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Reviewing Penn’s course: COVID-19 & mRNA Vaccines

An excellent course to gain a better understanding of the pandemic and novel vaccines helping contain it.

High-level view of how mRNA vaccines works

Have you ever wanted to take a course from an Ivy League university? Since I don’t live in the USA, it was an impossible dream until the advent of online courses. I was excited to find The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Use of mRNA Vaccines, produced by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. 


I have taken many MOOCs on biology and health-related topics and this short course looked interesting and relevant. I wasn’t disappointed.

COVID-19 is still affecting many countries around the world more than two years after being identified. With new variants appearing, the effort to produce and distribute safe, effective vaccines is continuing. I hadn’t heard of mRNA vaccines until last year and was keen to learn how they could be developed and released so quickly. As well as explaining this process, the course also addressed several common misconceptions about COVID-19 and vaccines.


In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to increase education about vaccines, this free course was released by edX in May 2021. It is scheduled to be archived in May 2022. 


The course is presented by a team led by the Director of Vaccine Research in the Infectious Disease Division at Penn Medicine, Dr. Drew Weissman. Drs Gregory Bisson, Stuart Isaacs, Susan Weiss, Norbert Pardi, and Ian Frank each contribute one or two lecture videos in their particular field of knowledge.

Dr Weissman has been studying mRNA for over two decades and his work has contributed directly to the development of both the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines.

Your Skills

With a lifelong interest in biology, I have taken many online courses on biology and health topics, including some on viruses and epidemics. This previous knowledge helped me move quickly through most of the first week’s work, which includes some basic information about how we become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.


Answers to all of the quiz questions were found in the course. There was no need for further research. Someone without any previous knowledge of biology and cells may need to pay careful attention, particularly to the first week’s material, but all the information is covered.

The Course

The first week covered pandemics and how viruses cause illness. The second week detailed how vaccines work, with particular focus on mRNA vaccines. I was surprised to learn that research on mRNA vaccines has been going on since the mid-1990s.

The history of mRNA vaccines

Each week of the two-week course was divided into four sections, generally consisting of two lecture videos and often some relevant links, followed by between one and five practice questions that helped consolidate the information. Each week also included a discussion topic and an end-of-week quiz. A final quiz rounded out the course.

Learning objectives and summaries are provided for each week. 

Even though the course was created in early 2021 and vaccine rollouts have increased since, the medical facts are still the same. Links to more recent findings are also provided.


Practice questions were available after each section of the course, then a weekly quiz, then a final quiz. I found the course easy to pass. Each multiple-choice question had a single correct answer (as opposed to some courses that have quizzes with multiple correct answers that all need to be selected). I rarely needed more than one attempt, although three attempts were available.

One disappointment was that the final quiz had all the same questions as the weekly quiz questions, including exactly the same options to choose from. It certainly helped consolidate the work, but some different questions would have provided more of a challenge.

Assignments and course grades

Time Commitment

The information page recommends a commitment of 2-3 hours per week for two weeks. This was a realistic time frame. I finished the course within a day, but I watched several videos at 1.5 speed and went quickly through some of the biology of how viruses work because it was revision for me. Someone without any previous knowledge of cells and infection might take longer going through the material.


This short course covered a surprising amount of information and is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to know the facts about COVID-19 and vaccines.

What Next?

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a number of courses about the disease, contact tracing, and medical care. A search for COVID in the Class Central catalog returns more than 300 courses including how to manage supply chain disruptions during a pandemic.

Pat Bowden Profile Image

Pat Bowden

Online learning specialist, still learning after 100+ MOOCs completed since 2012. Class Central customer support and help since 2018. I am keen to help others make the most of online learning, so I set up a website:

Comments 1

  1. Sonal

    thanks, Pat This is a great class! I loved your review! I hope edX provides more such classes open to all learners at all times! This s probably the only class on edX I took last year and really appreciated the quality of the instruction. It was a quite timely class and that is the power of online education that empowers everyone. great work, sharing your review, and hope many more learners take advantage of this material.


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