International Humanitarian Law MOOC

Course: International Humanitarian Law
Length: 7 weeks
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain
Instructors: Raphaël Van Steenberghe, Jerôme de Hemptinne
Quote:

Starting with the sources and subjects of IHL, as well as its scope of application, the course will address the main substantive norms of IHL governing: the conduct of hostilities; the protection afforded to persons in the hands of the enemy; occupation; and implementation of IHL.
We will discuss questions such as:
    • who and what can be targeted by the enemy.
    • which weapons can be used.
    • which method of warfare is authorized.
    • who enjoys protection and what type of protection.
    • which norms apply in non international armed conflicts.
We will also deal with the different ways through which IHL can be implemented and how belligerents may be held accountable for violations of its rules when committing war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Short version: Fascinating course, highly relevant to current events, but be prepared to do some serious work. I took the preliminary International Law mooc (listed as a prerequisite, for good reason) last fall, so I had some idea what to expect. Don’t be discouraged by a poor showing on the first exam: it’s the hardest of the course, and it’s possible to recover from a horrible score and finish with a reasonably decent grade. Trust me. 😉

The course was divided into three sections. The first, two weeks long, outlined the distinctions between IHL and Human Rights law. IHL pertains to rights and responsibilities in times of armed conflict: the Geneva Convention quoted in ever war movie since the late 40s (it’s actually a suite of four, plus a couple of Additional Protocols and various Advisory Opinions, but you get the general idea). In contrast, Human Rights law is more about overarching basics and has nothing to do with war. The two are related, and that relationship took up a significant portion of the first week: how to interpret one in light of the other, and which way that works in various situations and by what principle according to whose pronouncement. It sounds simple now, but it took me an embarrassingly long time to know which was which. This first section also looked at sources of IHL, and the history of its development.

The details of IHL – types of armed conflicts (international, non-international, occupation) and forces (state forces, armed groups, terrorists) – started the second section (3 weeks) and was likewise tricky, but essential to understanding so many contemporary conflicts. Then the focus was on the Geneva Convention relating to protection of POWs and civilians, and the very complicated question of the civilian soldier. Rules of weaponry, tactics, and targeting finished up the section; much of this material was intense, particularly since things were happening in the real world at the same time: the illegal use of chemical weapons in Syria, the US bombing in response, the superbomb in Afghanistan.

The final section in weeks 6 and 7 covered the legal framework of IHL – the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Criminal Court, the UN, individual international Tribunals and hybrid ad hoc courts – and the legal methods of sanctioning violations of IHL and prosecuting war crimes. This was a welcome relief, in terms of both workload and topic.

Each week featured several videos and readings outlining individual situations and cases. The course lists a time allowance of 6 to 8 hours a week; I estimate I spent about 12 to 14 hours a week in the middle section, a bit less elsewhere. Some of that is because of my process of obsessive note-taking, but it’s not the sort of material where I can listen to a video, read a page, and be on my way; it takes multiple plays/readings, and time to understand, incorporate, and relate to prior material. I have no legal or international background other than the one prior course; others may find it much easier. Each week also featured an extended (about a half hour) discussion with practicing IHL professionals: professors at various institutions, as well as organizational, military, and diplomatic specialists, fleshing out the academic discussion with practical considerations and the realities of the real world.

Addendum: I realized, after publishing, that I’d left out a paragraph, sorry! I did have one disappointment with this course, and that was in the reliance on lectures laden with textbook language. Given the unusual relevance of the topics covered, I wonder if it would be possible to present a more engaging class, one with opening questions and more of a conversational feel. I suspect that’s not the way they do things in law schools, but maybe a mooc should try to be a bit different. Then again, given that this is something of an extension of a bricks-and-mortar degree, it might be wise to prioritize academic tone and intent rather than try to become more accessible to less targeted interests.

Grading was divided among three sources. One or two multiple choice questions followed most videos or readings, which together counted for about roughly a third of the final grade. Each section, as outlined above, ended with an assignment: two were multiple choice, one was a peer-assessed essay (for Verified students, this was staff-graded). These also counted for about a third. The final multiple choice exam (for Verified students, another essay was added on) comprised the final third.

