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Let's PLAy project - Bioproduction of PLA

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Impressed by the quick development and popularity of MOOCs, we decided to have a further look at this modern massive education tool.

Key elements of MOOCs

What is a MOOC ?

The word was coined in 2008 in the United States after the first experiment with a course on “connectivism and connective knowledge” given by George Siemens and Stephen Downes.

MOOC is the acronym for Massive Open Online Course. It is a modern e-learning method where attendants register to online classes provided by a teacher to a community of students.

MOOCs are “Massive” because of the unlimited number of attendants who can potentially attend the Course. The first MOOC of wide scale dates back to 2011 by Sebastian Thrun, teacher at Stanford and gathered 160 000 participants.

According to a book written by Jean Charles Pomerol, Yves Epelbon and Claire Thoury, MOOCs are “Open” because there are no pre-requirements to follow a MOOC and anyone with an internet access could have access to MOOCs. However, “Open” doesn’t mean that MOOCs are always free nor “Open source”. A MOOC can be proposed to online participants while they cannot download the content or software.

What differentiate MOOCs from previous learning methods, such as online videos ?

The key element is the live interaction between the teacher and participants. Thanks to this component, the teacher can incorporate to his speech questions received from his online students as if it took place in a conventional classroom.

A quick development

MOOCs is thus a new way of spreading knowledge which is only born less than 10 years ago; but when looking at data its development is outstanding.

According to Dhawal Shah - founder of the MOOC aggregator “class-central”, in 2015, there are about 4200 courses which have been set through MOOCs, from more than 500 Universities. Besides, number of students have doubled in a single year, from 16-17 million in 2014 to 35 million in 2015.


Figure 1. “By The Numbers: MOOCs in 2015 How has the MOOC space grown this year?” by Dhawal Shah, published on, available at

Thus, we considered that MOOCs are an efficient way of communicating on synthetic biology since it enables to reach a high number of people at the same time, its development seems exponential and it doesn’t suffer from physical barriers. In order to have an in-depth point of view, we settled some experiments. Moreover, as we were only focusing on MOOCs advantages, we had the feeling that our point of view was kind of biased. Therefore, we decided to consider points hindering MOOCs global development. After some reflection, we chose to focus on the internet digital divide because of the close relationship between MOOCs use and internet access.

Our experiment : Perception of online interactions with high school and university students

Even though distant learning is the essence of a MOOC, we were wondering how students perceived courses given through a screen instead of physically, and whether they would be willing to incorporate this format to their daily courses.

We decided to recreate the MOOC format in a physical classroom, before asking feedbacks from students.

For practical reasons, we recorded a video of the course in which we developed different topics to introduce high school students to PLA and synthetic biology. However, since the distant interaction between participants and the MOOC's teachers is a key element, we established a video call with students during our MOOC session.

Helped by the Parisian “Maison des Initiatives Etudiantes” (Student’s Initiatives House) we gathered in a professional studio to record our home-made lessons.

As our course was entitled for high school students, the main difficulty was to synthetize complex notions in short videos. We had to adapt our vocabulary and define basic concepts in order not to be too technical. For instance, we illustrated a polymer thanks to a clip chain which was appreciated from students. Here, you can see two videos showing Maria and Robert illustrating their ideas.

The experimentation session took place with students from the the high school of Langevin-wallon in Champigny sur Marne with the help of their teachers Laurent Martorell and Celine Barreto. At the beginning, we asked students if they knew about MOOCs, but none of them did.

After we presented our MOOC, their feedbacks were rather positive. The fact of interacting with teachers through digital way didn’t repel them, and they would be willing to incorporate MOOCs in their daily courses. However, most of them admitted that they would be less efficient if they had to follow courses without a rigid framework encouraging them to work; as provided by school. Indeed, a MOOC format can be followed everywhere, and also relies on self-responsibility of students. Both teachers and high-school students agreed that MOOCs are not meant to fully replace teachers.

However, there are still ways to adapt MOOCs to high school students; especially since distant learning seemed to be well-perceived by them. Along our conversations about the MOOCs with teachers, we came to the conclusion that concepts such as flipped classrooms can be an idea to develop.

What is a flipped classroom

The University of Queensland, Australia defines the flipped classroom concept as a “reversal of traditional teaching where students gain first exposure to new material outside of class, usually via reading or lecture videos, and then class time is used to do the harder work of assimilating that knowledge through strategies such as problem-solving, discussion or debates”


Figure 2. Graphic explaining the concept of a flipped classroom, University of Queensland, Australia, available at

With flipped classrooms, MOOCs are used in order to improve conventional teaching methods. Students use MOOCs in order to assimilate theoretical notions, but their applications remains in the hand of teachers. To us, it seemed to be a good way to combine both benefits of the modern and conventional teaching methods.

We decided to renew the experiment during a presentation of our project for students of the Master in Systems and Synthetic biology from the University of Paris Saclay. Once again interactions were made through online video calls.

