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A Decade of Global Reach, From Len White's Backyard

Pioneering Coursera online course has changed lives around the world

What do a part-time farm laborer in Ireland, an aspiring medical student and a special education teacher in Brazil have in common?

They are three of the hundreds of thousands of life-long learners who have been inspired by Duke professor Len White’s free, online neuroscience course over the past decade. White, an associate director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, started his “Medical Neuroscience” Coursera course in 2013, among the first cohort of Duke’s official partnership with the California-based online learning company.

White initially created the class as a supplement for his in-person students at the Duke School of Medicine, hoping that the materials created would serve as meaningful review for the future doctors.

“I had no idea that this would actually pan together as an online course,” White said. “I just thought that the provost was going to make it possible for me to make some videos and use it to enhance my on-campus teaching, and that seemed like a deal I should take. We were really quite shocked to see how many people were interested and how much time they were willing to invest in learning this, which is essentially medical school-caliber content.”

Months of planning and recording resulted in six units of neuroscience compacted into 13 weeks of content. Video lessons varied in content and format, but all were personal by design.

“As I thought about it, nobody wants to be a fly on the wall in somebody else's lecture. What people would appreciate more is something that feels more like an office visit or visit to the actual lab,” White said. “And then of course, it occurred to me that I should be showing Duke and more of real life. For me, that meant taking my recording equipment outside in my backyard and sharing some lessons there.”

The first class of learners quickly filled with students across a variety of careers, ages, countries, and backgrounds. Among this 2013 cohort was Ellen Vos-Wisse, a biologist and brain injury survivor from the Netherlands. She was driven to enroll by her own medical history and her love of learning, but ended up discovering a decade-long passion.

TV lights and a camera surround Len White standing at a table in a white lab coat, a human brain sits on the table in front of him.
Len White records one of his first Medical Neuroscience lessons using real brain cross-sections in an anatomy lab. (courtesy of Len White)

“There were about 50,000 enrolled then, and the top 15 were invited to be teaching assistants,” said Vos-Wisse, who was one of those 15 and is still a TA for the course. “During the first two years, I found out that people often have questions about the same issues, so I put on Coursera all sorts of tips on where to look for resources.”

Vos-Wisse's long-term involvement in the course took on a new role when Coursera changed their platform style from cohort-based to an on-demand system, which eliminated these Coursera Wikis. She decided to archive all of her tips and tricks.

“It was really helping people, so I started the website for myself,” Vos-Wisse said. The site offers links to more resources and study tips. “After Len saw the website, he was very enthusiastic about it. And about once every two weeks, a student will contact me saying how much they appreciate it. So that really, really makes it worthwhile.”

Another member of the original cohort and present-day mentor in the course is Victor Malakhov, a learner from Russia whose intentions were similarly personal.

“My son has autism, and at the time I was anxious to find some clues and answers,” Malakhov said. "I had several months between jobs, and it was a perfect time to explore. I tried to build a fundamental basis for me to understand my son.”

Malakhov learned the ins and outs of basic neuroscience, and through his involvement over the years, has been able to apply his learning to his community, his family, and his own fulfillment.

“I believe it's one of the best — if not the best — online courses that I know of because it's undiluted,” Malakhov said. “That's the beauty, for me. Len is a special teacher because he has a way of tailoring these lessons that are both precise and actually easy to understand. And at the same time, he has a way of hinting at the depth that exists, almost provoking you to study more. It's a treasure of a course to me.”

While many patrons of White’s medical neuroscience registered as a result of personal experiences, others have used the course to prepare themselves for careers in the brain sciences.

Buqing Liang, M.D., completed White’s course after completing his medical degree in China. Equipped with a well-rounded understanding of the brain, he hoped to be admitted to a neurosurgery residency in the United States.

“Online courses were just emerging at the time, and so it opened up a new opportunity for people like me, who don't have an American education or background,” Dr. Liang said. “We could participate in a class taught by professors from American universities on topics that we were interested in, and it was flexible.”

Dr. Liang is now Chief Resident of Neurosurgery at Baylor Scott & White Health in Dallas, and he attributes some of his success at being admitted to his residency program to the short class he took before his seven-year journey.

“People from China saw that I made it into the neurosurgery residency program, and they would come and say, ‘I want to do the same thing that you did. What can I do?’ I always recommended this course to them,” Dr. Liang said. “And if someone were to come to me now, I would still recommend this course.”

Two men in plaid shirts stand next to each other in an office. The man on the left is holding a human brain.
Dr. Buqing Liang and Len White meet for the first time after Liang arrived in the States in 2016 for on his journey toward a neurosurgery residency. (courtesy of Len White)

In its 10 years, White’s course has had a global impact on learners. It has even attracted some of his digital students to become Blue Devils themselves.

Armstrong Mbi Obale, who is currently working toward a master’s of science at the Duke Global Health Institute, originally took the course from his home country of Cameroon. He aimed for a better understanding of the nervous system to teach his own university students and instead stumbled upon a course that would change his career.

“In my country, many people don't know about Duke University,” Obale said. “So not only did I get a lot of rich content about the subject matter, I also came to know much about the university, which prompted me to apply for the master's degree at Duke.”

Today, Obale is hoping to use his background in epidemiology, nursing and now neuroscience, to study traumatic brain injuries and improve healthcare in low-income communities like his own.

“Medical Neuroscience taught me to believe in myself,” Obale said. “I know now that whatever you are doing, you may think you are bad, but you are just limited by the setting where you find yourself.”

From the occasional middle school prodigy to a farm hand in Ireland, Medical Neuroscience’s flexibility introduces people to the brain sciences who otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to explore. And White keeps a collection of all of the messages from people he has reached.

“I really have been just so overwhelmed with how positively this course has been received,” White said. “I’m grateful for many of these people who've written to me to express their gratitude.”

Even beyond his contributions to the world of free online education, White is deeply invested in on-campus learning and student life. As a Faculty-in-Residence on East Campus, White spends a portion of his week getting first-year students acclimated to the university. He hosts a weekend jog for his local students of all educational levels and has won local and national awards for his teaching.

Over its history, the Medical Neuroscience course has faced some struggles —the platform’s 2016 change to asynchronous content did away with the camaraderie of robust forums and Google Hangout sessions, and an overwhelming increase in online education options has made the 13-week commitment to certification a thing of the past.

Four men in running clothes stand on a path in the forest. One of them has a black dog on a leash. Len White is at left.
Professor White and students from both his undergraduate and medical school neuroscience courses gather for a brain-healthy morning run. (Photo courtesy of Scott Mahon)

“The vast majority of people who are enrolled really don't do much. And I don't worry,” White said. “I'm just happy for people to be interested in it. If they feel like they've sampled something and they found it useful, that's great. To me, that's a success.”

On the wall above White’s office door hangs an array of framed memories from the past 10 years, including a few illustrated caricatures from Medical Neuroscience students. A folder on his desktop contains documents of lesson plans and life updates from old learners. He soon hopes to revitalize his hours of lectures to match the dynamic changes over the last decade in the field of neuroscience.

“It has been transformative for me to participate in a global movement in education, and I am privileged to have reached, if not touched, so many people from all walks of life,” White said. “To me, that's the greatest privilege of all—to be able to share a bit of my knowledge and what I'm passionate about, with people from all ages and stages, from all corners of the world.”