In a world where the Human Genome Project and HIV therapies make the daily newspaper front-page, biotechnology is a headline topic. GeneEd, an enterprising Bay Area company, offers a comprehensive one-stop introduction to the hottest areas of current commercial biotech research. The online courseware, called Biopharmaceutical Technology 101, is a suite with five topics: Genomics, Human Gene Therapy, Combinatorial Chemistry, Immunity and Disease, and Computer-Assisted Drug Design. For basic scientific literacy in biotech for the year 2000, it’s in a class by itself.
Each course is organized as a seminar-style slide show with virtually every concept explained through illustrations and a sound track. The courses are delivered with 20 to 30 subtopics, sets of review questions, a summary and a transcript. GeneEd also provides relevant Web links and resources.
A good example of the comprehensive scope of the courseware is the Combinatorial Chemistry course. This approach to drug design involves generating thousands of random combinations of molecules and screening them for drug activity. The course starts with a discussion of methods and apparatus; then it evaluates the advantages and disadvantages of the most popular methods for assembling compound libraries. How researchers take the most promising compounds and optimize them for the next round of screening, and the possible difficulties a compound faces during clinical trials and commercial development are clearly explained.
In the Genomics course, this familiar DNA double helix is accompanied by narration explaining details of its structure.
The course is delivered two ways: online or CD-ROM. Typically, it’s an online course, and it’s cleverly optimized for quick browser download (the software uses browser cookies to track your results on progress checks). A subscription to the course provides the user with 12 months of access and updates. Corporate clients can also order the courseware on CD-ROM — certainly useful to have in a company’s library.
The suite does have some problems, which, to be fair, no other computer-assisted instruction has solved either. Too many of the slides are just color textbook pages, adequate but static. Many more are just textbook pages with a voice-over reading text on the page and background information. The molecular animations are well done, but the course misses opportunities for user interaction.
And there’s one more, subtler problem. Perhaps because many of the customers for these courses are large biotech firms, the courses do not offer much critical examination of experimental methods and their clinical applications. If everything in human gene therapy worked in practice as brilliantly as it’s projected in the course material, we would all start living to be 200 years old. Some of the course slides seem to be more appropriate for a conference-room pitch to a venture capital group than for educational presentation.