After the presentation, feedbacks were also quite positive. As they were university students, they felt more responsible about their studies and most of them were willing to follow a MOOC by themselves until the end. All in all, they viewed MOOCs as an evolution that would eventually need to be incorporated into teaching methods as it already happened before for other tools.

Internet digital divide & learning digital divide

The OECD defines the term "digital divide" as the “gaps in access to information and communication technology (ICT) - threatening the ICT "have-nots", whether individuals, groups or entire countries. Education and learning lie at the heart of these issues and their solutions. The gaps that define the "learning digital divide" are thus as important as the more obvious gaps in access to the technology itself [2]”

A good illustration of this concept is made on the figure 3 and reducing this gap has been set as an objective at an international level. In 2015, President Barack Obama considered in a speech given in Iowa that “Today high speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity”[3]. More recently, the President of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker stated in his Speech on the European Union of September 2016 that “every european village and every city with free wireless [should have an] internet access around the main centres of public life by 2020”.[4]


Figure 3. ICT Facts and Figures 2016, ICT Data and Statistics Division, available at [4]

According to the figure 3, 74,9% of the African population is not using internet, which is really high compared with other geographical areas. Besides, we noticed in the figure 4 that only 1% of teams who took part in the 2015 iGEM competition came from Africa.

Starting from those data, we wanted to go beyond those figures and have a look at initiatives related with our project that are being carried out in Africa.


Figure 4. Regional distribution of iGEM 2015 teams, available at

ICT empowerment initiatives

Our research started with a quote that we noticed in an article from the French journal “Le Monde” [5].

The article dealt with MOOC development and quoted a statement made during a UNESCO Conference in Paris by Souleymane Bachir Diagne - Professor at Columbia, New York, who formerly gave classes at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar. In his declaration, he considered that African population would double in the following years. The pace for construction of facilities in African Universities would always be late compared with the increasing student flows. Therefore, MOOCs are a technological innovation that Africa cannot miss to democratize knowledge.

We contacted Mr Souleymane Bachir Diagne in order to discuss about his experience as a teacher at the university in Dakar and his point of view on MOOCs and ICT. Indeed, some voices considered that MOOC’s development in Africa is not adapted since the priority should be to improve facilities and internet network.

On this point, he disagreed since it would lead Africa to disconnect itself from a global revolution. Besides, one must not forget about resilient abilities of Humanity. There isn’t a unique pattern of development when a new technology is arriving. For instance, even with the African digital divide, it is in Kenya that the first mobile payment system was born, through the “M-Pesa system”.

Soon after, we discovered the “JerryClan” Initative. The JerryClan is a community aiming at assembling computers (called “Jerry”) from recycled hardware and a Jerrycan. The idea started in Paris in 2011, and it is now an international community operating in Europe, Africa and the United States. The Manifesto of the JerryClan states that “to fight digital divide, making information technologies accessible and understandable by everyone is a requirement. Thanks to its superpowers, Jerry can break cultural, social, and economical barriers down.”[6]



Two typical “Jerry”, Open source

We contacted JerryClan Senegal in order to discuss on the implementation of their project and their perception on MOOcs.

JerryClan was implemented in 2014 in Dakar and about 250 computers were created since then and nowadays, JerryClan Senegal mainly provides social entities and schools.

While we discussed about MOOCs, they also thought that is was a good way of spreading knowledge and the Jerry could settle in this movement since it can access internet and read videos as any other computer and JerryClan proposes workshops periodically.

When speaking with them about the digital divide, they considered that though the network was rather good in Dakar, it remained uneven. Computers such as the Jerry could help curbing the digital divide because it is cheap and easy to make and personalise. According to figure 7, there are still less than a quarter of the population without an internet access, so there is still a wide progress margin.


Figure 6. Workshop from JerryClan Senegal


Figure 7. “International Telecommunication Union, World Telecommunication/ICT Development Report and database, and World Bank estimates”, Overview between 2005 and 2015 per 100 users, available at, World bank data base,

Therefore, JerryClan Senegal is part of a wider community which can strongly help fighting the digital divide, while promoting MOOCs. JerryClan’s concept has reached an international level and we thought that in a way, it relates with the international sense of community from MOOCs users.


  1. Pomerol, J. C., Epelbon, Y., Thoury, C. Les MOOC, Conception, usages et modèles économiques. Dunod (2014)
  2. Bridging the Digital Divide. OECD website. Retrieved from:
  3. Remarks by the President on Promoting Community Broadband. Cedar Falls, White House. Retrieved from:
  4. State of the Union Address 2016: Towards a better Europe - a Europe that protects, empowers and defends. Europa Press Release. Retreived from:
  5. Caramel, L. Les universités africaines voient l’avenir en MOOC. Newspaper article (French Version). Retrieved from:
  6. Manifesto of the JerryClan. Retrieved from: