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Distance learning course in molecular biology – from lab to studies

In cooperation with the University of Mainz, the Springer publishing house is now offering distance learning courses for laboratory and technical assistants who wish to study while they are working. The courses lead to a Bachelor of Science degree. The successful programme for ambitious non-academics is being developed in several Baden-Württemberg cities.

Dr. Benjamin Steeb and Elli Mohr from the Springer publishing house supervise students during a four-year course leading to a Bachelor of Science degree in molecular biology. © Verlag Springer Spektrum

The course is addressed at BTAs, MTAs, CTAs and laboratory technicians who have completed vocational training and want to put their expertise and experience to good use. Distant learning courses help working technicians to expand their theoretical knowledge and improve their promotion prospects. Why not boost your career with an academic qualification whilst attending a distant learning course? The distance learning course in biology offered by Heidelberg-based Springer and the University of Mainz is a structured way to achieve both. The four-year course teaches the theoretical foundations of a bachelor degree in molecular biology. All students who successfully complete the course will receive a certificate and will be able to join the 6th semester of the molecular biology degree course at the University of Mainz. This leads to a bachelor’s degree after successful completion of two two-week courses specifically developed by the University of Mainz for the distance learning students. The bachelor thesis is usually done at the student's workplace.

“The course is based on an original course developed for Bayer AG that aimed to give ‘high potentials’, i.e. especially capable employees, the opportunity of better career perspectives. Quite quickly, the course was made available to employees from other companies,” says Dr. Benjamin Steeb, project manager for Springer of the distance learning biology course. Although the course is centrally supervised from Heidelberg, students do not have far to travel. Regional groups of six to 35 participants meet with their tutor once a fortnight for two hours at their closest study site. They go through what they have already learned on their own, discuss queries, exchange information with peers or sit an exam.

Academic supervision included

The distance learning course brings together the students one every two weeks. Dr. Irmgard van Renten is one of the Springer tutors that provide relevant training. © Verlag Springer Spektrum

The curriculum was developed in collaboration with the University of Mainz based on its molecular biology bachelor course. Due to previous professional training and experience, participants in the distance learning course have a lot more practical experience than full-time university students. This is taken into account in the teaching concept: the study material consists of 89 study booklets prepared specifically for the distance learning course by expert authors in cooperation with the University of Mainz. The study programme is divided into 15 modules, each with a final exam supervised by the tutor. The exams are prepared and evaluated by university teaching staff. Only the University of Mainz evaluates and marks the exams and the bachelor theses. The University is also in charge of course content and quality control of the programme.

The main criterion for admission to the distance learning course is a completed vocational training in a suitable subject (chemical, biology, laboratory). People with the ‘Abitur’ (baccalaureate equivalent) can start the course as soon as they have finished their vocational training. People with a secondary school certificate or specialised university entrance qualification need to have two years of relevant professional experience before starting the course. Nadja Wunsch began the distance learning course in March 2016. The 24-year-old biology technician completed her training at the Botanical Institute at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in 2015 and has been working there ever since. She decided to do the course because she wanted to combine a permanent position that she was offered with study. The distance learning course enables her to do both, which is ideal for her. She says, “I want to study because I would like to improve my theoretical background and be more proficient in dealing with the six trainees I am supervising at the KIT. I have only been studying for a few months, but I already understand a lot more of the seminars than before."

Wunsch is partly financing the 14,500 euros herself and partly with a grant from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. She comments, “Anyone who is considering studying while working should think this through very thoroughly. Working and studying at the same time is not easy and you have to sacrifice a lot of free time. So you need to be sure that you are really prepared to go through with it.” The course requires around 10 hours of self-study a week. “During the learning phase, students might have to spend a few more hours, but I guess ten to twelve hours is a good estimate,” said Wunsch. Every year, the course attracts around 80 to 100 applicants. To give them an idea about what they are getting themselves into, Springer has integrated a one-day tutorial into the curriculum. “Prospective students are also sent study booklet samples to enable them to decide whether they are ready to take on the work. We provide prospective students with as much information as we can in order to help them make a decision,” says Elli Mohr, who is an assistant in Springer’s distance learning programme.

Huge interest in bachelor and master’s courses

Student feedback confirms that the concept works. “The number of people dropping out of the course is less than 10%. In a survey, 92 percent of the participants surveyed said they were satisfied/very satisfied with the distance learning course, and around 88% would recommend us,” says Mohr. However, if a student decides to discontinue the course, cancellation charges are relatively moderate. “If someone realises after six months or so that the distance learning course is not what they expected, they can give three months' notice to terminate and only have to pay the monthly instalments to that point,” says Mohr. Students can also take a break from the course if their family or work situation changes or they want to fully concentrate on their job, etc. Every year, around three to five students take a break and resume their studies at a later date.

As the distance learning course is becoming increasingly popular, Springer has decided to expand the offer. “We are fairly growth-oriented and are planning to increase the number of sites where people can study as well as enabling study groups to meet in all German-speaking countries,” said Steeb. From the winter semester 2016/2017 onwards, study groups will be available in Freiburg and Biberach an der Riß; a third study group will have been set up in Mannheim in autumn 2016. In general, if enough people are interested in the course in a particular region, there is a good chance that the Springer team will establish a new study group. Springer and the East Westphalia-Lippe University of Applied Sciences also offer a distance learning course in chemistry for laboratory technicians and assistants as well as a certificate course in genetic safety. At present, Springer is also planning a distance learning course based on the bachelor course leading to a master’s degree. “We are in close contact with a university regarding this new development. Numerous requests from our bachelor graduates show us that there is a great deal of interest in a master’s course,” says Steeb.

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/distance-learning-course-in-molecular-biology-from-lab-to-studies