I was taking the “WWI and Philosophy” course concurrent with this one, which had some interesting congruences: the Clauswitz philosophy against the development of IHL, the German idealists and the Just War principle. The recent ISIS destruction of Palmyra and other cultural treasures came up in both. For the record, it was a violation of international law, but good luck enforcing that, particularly when dealing with an armed group rather than a state. And that, right there, is the main problem with IHL: while there’s no doubt the rules have helped to some degree to contain the suffering that comes with war, enforcement is inadequate at best. Once in a while justice can be done – we looked at tribunals regarding the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda – but mostly it’s a matter of permitting third-party attacks upon military targets in response to violations as a means of deterrence. This wasn’t glossed over in the course, by the way.

Another interesting real-life crossover – or sort of real-life: for several months I’ve been listening to a podcast covering individual episodes of the 2000-2006 TV show The West Wing. Yes, we’re weird, but some of us need some liberal porn in these times. During this course, one of the episodes discussed involved war crimes, and the podcast featured a rather extensive (for an entertainment podcast) discussion with the US former ambassador to the UN, David Pressman covering various aspects of war crimes. I was pleased to recognize so many concepts. I wish I’d been able to ask some questions about the specific incident depicted in the show (I don’t think Leo, as jet pilot, was obligated to verify his target was, in fact, military; that was his superior’s responsibility; and then there’s the retroactivity issue), but alas, the podcast upfront is one way.

This is, as I’ve said, the second of the Louvain international law courses I’ve taken. I’m still enrolled in the Human Rights Law segment, but it seems less approachable so I’ve left it for “someday”. The fourth segment is on investment law, a topic that carries no interest for me whatsoever. These four courses comprise the Louvain MicroMasters, which, if passed (as a Verified student, $150 fee) complete about a third of the credits necessary for a Master’s degree from Louvain (I’m not sure of the subject of the degree, I haven’t looked that closely).

Verified students had a slightly different exam path in this course: the essay for the third assignment is staff-graded rather than peer-assessed, and the final includes another staff-graded essay instead of an additional set of multiple choice questions.. I’ve been highly critical of courses that offer different assessment practices for audit and verified students (that is, those who pay and those who don’t) but here, where academic accreditation is an option, I think it’s a valid approach. The purpose is not to get people to pay for a certificate that’s of dubious value, but to more accurately assess students who might be using the credits earned in the degree program. It’s also a creative approach to using moocs as a supplement, rather than a replacement, to higher education, making credentials more accessible to a wider field. At least, that’s my view from well outside academia.

Even though I have no practical reason to take these courses, they’ve been helpful in seeing a larger picture and interpreting events in different ways. I probably could’ve done the same thing without quite so much work, but I like a challenge.
boil

Summer MOOCs 2017

It’s that time again: vacations, sunbathing, lemonade, and chaining myself to my computer 14 hours a day for no practical purpose whatsoever other than I just love this stuff.

By the luck of the draw, late June – most of the summer, really – is ridiculously overly scheduled. I’m going to have to make some tough choices at some point: just continuing microbiology and retaking calculus would be pretty intense. But I can’t resist at least taking a look at the rest; reach, grasp, all that. And there’s usually a disappointment in the list, something that looked good but just didn’t sit right with me for whatever silly reason. I’m actually hoping that’ll be the case, so I won’t have to drop something I’d really like to complete.

Not listed below is the suite of Anatomy courses from the University of Michigan, listed in my January post. They were delayed and rescheduled, and start in late June, late August, October and December, and are all self-paced so offer flexibility. Unfortunately, that often means they’re crowded out by scheduled things, but I hope I can work them in.

I noticed that many of the courses I took in the first five months of this year were drop-ins, things I’d heard about after posting my January list. I can’t possibly fit another thing in this summer. Can I?

Principles of Biochemistry
Start June 5, 2017
15 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
Instructor: Alain Viel, Rachelle Gaudet
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Official blurb:

This course explores the molecules of life, starting with building blocks and culminating in complex metabolism and associated diseases.

