Supercourse, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and the Educator as Catalyst

Key Takeaways

  • In the 1980s, BITNET inspired researchers in health care to create the Global Health Network Supercourse, an open-source repository of lectures on public health and prevention by leading scientists.
  • As a tool for the distribution of knowledge, the Supercourse is an inexpensive, sustainable model for improving global training, research, and collaboration.
  • Making general content widely accessible, the Supercourse improves learning by helping teachers become mentors and partners in discovery, and accelerates the delivery of research findings into the classroom.
  • Building on the initial success of the Supercourse, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the New Library of Alexandria, is expanding the model to include lectures in other disciplines.

Technology provides an effective channel for distributing educational content rapidly, broadly, and freely. The Global Health Network Supercourse uses the Internet to deliver vital scientific content worldwide to support education, research, and practice in the field.

The Supercourse is a network of over 50,000 researchers and faculty worldwide who are committed to sharing their knowledge by sharing their best PowerPoint presentations on science and disease. The talks are freely available to anyone in the world through an open-source lecture library. Next to projects like MIT's free curriculum sharing effort, it has evolved to become one of the largest systems of curriculum sharing in the world, Supercourse today is a successful model of the application of open-source Internet technology in health care education and prevention.

As a learning tool, the Supercourse applies information technologies to implement a high-tech, high-touch education paradigm that effectively tears down physical, intellectual, geographic, and relational boundaries that can impede the sharing of knowledge. The Supercourse model empowers teachers to in effect become engineers of education who take knowledge built by experts and rearrange it based on their relationships with their students and the needs of their communities. The content encourages users to move beyond the narrow confines of their specialized expertise to make new cross-disciplinary associations. In that it bypasses traditional delivery modes such as textbooks and journal articles and delivers content directly to the user, the Supercourse also speeds the pace of delivery of research findings to classrooms and to practitioners in the field.

Here we want to briefly describe the early genesis of the Supercourse, share some of what we have learned in the course of its development, and outline plans for a next-generation curriculum library.

Genesis of the Supercourse

One of the most pressing impediments to prevention education in global health is effective communication. Good information exists that can help mitigate threats to health, but it doesn't always get into the right hands in a timely fashion, in a form that can educate the right people and help prevent disease. When we first started studying these issues in the early 1980s, for example, we found that it cost $65 to send an express mail package to Finland, and it was sometimes suggested that one send five separate copies of letters to Mexico with the hope that one of them would arrive in a month's time.

In that era, however, our group at the University of Pittsburgh and other scientists around the world learned that physicists and computer scientists had started to communicate electronically via what was then called BITNET. At the time we were astonished to learn that one could use this new channel to send a lengthy manuscript to Finland in about a minute, for free. Further research soon led us to Ira H. Fuchs' article about BITNET,1 which clearly suggested the inherent potential of technology to help speed and improve prevention-related communication in health care by connecting professionals around the world. We shared the article broadly with colleagues in our field, and it served as the basis for discussions at several meetings sponsored by the Pan American Health Organization and the World Bank. The Supercourse took root from that seed, and we gratefully acknowledge Dr. Fuchs for his inspiration. With Greydon Freeman, Dr. Fuchs co-founded BITNET in 1981 by initially connecting CUNY and Yale University. In the mid-1980s BITNET connected millions of users from more than 1,400 institutions of higher education, government laboratories, and IBM's VNET network, inspiring the development of the Supercourse. It was the first academic computer network to connect the United States to Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Israel, the USSR, and most of Western Europe.

The Supercourse Network

The Supercourse is a global, open-source repository of lectures on public health and prevention. It collects PowerPoint lectures by top scientists and shares them freely with scientists and educators around the world. By "recycling" scientific lectures in this fashion, the Supercourse both extends their use and value and expands distribution channels for valuable health care content. In this sense the Supercourse is akin to such open-source models as MIT's OpenCourseWare and similar channels that employ technology to advance and improve the diffusion of knowledge.

The target audience for the Supercourse includes seasoned professors, new teachers, nurse educators, health practitioners, students — indeed, anyone with an interest in global health. Users can pick freely from across the wealth of information available, selecting material that is most relevant and useful for their own work. An experienced faculty member, for example, might add content from the Supercourse to update one of her own lectures. New instructors might draw on Supercourse material to create better lectures and reduce their own lecture-preparation time. Experts in one area of health care may turn to the Supercourse to gain knowledge about an area outside their specialty. Faculty and students in developing countries can access the same material that is available to their colleagues in the developed world — perhaps gaining new insights about prevention of disease that can be applied immediately in the field.

The Supercourse network currently includes more than 50,000 scientists in 174 countries who are sharing for free a library of more than 4,400 lectures in 31 languages. We estimate that the Supercourse has reached some 1 million students.

