Why Build an App?

Russell Myers liked an online Duke course so much he helped create an iPhone app for it. Here, he discusses why.

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The new Genetics and Evolution app designed by Mohamed Noor's Coursera student Russell Myers

Russell Myers, 48, completed Mohamed Noor's Coursera genetics class last year and promptly went to work refining an iPhone app for the course.

Myers, of Melbourne, Australia, has a wife, two kids, a full-time job in information technology and a part-time gig as a musician and composer. So it isn't like he has tons of time on his hands.

Yet something compelled him to create this new digital tool, one that Noor says can now be used in his and other genetics and evolution courses.  (The app is available in the iPhone App store: "Genetics & Evolution.")

In an interview with Duke Today, Myers explained what he gained from taking a MOOC and why he helped create the app.

You work in software development. Why take an online genetics course?

I have always been fascinated with the topics of genetics and evolution. I've read many books on the subject over the years, and have often found myself pondering a career change, since it seems to me genetics research is more important now than ever, from helping to understand and combat diseases like cancer to shining more light on our evolutionary history.

When I heard about the new MOOC-based learning initiatives, I thought it would be a great opportunity to test the waters by getting a chance to be taught by some leading world experts in the field.

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Russell Myers

The course, taught by Mohamed Noor, was indeed an incredible experience -- extremely clear and articulate video lectures (which I could watch at a time that suited me around my work and family commitments); excellent, thought-provoking quiz and exam questions; and fantastic interaction in online course forums amongst Mohamed, the community TAs and the course attendees. In fact, I'm still in touch with a bunch of like-minded people who attended the course, via a forum established soon after the course completed.

What prompted you to work on this app?

I was genuinely impressed with the people giving their time for free to provide the Coursera course for people like me around the world -- from the professor to the staff to the community TAs -- and I felt like I wanted to give something back.  I also wanted to help contribute to the field of genetics and evolution in some (very) small way, since any potential career change for me is on hold at least until the kids finish school.

I contacted Mohamed to offer my services to help develop apps for the course, which may be useful for students like me who attend the course in the future. He was actually already working on designs for an early version of the iPhone app which I then took on board and developed further, so it all worked out quite neatly. (The original version was designed and released by Duke alum Brandon Millman, with guidance from Noor.)

Finally, it turns out developing a genetics app is actually a great way to learn more about the principles behind genetics processes and functions.

 What's your ultimate goal for this app?

I'm hoping it can be used as an adjunct to future iterations of the Coursera (and Duke) Genetics and Evolution courses, and also that it may be helpful in other schools/universities around the world to help students understand principles in genetics and evolution.

A new version of the app will be released prior to the Duke Coursera spring 2014 Genetics & Evolution course. The new version will include demonstrations of different types of genetic crosses and the associated genotype/phenotype variation within progeny. I also hope to release an iPad and Android version in the not-too-distant future, and to develop some more research-oriented tools.

UPDATE: (Nov. 24, 2013) This article was amended to note that the first version of the app was designed and submitted to iTunes by Duke alumnus Brandon Millman.