It’s been a long time since I took a full-length mooc; most are 4 to 8 weeks now. I very much liked Harvard’s Mitochondria course, so I’m hoping this will be in the same vein. The problem is: I’ll be taking it at the same time as Calculus and Molecular Bio, and I don’t know how that’s going to work. I hope I can manage it, but it may not be possible.

Calculus 1A: Differentiation
Start June 7, 2017
13 weeks, 6-10 hrs/wk
Instructor: Various
School/platform: MIT/edX
Official blurb:

Discover the derivative—what it is, how to compute it, and when to apply it in solving real world problems. Part 1 of 3.

I tried this once before – it’s a great class – but was garroted by a zipline and never recovered. Will I get the elusive pass this time? I have my doubts, but I may as well give it a shot. I’ve been going through 3Blue1Brown’s Essence of Calculus playlist (which is spectacular, just from an artistic point of view; I never knew π could be so expressive) for inspiration, and Khan for a brush-up on nuts and bolts.
The course opened for its “Week 0” (a terrific idea, gives people not that familiar with edX a chance to figure out where the buttons are and how the answer entry works, which can be tricky in math courses). And I’m having second thoughts already. Given that I’ve already been here, and given how many great courses are upcoming this summer, do I really want this time sink? I’ll have to see how I feel as the summer progresses.

 

Human Origins
Start June 12, 2017
8 weeks, ? hrs/wk
Instructor: Dr. Donald C. Johanson
School/platform: ASU/edX
Official blurb:

Explore the scientific evidence for human evolution, our fossil relatives, and the place of humankind in the natural world in this credit-eligible course.

I haven’t been wildly impressed with the ASU courses I’ve taken so far, but I know people who rave about one of their astronomy courses, and the comments left by former students on this one are extremely positive so I’ll see what happens. The “credit-eligible” seems to only apply to ASU and costs $600, so I’ll pass on that. They have a habit of indicating “18 hours/week” for all their courses, so I have no idea how time-consuming it will be. It’s probably first on the chopping block if I’m overwhelmed by the two killer courses I very much want to take in June.

Molecular Biology, Part 2, Transcription and Transposition
Molecular Biology, Part 3, RNA Processing and Translation
Start June 13, 2017 (Part 2); August 15, 2017 (Part 3)
7/8 weeks, 4-8 hrs/wk
Instructor: Stephen P. Bell
School/platform: MIT/edX
Official blurb:

Strengthen your scientific thinking and experimental design skills in this adventure through transcription and transposition/ An in-depth adventure through RNA Processing and Translation.

Status: Well, I knew something would have to give, and it turned out to be this (at least the first round of cuts; probably more to come). First, my computer broke, then I was sick for a couple of days, and as a result I never really got it together for the first week. This course is too hard to approach with anything less than full concentration. After much consideration, it was the focus on lab assays that decided it; I’d rather know more about biochemistry (which has the added benefit of being self-paced and thus I have until December), rather than trying to keep the assays straight. I regret that this was necessary – I still admire the series and recommend it – but sometimes choices must be made.

I just completed Part 1; it’s a great course, so I’m looking forward to the rest. I don’t know who does these in 4 to 8 hours a week; I’d guess it’s more like 10 to 12 for me, so it’s going to be a major time investment – but one that’s worthwhile.

 

Justice
Start June 15, 2017
12 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
Instructor: Michael J. Sandel
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Official blurb:

Justice explores critical analysis of classical and contemporary theories of justice, including discussion of present-day applications. Topics include affirmative action, income distribution, same-sex marriage, the role of markets, debates about rights (human rights and property rights), arguments for and against equality, dilemmas of loyalty in public and private life. The course invites learners to subject their own views on these controversies to critical examination.
The principal readings for the course are texts by Aristotle, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls. Other assigned readings include writings by contemporary philosophers, court cases, and articles about political controversies that raise philosophical questions.
Subtitles are available in Chinese, German, Portuguese, and Spanish.

I can’t imagine that time estimate of 2-4 hours will be anywhere close to accurate, but this looks very interesting, so I’ve got to see if I can squeeze it in somewhere. Sleep is overrated anyway, right? And if it turns out it’s not, the lectures seem to be available online, which might work better.

