Revenge of the nerds

June 15, 2001

Sue Law meets the virologist who helps students to log on to learning via his award-winning website.

Have you ever wondered how it feels to be a virus? With decisions to take and lack of resources, life can be stressful for today's ambitious microbe. You can experience a day in the life of a virus thanks to an imaginative online tutorial created by Leicester University scientist Alan Cann, who won a national prize for his innovative web-based teaching earlier this year.

The interactive tutorials are part of his extensive virology website, which is one of the most popular in the world, according to the search engine Google. About 30,000 people worldwide log on to the site every month, and it is referenced as a source of expert information by prestigious websites including the BBC, Access Excellence (Genentech) and the American Society for Microbiology.

Cann admits to being "surprised and terrified" at the global success of a site that he created in 1993 as a solution to expanding student numbers. But what began as an experiment has grown into a leading-edge teaching resource that continues to develop. Web tutorials include "How Now Mad Cow" on BSE, and "The Panama Puzzle", in which students play the part of a US army doctor trying to work out what is killing his troops.

"I had a vision a few years ago that I would paint 'virologist' on a van and drive round the country answering questions on viruses. It sounds ridiculous, but that is what the website does. I am a human appendage visible at the end of a computer.

"It is scary to have that kind of responsibility for a worldwide audience, and you have to remember these are only undergraduate lecture notes," the web wizard says.

He was the first person to win the Society for General Microbiology's Peter Wildy Prize for outstanding contribution to education. The award is named after the distinguished Cambridge virology professor.

Meeting students' more sophisticated expectations of multimedia is a problem for many teachers - "they want a superhighway and we tend to deliver a muddy footpath" - but he is convinced that internet teaching is here to stay.

"It is fashionable to say the internet is not all it was cracked up to be, but for me there is a force of inevitability about it. The past year may have been rocky for dotcoms, but that is just a glitch obscuring the real trend of the complete integration of information technology into everyday life."

Predictions that technology will drive academics to stop teaching and become facilitators of learning appeal to Cann, who says he increasingly questions how good a use of time the traditional lecture is.

He gives out a URL reference to a set of problems after lectures, which students must submit over the web for computer marking. Marks are then emailed back, and those with low scores can attend a problem clinic. They can also access virtual laboratory simulations that have proved highly popular and are available for sale as a commercial package to outsiders.

Cann finds that many students are frightened of the concept of open learning as they are so goal directed. Instead of learning because it is fun, they tend to ask what they have to know to pass the exam. But reactions are linked to academic ability, with the best performing better and poor students thrashing around aimlessly unless supported. With time released from repetitive marking by the web exercises, Cann is able to direct more of his efforts into answering student email.

An ebullient character, he is a living contradiction of the classic criticism that scientists are bad communicators. As he chats non-stop on his way to give a third-year undergraduate virology tutorial, it is hard to find a pause long enough to ask my next question.

Thirty students are sitting at rows of computers as he opens the lesson by explaining the exercise - quizzing online databases to identify a mystery virus and a gene sequence.

Modern microbiology is moving out of the labs into the computer age, and Cann himself has a relaxed business-like manner more reminiscent of a management consultant. He is dressed in a narrow-striped blue shirt and smart navy trousers, though the incongruous black trainers do not quite fit the image.

Moving around the room to check on progress, he notices student Nicola Hopewell peering anxiously at her screen as she struggles to find the right link. "I know it is tedious, but there is no magic, you just have to keep going," he sympathises, as he clicks the mouse on the database.

As he moves to another desk, she confides that initially the course was daunting, but she is now finding it fun: "He is brilliant, very approachable, and uses a different way of teaching that helps you to understand better."

The computer room is sweltering and the class strip off their jumpers as they crane their necks to watch Cann help Laura Karjalainen, an exchange student from Finland, navigate through the screens. "I do not know where to go from here," she groans.

"You got lucky, this is the influenza virus and it only has one gene per segment," Cann says, showing how to search a taxonomic server in Australia.

Other members of the class agree that computer-based learning is essential for science careers, and Cann manages to make the lessons fun. "He is certainly very different and has great enthusiasm for teaching," Linal Patel says.

Perhaps surprisingly for a virologist who has done ground-breaking research, Cann finds teaching enormously satisfying. He was working on the HIV virus at the University of California, Los Angeles, at the height of the 1980s Aids epidemic, and later spent two years as a researcher at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Current work focuses on viruses in childhood asthma.

"It irks me that people take lectureships with no intention of teaching, when they really want research careers. I took this job at Leicester because I wanted to teach. Don't get me wrong, I am not a saint. There are times when students drive me crazy. But there is a personal fulfilment from teaching," Cann says. He has written several textbooks and has commissions for two more.

Asked about his teaching philosophy, he insists he does not have one and prefers a pragmatic approach to finding what works best. "Technology is just a tool in the armoury and a way of giving students the richest possible experience. In the past, academics took their lecture notes and just threw them on the web. There is still a lot of dross out there, and it is adapt or die for those people."

One of the themes of Cann's prize lecture at the Society for General Microbiology meeting, in March at Heriot-Watt University, was the revenge of the nerds. In past surveys, about a third of Leicester science students saw themselves as nerds, enjoying computer-assisted learning. This year nerds are up to 60 per cent, rising from a mocked minority to icons of trendiness.

So how does Cann see himself? "I am definitely a nerd. But of course eventually we will all be nerds."


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