Teaching Virology With Social Media

I have had a Web presence since we first had access to the Web, here at the University of Cape Town, back in 1994: a few of us had discovered this new and shiny thing, and asked our IT Services if UCT had a server – to be told “Yes, but you can’t use it”. We – my colleague Vernon Coyne and I – quickly disabused them of this notion, and got unfettered access to what was then a very primitive Webiverse. Imagine: we were still using FTP and Gopher to move stuff around on the internet at the time; we also had to compose our self-taught HTML using Windows Notepad, for browsers like Cello that didn’t support graphics!

I pretty quickly got the notion that one could teach Virology via the Web, and set up teaching pages from 1995 or so that survived until UCT’s Big Clean Up a few years ago, which basically killed the whole legacy Web environment for us. Delightfully primitive they were, at first: I blogged about this here two years ago, noting that the ONLY record of all that work was via the Wayback server, that has an admirable if slightly spotty set of historical links to material that does not survive anywhere else.


Something that was potentially more valuable though, and which I pioneered at UCT from 1995, was the real-time updating of virological news – started in 1995 with the Ebola Zaire outbreak in Kikwit in the DRC, and commemorated here 20 years on. I was essentially compiling a daily digest of news on the Kikwit outbreak, and later also on others, and also on Marburg, via sources such as ProMed and internet discussion groups. It all started with an essay by my 1994 Honours student, Alison Jacobson, that was one of the first things I put up on the Web. This subsequently ended up being one of the only sources of information on the virus available online for a while, which terrified Alison, and which I commemorated here.

Occurrences_of_Ebola 2

I used this material at the time to inform undergrad students in second-and third-year courses as to what was going on in the moment – and give them cutting-edge material for exam purposes even after my section(s) of their course(s) had finished.

Inevitably things changed and moved on, and I got busy doing other career-related things – then my long-time internet guru Alan Cann introduced me to the concept of regular blogging via WordPress, and slicker news aggregators such as Scoop.it, and Twitter. The site you’re on right now is of course the blog site I set up in 2007 as a teaching blog for Virology, after guesting on his MicrobiologyBytes site a number of times – and I see with some sadness that his site no longer exists. I did things with ViroBlogy like blogging in detail in 2008 on a great paper describing single-round replication of a West Nile virus vaccine candidate – and then asking a detailed question on it in the 3rd year Defence and Disease course exam, despite there being no coverage of it during the course.

I also signed up for Twitter as @edrybicki in 2008 – mainly to tweet about cups of coffee and Marmite-coated biscuits, it would seem, although I see H1N1pdm flu getting to South Africa got a mention.


I then started up Virology News in 2012 on the Scoop.it site, again following The Guru Cann, for disseminating a wider, more general set of news about viruses to a wider audience. Oh, and news about zombies. And sometimes Led Zeppelin too B-)


Scoop.it turned out to be an excellent add-on to my existing sites, as it could be set up to automatically tweet anything I put up in it, or put it up on my WordPress ViroBlogy site. This actually marked the start of a new endeavour to supply up-to-date information to students of virology, as well as interested lay folk, despite the fact that I was not teaching undergrads between 2010 and 2017 because of secondment to a job as Academic Liaison to UCT’s Research Portal Project.

In any case, the blog site and Scoop.it site and being on Twitter kept me current with news in Virology, and were really useful in informing the two ebooks I published in 2015 on  “A Short History of the Discovery of Viruses“ and “Influenza Virus – Introduction to a Killer“, as well as the Introduction to Molecular Virology I am currently writing. The excerpts from those books that I trialled on this site – and tweeted about – have led to high and consistent page accesses from all over the world, as people search for things like “history of virus”.


What this has led up to, as I am now teaching undergraduates again, is the use of my Web-based news and other people’s materials via Twitter to inform students in the various modules I teach about current outbreaks, new discoveries and exciting developments in Virology and One Health. I tell them upfront in my first lecture that I want them to look at @edrybicki, ViroBlogy and Virology News, and that I will regularly be highlighting things of relevance to them. For instance, my daily trawl through Twitter invariably throws up a few papers I want to read, papers I think students should be interested in, and some news on outbreaks or breakthroughs. I then simply hashtag those with the course code, possibly add a comment, and retweet.


The value of this exercise can be seen in the fact that even well after I finished lecturing, students in the MCB2020F course were able to pick up on outbreak information that simply didn’t exist in that 5-lecture window weeks earlier – and give me material back in their final exam answers to the question “Describe one important virus disease outbreak this year and what it affected [3 marks]” that I had not taught them, from as short a time as 5 days previously. Which I commemorated thus, while marking their exam B-)


I did the same thing for a third-year Viromics course, and while I got fewer non-lecture material-based answers, the value of pointing students to alternative material was again confirmed.

viromics edrybicki__MCB3026F_-_Twitter_Search

I shall continue to do this over the next three years of formal lecturing, for the simple reason that it engages students in the productive use of social media – and makes them go out and find information you didn’t have to teach them. You are warned, MCB2020F / 3026F / 3023S / 3024S and 2022S: hashtags, blogs, Scoops…are all waiting for you B-)



2 Responses to “Teaching Virology With Social Media”

  1. likuoo Says:

    Other scientists have embraced social media to inform the public about their respective fields (see Box 1 ), but those in the field of microbiology are scarce. Blogs and podcasts are distributed free of charge, but they are not without cost, as they require time to prepare. But the time spent educating the public about science is a priceless investment.

  2. Twitter, where art thou? | ViroBlogy Says:

    […] even extolled the virtues of using Twitter and other social media for teaching purposes – see here – and firmly believe in this, and am now unable to do […]

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