Proteins: Alignment, Analysis and Structure
Start August 2, 2017
8 weeks, 8-10 hrs/wk
Instructor: Dr. James Coker
School/platform: University of Maryland/edX
Official blurb:

Learn about proteins and the important role structure plays in their function as you learn how to analyze and align protein sequences

Seems like a flood of biology courses starting in June. I’ve never taken anything from Maryland, so I’d like to see what they’re up to. However, this is a MicroMasters course, and “undergrad bio” is listed as a prereq, so it might be way out of my league. Worth a look.

 

Life and Death: Mysteries and Meanings
Start August 2, 2017
4 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
Instructor: Many
School/platform: Hong Kong Polytechnic Institute
Official blurb:

If you are interested in questions about life-and-death and keen to seek ultimate answers, this inter-disciplinary and inter-cultural course will amaze you with the diverse perspectives and answers proposed to the perennial questions….
Different from conventional applied ethics, this course highlights the importance of the interdisciplinary (scientific, religious and philosophical) perspectives and their interplay, which demonstrates tensions, conflicts and above all, this being the arch-goal of this course, the possibility of coordination and corroboration, forming various ultimately coherent outlooks on life and death.

I was hoping to find some humanities courses to break up the science this summer, so when a mooc buddy mentioned this, I enrolled. The teaser video is intense. I’ve been enjoying these multi-disciplinary courses, so I’m looking forward to it.

Quantum Mechanics for Everyone
Open now, self-paced
4 weeks, 7-10 hrs/wk
Instructor: James Freericks
School/platform: Georgetown/edX
Official blurb:

Learn the fundamental notions of quantum mechanics at a level that is accessible to everyone.
What you’ll learn:
• Understand what a quantum particle is in the world of the ultrasmall
• Learn the basics of probability theory
• Discover what spin is and how it is manipulated by magnets
• Explain what the quantum mystery is
• Apply quantum ideas to understand partial reflection of light, interaction-free measurements, and particle indistinguishability

James Freericks has a mission: to free the world from physics phobia. I’m not sure quantum mechanics is the best place to start to do that, but I’m neither a physicist nor a teacher, so what do I know. I so wish they’d used “For Dummies” in the title, but I suppose that’s some kind of copyright violation. I’ve heard several “for everyone” explanations prior to this, and I still seem to miss the big picture (not to mention a lot of details) but sure, I’ll try it. In any case it’s probably fun. Since it’s self-paced (take any time in the next year) I can schedule at will.

The Great War: Philosophy MOOC

Course: The Great War and Modern Philosophy
Length: 8 weeks
School/platform: KULeuven/edX
Instructor: Nicolas de Warren
Quote:

In the celebrated words of the American diplomat George Kennan, the First World War was the ‘original catastrophe of the 20th century’, a catastrophe that, arguably, left no aspect of European civilization unchanged. But in what sense was the First World War the original catastrophe of modern philosophy, of philosophy in the twentieth century?
One of the most remarkable aspects of the war is the way in which philosophers in various belligerent nations felt the need to speak about the war, to address the war in philosophical terms. There was a sense in which something was philosophically at stake in the war which required philosophers to mobilize their concepts and arguments towards this understanding.
In this course, we’re interested in pursuing different ways in which philosophers during the First World War responded and thought about the war.

On April 2, 1917, the United States entered WWI with a declaration of war against Germany. My local historical society is just wrapping up an exhibit on the impact of the war in Maine, so I’ve been seeing posters and documents displayed in the windows nearly every day as I walk down Congress Street. The timing of this course coincides with the anniversary, but this was its second run; the first was almost two years ago.

I have mixed feelings about the course. On the plus side, I encountered a huge swath of philosophy from thinkers I hadn’t read before. On the down side, the swath was too huge – most weeks required 50 pages of dense reading – and I was only able to get a very general sense of the major points through lectures far to brief to cover the material in any depth. Other names were more familiar. I noticed this was an adjunct to an in-person course, so maybe that’s why it had the feel of an introduction to a “real” class. It’s the kind of material that, for me at least, would require far more time to absorb.

