Transfection (Trans- +[In]Fection) As Teaching: What Molecular Biology Has In Common With eLearning

Transfection And eLearning: Can Learning Go Viral?  

Over Winter Break, I openly wished that the content in my online courses would “go viral”, infecting all the students in a wide-spread epidemic of knowledge. When I described the subtle shifts in my approach to try to make this happen through personalized learning activities, my partner, who also teaches college, STEM courses online, responded “It’s not viral, it’s like ‘transfection’”. eLearning is very much like a transfection of knowledge. While my own memories of biology are a faint, Latinate dream, transfection in molecular biology is a method of artificially introducing foreign DNA into cultured cells. Essentially, it’s the uptake of engineered material with the intention of integration. Effective eLearning activities and material function like molecular biology in that the content is engineered with the direct intention of the that material entering through open spaces or voids, ultimately, into the contained space of the learner’s own membranes of knowledge. Basically, the content is cultured with something familiar and delivered through a vehicle, especially when it moves through the dynamic learning spaces that form the habitat of eLearning.

Edu-Tectonics: A Shift From Instruction To Learning 

In education circles a shift has erupted on the fault line between learning and teaching. The epicenter has moved more toward the side of learning and design along this axis between learner and teacher. Consider the expanding crop of new job titles that have evolved as the edu-tectonics of this shift settle: Instructional Designers, training and development, project consultant, curriculum specialist, Subject Matter Expert, and the list continues to grow.

Transient Versus Stable Transfection

In teaching today, it is not only about what is taught (content). Rather, how content is taught often determines what level of information and knowledge takes hold and for how long. Like the clinical trials found in molecular biology, there are no guarantees for success, but there are best practices, which can help ensure the best odds possible. In fact, I am told that even in biological payloads, one can be fairly certain that particular genes are delivered, but what comes along with them is less certain. For that, a mix of combinations used by bioengineering as well as eLearning and education alchemists alike (right material, bad method, inappropriate material, good method, timing) can make a difference in getting the formula and method just right. Once introduced, a transfection can become stable or transient. When thinking of transient transfection, imagine cramming for a test, with the material being gleefully forgotten once it has served its purpose. Stable transfection is best achieved by careful integration of the targeted material of interest into the learner’s own reserve of knowledge. In turn, this knowledge becomes long-term and epistemologically reproducible. The learner has self actualized the material. For stable transfection, the factors on how well the material has been taken-in depends on two factors: The method used to integrate it and the vector, which in biology is the DNA molecule used to carry the new material, where it can be biologically replicated by the host. Again, these are not the same thing. A vector in the realm of education might be as simple as a book. However, today teaching vectors are most likely to be any eLearning tool, media, activity, game, interactive piece, or even graphic design that carries the material being taught.


Transfection Is Not A Transaction

Compared to a transaction, which involves an exchange between people, usually symbolically though money, transfection is more intimate. In the 21st century, in which content is available outside of the kingdom of universities, higher education, and institutions of learning, the content does not have a curator, rather an engineer or designer. As common as intellectual property may be now, when it comes to fair use, no one literally owns knowledge or content when the material is used for transformative and educational purposes. The fallacy of some teaching methods may confuse this, by perceiving learning as the process of imparting knowledge to a learner, instead of a cultivation of material to integrate into the learner’s previous knowledge. It is a transfection of knowledge.

Wizard Of Instructional Design

Going back to those Latinate dreams from biology and philosophy, I recollect that learning consists of multiple parts. In the recent years, these parts were collapsed into one, depending on one’s perspective: content (Episteme); context (Techne) and the third part being something personal to the learner, including common sense. It may be time to isolate these on a molecular level again to create learning deliverables. The right combination of these, injected in the right place with good method, can produce longer-term effects. In the laboratory of learning, I see engineers of these spheres, working behind the curtain of the sage on the stage and running along with the guide on the side.