game that can be played on a smartphone.

Marcel Salathé is an assistant professor of biology, but you won’t find him in a laboratory. And he’s got some news for you: “You are most likely illiterate.”

Salathé believes that it is important to teach students — particularly science majors — computer programing skills, something he uses in his research.

“I feel like once you know how to do these things — once you know how to hook into all these data sources on the Web, once you know how to write a Web page, once you know how to develop an app for an iPhone or Android — suddenly it’s like you’re almost in a different dimension,” Salathé said.

“We often think of science as this traditional activity in the lab, and there is a ton of that going on — it’ll always be going on — but there’s this entirely new dimension of how we do science.”

Salathé works in the emerging field of digital epidemiology, where the traditional sciences intersect with computational technology to track health and the spread of disease.

“We’re mostly working with Twitter data right now,” he said. “We’re interested to see whether the fact that hundreds of millions of people are sharing all kinds of aspects of their lives on social media can be harnessed for disease surveillance.”

“It’s so fascinating, so I feel like we’re not doing anyone a service when we teach them to be a scientist, but not the ability to program,” he said. “Science majors should be able to do these things as well.”

Salathé has engineered projects like PlantVillage — a user-moderated online platform that helps people grow their own food and monitor plant disease—with colleague David Hughs, and CrowdBreaks — an online crowdsourced disease surveillance system that uses data from Twitter.

Salathé’s most recent online project is spreading around the world.

Epidemics MOOC Introduction

Malaria, HIV/AIDS, Influenza, Measles - we’re in a constant battle against infectious diseases. Penn State's first science MOOC is a course about the dynamics of such diseases - how they emerge, how they spread, and how they can best be controlled.

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“There are all these great infectious disease scientists at Penn State. Why not make use of that? Why not showcase that and give people the ability to interact with all these people?”—Marcel Salathé


The online Moocdemic game — a location-based simulation game of a real-world epidemic — was simultaneously launched in October at the start of Salathé’s first Penn State massive open online course (MOOC) called “Epidemics – the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases.”

The “Epidemics” course is the first science-related MOOC offered by Penn State, and Salathé designed it with a specific type of learner in mind: himself.

“I signed up for a bunch of MOOCs in the past and never ended up taking any of those very seriously because it was always such a huge time commitment,” he said. “If you have somebody just putting a camera in a classroom, that’s not online education, that’s not the future of education.”

To make the course more engaging, Salathé incorporated short “Ask Us Anything” videos, animations, public forums and the sister Moocdemic game.

He got others involved, too.

Marcel Salathé sitting with Moocdemic game on iPad screen

Marcel Salathé with Moocdemic game

Digital epidemiologist Marcel Salathé combined his biology and computer programming background to design Penn State’s first science MOOC and Moocdemic, a location-based epidemic simulation game that can be played on a smartphone.

Image: Michelle Bixby

"We often think of science as this traditional activity in the lab, and there is a ton of that going on—it'll always be going on—but there's this entirely new dimension of how we do science."—Marcel Salathe

Matt Ferrari, an assistant professor of biology and statistics and a member of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, is one of eight professors contributing to the course.

Ferrari said some faculty members were skeptical when Salathé first pitched the idea as “the wave of the future.” But, for Ferrari, the course has been eye-opening.

“The scale of it actually, I think to some extent, is enhancing the level of discussion and the level of engagement by the different students,” he said. “They’re responding to each other as much as they are responding to us.”

Within the first three minutes of the course opening, many of more than 29,000 registered students started participating on the forums.

“It’s undoubtedly a new way to interact with students, and I think that we have a group here that’s really uniquely suited to teaching this kind of broad, interdisciplinary topic,” he said.

The course is set up to give students a basic understanding of how and why epidemics happen and how disease can be controlled.

“Our hope is that students will be exposed to a lot of things,” Ferrari added. “We’re not going into deep depth, we’re not providing a lot of methodology, we’re not necessarily teaching students how to solve the problems. That’s a hard thing to do in a format like this. Interestingly, though, I think as a consequence of this, we’re learning how maybe we could do that in the future.”