It was, I will say, an outstandingly produced introduction. The lecture videos were nearly cinematic, with carefully chosen locations and introductory music that began as a low, ominous hum under the spoken words, then crescendoed at a well-chosen break point to develop into a lovely melancholic theme overlaid by old-style film cuts complete with blotches, pops and crackles. I was astonished at the work that must’ve gone into the timing and graphics of these intros. Some videos were “conversations” with a verité feel, filmed in a coffee shop – again, with a nicely composed introduction of umbrella’d arrival and cappuccino artistry. The production values were extraordinarily high; I just wish the lectures had been twice as long, at least.

Much of the material was quite depressing, partly because it’s a bit alarming to study the breakup of Old Europe when the breakup of new Europe may be in progress. Reading the German idealist and nationalist materials brought to mind American exceptionalism and MAGA, both of which feel catastrophic to me at the moment. The poetry was heartbreaking, the art devastating. But I think it’s important that we not lose touch, in this era of drones and air assaults launched from hundreds of miles away from the targets, in a time when most American families do not have anyone in the military, of the real pain that war entails, of the real sight, sound, and feel of death and destruction, so maybe we won’t be so eager to chant war slogans from the safety of our living rooms and offices when our pride is the only thing wounded.

Hey, I warned you it was depressing.

Grading was based primarily on self-evaluation of discussion board contributions. I had a pretty good conversation with one student about German idealism, and made a few other substantial posts. A few multiple choice quizzes, and one peer-assessment assignment, rounded out the graded material.

Somehow I felt like I just missed the boat somewhere along the line, in spite of the artistry and the emotionality. Maybe it’s because I was overwhelmed with too many courses for the first six weeks; maybe it’s a side effect of the current moment, or maybe I was just missing out on some historical subtext. I wish there had been more, but I don’t know exactly what. Still, I’m glad to have some idea of the flow of ideas through the period, and I hope I can expand upon it more in the future.

Molecular Bio MOOC, part I: DNA copied while you wait

Course: Molecular Biology – Part 1: DNA Replication and Repair
Length: 8 weeks 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructors: Stephen Bell, Tania Baker
Quote:

Do you feel like studying biology is just memorizing hundreds of protein names and functions? Wake up, and take a different approach with MIT Biology’s 7.28x. You’ll experience an approach to learning infused in experimental research with animations that make complex details come to life….
What you’ll learn:
• How to compare and contrast the mechanisms of DNA replication in prokaryotes and eukaryotes
• How to describe several enzymatic mechanisms that the cell uses to repair or tolerate DNA damage
• How to analyze protein structures to infer functional information
• How to design methods for the best experiment to test a hypothesis related to DNA replication or repair proteins
• How to interpret data from DNA replication and repair experiments

I have to smile when I see, on the sign-up page for this course, the estimation that it will take 4 to 6 hours per week. This is repeated in the introductory material: about two hours of video lecture, another hour of ungraded comprehension questions, and one to three hours for the weekly graded quiz. That might work for some people, particularly those familiar with the design and interpretation of lab assays. I probably spent more like 10 to 12 hours a week.

And every minute was worth it.

This is the first third of the MIT microbiology series, focusing, as the title says,on DNA replication and repair. Part 2 will cover transcription (starts in a couple of weeks), and part 3 will get into RNA translation. They all build on the 7.00x “Biology: Secret of Life” course I took earlier, and list it as a recommended prerequisite.

Most moocs include some kind of “goals and objectives” for each week; most are pretty abstract and not terribly useful. But the ones for these courses are different: they’re extremely helpful. The objectives serve as a blueprint for the quizzes. If it says “Predict the effect a disruption of telomerase function would have”, you can bet you’ll have to pick an assay result that shows the effect in a given situation. If an objective is “Analyze protein structure to infer functional information”, chances are good you’ll have to find a binding site that’ll work with a particular molecule. That objectives list is the study guide to the course. If you can handle that list, you’ve learned the material.