Contributors to the Supercourse include nine Nobel laureates, more than 70 members of the U.S. National Academies Institute of Medicine, former directors of the National Institutes of Health and Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, a former U.S. Surgeon General, and many other medical and public health experts. Retaining copyright, lecture authors can gain significant exposure for their work; for example, one Supercourse lecture has been seen by some 40 million people. These estimates were collected by evaluating the web-page hits statistics at the University of Pittsburgh website and by evaluating statistics at the mirror server of the Supercourse at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

Initial funding for the Supercourse came from the National Library of Medicine (part of the NIH) and from three NASA grants. The World Health Organization has distributed WHO materials, including its flagship journal, via the Supercourse network.

Today, the Supercourse greatly enhances communication of critical health care information, especially in the area of just-in time-knowledge.2 In effect, Internet technology has enabled the creation of a powerful, inexpensive, sustainable mechanism for global training. The Supercourse has been recognized by Rand Corporation as one of only two programs in higher education that effectively developed a cost-effective system for sharing materials.3 Moreover, the Supercourse model is replicable, as we are now moving to show by partnering with Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Partnership with Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The original Library of Alexandria was one of the greatest libraries of the ancient world. It was a major center of scholarship from its construction in the third century B.C. through its destruction in the first century B.C. Today, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the New Library of Alexandria, continues and extends that tradition. With shelf space for eight million books, Bibliotheca Alexandrina houses specialized libraries, research centers, museums, art galleries, conference facilities, a laboratory for restoring books, and an Internet archive.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina is now moving to extend the Supercourse model by making PowerPoint lectures available through the Internet in other disciplines, initially including agriculture, environmental science, and engineering. Each discipline will have a "community of practice" to stimulate contribution of high-quality lectures and provide oversight in the coverage of their respective fields. Bibliotheca Alexandrina will be the repository and secretariat for this global initiative, with financial support from the Swiss Development Corporation. The expanded repository of lectures will reach countless teachers and students around the world, including many parts of the world that are deprived of access to the best scientific knowledge. Communities of practice will originally be developed by the Supercourse team in Pittsburgh and Alexandria, but will be sustained by local teams. While the Supercourse effort is very effective in reaching scientists with access to the Internet, Supercourse materials can also be distributed using CDs, DVDs, and paper to scientists without an Internet connection.

Engineers of Education

In effect, forums like the Supercourse, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and OpenCourseWare have the potential to significantly transform the fundamental nature of the learning environment. With content widely available on the Internet, educators no longer need to merely deliver content in a one-way interaction with students. Instead, the educator can become a mentor who employs the power of "web socialization" to stimulate students' creative imagination and help them make important associations of information and knowledge. Freed from the routines of content delivery, the teacher in this new paradigm can instead focus on nurturing learning and exploration by helping students learn how to identify, select, and associate relevant knowledge to address practical and often complex challenges. Moreover, in that they have instant access to high-quality content via the Supercourse and similar channels, educators are freed from rote, time-consuming content development of their own lectures and can instead devote more time developing their capacity as facilitators of innovation and co-creators of new knowledge and new solutions. Teachers can focus on working with students to address critical problems in both their disciplines and in the community at large.

This new model also encourages students to stretch themselves beyond memorization of facts to engage in dialogue about new ideas with both their mentor-educators and their peers, potentially anywhere, anytime. In that sense, it has elements of the traditional graduate school mentorship, which produces more highly trained and skilled students than does traditional classroom education. Eventually, forums like the Supercourse may enable graduate-style mentorships at more elementary levels of education.

The futurist Thomas Frey wrote that "the student of tomorrow will need to be prepared for a higher calling" that will enable them to "preempt crises before they occur, anticipate disasters before they happen, and solve some of mankind's greatest problems, starting with the problem of our own ignorance."4 The Supercourse and its peers create new, unprecedented capacity for educators and students to meet such challenges. Moreover, in the immediate wake of emergency events around the world, these channels permit the instant posting of just-in-time lectures that can help mitigate the effects of such events and provide ideas for addressing similar events in the future. A good example of this lecture is the Just in Time Module developed by the Supercourse team for the Haiti Earthquake.

The potential inherent in this model is just starting to be fully realized. We expect that the Supercourse model will only become more useful as it is applied in new disciplines.

  1. Ira H. Fuchs, "BITNET — Because It's Time," Perspectives in Computing, Vol. 3, No. 1 (March 1983), pp. 16–27. Fuchs co-founded BITNET (Because It's Time Network) with Greydon Freeman in 1981.
  2. Ali Ardalan, Amir Ansari, Komil Daburov, Nasrin Rahimian, Mehrdad Mohajeri, Amir Ebrahimzadeh, Rashid A. Chotani, Ronald E. LaPorte, Faina Linkov, Mita Lovalekar, and Eugene Shubnikov, "Just-in-Time Public Health Training and Networking in Farsi-Speaking Countries: Influenza A (H1N1) Experience," Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, vol. 24, no. 6 (November/December 2009), pp. 571–572.
  3. Michael G. Shanley, Matthew W. Lewis, Susan G. Straus, Jeff Rothenberg, and Lindsay Daugherty, "The Prospects for Reuse of Digital Training Content," Rand Corporation, 2009.
  4. Thomas Frey, "The Future of Colleges and Universities: Blueprint for a Revolution," DaVinci Institute.