The lecture videos, diagrams, and short animations all serve to lay out a clear picture of exactly what happens at each stage of DNA replication and repair – including proteins involved, energy requirements, and what happens in the event of failure – but that’s only the beginning. What these courses do incredibly well is simulate lab conditions that illustrate these processes, which, by the way, are the means by which the picture of what’s happening is discovered and confirmed in the first place. This isn’t makework, it’s what biologists do. Obviously, mooc students aren’t going to be able to culture e. coli or obtain fluorescently labeled dNTPs or run gel electrophoresis, and to their credit they don’t try to substitute videos of people doing those things and call it a virtual lab. Instead, they write up a little multi-act play in the form of the weekly quiz:

You study Okazaki fragment DNA maturation and nucleosome assembly. Your advisor wants to understand how the lagging strand DNA polymerase decides to stop extending an Okazaki fragment. He asks you to test the hypothesis that Okazaki fragment length relates to nucleosome positioning in the budding yeast, S. cerevisiae. Your advisor’s hypotheses mainly focus on the lagging strand DNA polymerase.

The questions then go through a series of steps: your labmate Zoe asks a question about why you’re doing something one way and not another, and you have to pick the right rationale; you run this assay and get this result, what do you conclude; you decide to try a different angle, what assay do you want, what reagents do you need, and what result do you expect? When your labmate Brian (oh, dear Brian, poor never-quite-right Brian, beloved by all but trusted by none) runs the assay and gets a weird result, what’s the most likely thing he did wrong? When you get stuck, the more experienced Alice will be able to glance at your results and suggest a course of action, at which point you need to figure out what she’s correcting. It’s pretty ingenious to design a quiz like this, and even more so to design it so that no subsequent questions give away the answers to prior questions (trust me, I looked).

You can’t fake this course. Too many moocs are eminently fakeable; some day I’m going to see if I can get a good grade in a course without ever watching a lecture or reading anything, just by searching for answers in lecture transcripts or other online sources. But not here: you either know what you’re doing, and can put six different threads of information together into a picture of what’s going on in that particular DNA, or you can’t. Sometimes you can narrow it down a little, but that’s about it. What really freaked me out regularly is that, buried among seriously complex scenarios are some laughably simple questions. I kept thinking, This one must be a trick. No tricks, though. Just damn good test design. I don’t always feel like I’ve earned my grade in a mooc, but I sure did here.

For those who are more advanced, the course includes a “journal club” featuring current articles relating to the topics of each week. I wasn’t in any shape to participate, but it’s a great way to design in multiple levels. Maybe next time, I’ll be able to make use of it. Forums were active and helpful; I wish I’d been able to offer as much as I asked, but, again, maybe next time.

Every time I take a biology or anatomy course, I come away with a sense of awe. Awe, in the classic sense, is wonder mixed with dread or fear, a sense of being dwarfed by something so immense as to be nearly incomprehensible. It’s often applied to the beauties of nature: the Grand Canyon, the recent images of Jupiter brought to us by an exploratory vehicle launched six years ago. As amazing as those things are, they’re nothing compared to the billions – I don’t know, billions, trillions? – of separate, interrelated events happening in our bodies every second, events that we really have no control over, but that must take place in order for us to be here. The molecules keeping us alive make the Grand Canyon seem kinda small, if you ask me.

Jupiter’s still really cool, though. Maybe transcription or translation will dwarf that, too.

Architectural MOOC

Course: The Architectural Imagination
Length: 10 weeks, 3-5 hours/week
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: K. Michael Hays et al
Quote:

Architecture is not just about the need for shelter or the need for a functional building. In some ways, it’s just what exceeds necessity that is architecture. And it’s the opening onto that excess that makes architecture fundamentally a human endeavor….
Architecture is one of the most complexly negotiated cultural practices there is. And a single instant involves all of the aesthetic, technological, economic, political issues of social production itself. And indeed, in some ways, architecture, as we’ll see, helps articulate history itself. These are all big claims. And we’ll need big ideas to address these claims. And we’ll also need very specific, concrete examples of architectural projects and events from history. Welcome to The Architectural Imagination, an online introduction to the history and theory of architecture.

Every so often, maybe once a decade, I look at a book on architecture to see if I still don’t get it. To me, architecture is about making sure the building doesn’t fall down, but I kept running into either technical explanations of perspective or grand statements about the historical impact of the arch that I can read but not understand. The above excerpt from the introductory lecture – architecture as “what exceeds necessity” – makes more sense than anything I’ve encountered so far. That isn’t to say I was able to go much further with it, but I got a sense of what is meant by the word, anyway, and why my prior conceptualization didn’t work.

I greatly enjoyed the breadth of scope presented: yes, there was some technical work on perspective (and it turned out to be completely understandable and very interesting in relation to some ideas about subject and object), and some of the more artistic concepts eluded me, but there was also history and philosophy and literature. It was quite marvelous.

I ended up taking it as a recreational mooc, partly because I was overloaded with other courses, and partly because, somewhere around Week 5, I just sort of lost the thread of what was happening. I did get back into the groove in the last three weeks, first through utopian cities, and then was greatly moved by the final week’s stunning examination of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The course was worth it for that lecture alone: the refusal of forgive and forget, the depth of the wound, the erasure of names, comparisons with the Prague and Mount of Olives burial sites. Another mooc that made me cry.

The course was divided into three modules of three to four weeks each: Form & History, The Technology Effect, and Representation & Context. A different major work was the focus for each week – Italian villas, the Pompidou Center in Paris, German factories, even Utopian city designs that were never built – with additional works brought in as supported the material. Although Dr. Hays did most of the lectures, several other instructors appeared for individual weeks.

The material was based on beautifully produced weekly lectures of about 30 to 40 minutes, broken up into five or six segments, with a substantial reading selection available via pdf for about half of the weeks. Exercises were varied: some required drawing, some were multiple-choice or identification questions about the lecture or reading, some were self-graded short essay questions ranging from outlining the presented material to applying concepts to a new project.

I didn’t really use the forums. It seemed to me there were a lot of more advanced students and I was intimidated and didn’t want to clutter things up, plus they were oddly formatted (I wish mooc designers would realize that pinning more than two or three threads is self-defeating). One comment went unnoticed, perhaps because of the forum setup, perhaps because it was too naïve for the rest of the class. This didn’t help with the intimidation factor, but that’s my problem.

I was quite proud of a couple of the written answers I gave. One asked for an analysis of perspective as seen in a medieval cathedral. The other: analyze the Behrens turbine factory according to Semper’s theoretic structure. I was surprised by my response to this. While the building itself seemed to me like any other factory, I had a great time creating a little story based on conceptual images for hearth, container, framework, and wrap. I also had rather a fun time with the Barcelona Pavilion; I’m sure I missed the mark entirely, but since I come from a land of narratives, I again came up with a story of the posts pushing themselves up from the ground and being restrained from overreaching. I was a bit shocked to be reminded of this in the last week with the Berlin monument: again, a sense of reaching up from the ground, but a far more somber, and important, sense and purpose.

However, I must admit most of my answers were mediocre at best. In the first week of the course, we were to give a sort of pre-course descriptive comparison of two buildings, paying attention to various general aspects: the relationship to the ground, the openings from inside to outside, that sort of thing. I wrote extensively about a very white building on a very green lawn, pegging it as some kind of high-tech research lab for genetic engineering or microcircuitry; it turned out, I discovered later, to be a world-famous house by Corbusier designed to provide a “democratic space” under the private space, and to allow great freedom of movement and vision. Could’ve fooled me. Did fool me.

Part of my problem is that I seem to be lacking any visual artistic sensibility. One building was described as having panes of glass “tilted slightly away from the base, tilted inward toward the building”; this gives “visual weight to the column” and “puts the glass plane on display as a plane.” At least, they tell me it does. Am I supposed to be able to sense that when I look at the pictures? Is this something that requires development, by looking at lots of buildings? If so, if it’s an acquired taste, doesn’t that make it artificial, something learned rather than a natural property, something about the physical structure that triggers brain activity in a certain way that means “weight”, in somewhat the same way that we know which end of an object is closer based on size differentials?

Yes, I really am this clueless, and it’s why I’m frustrated by every art-related course I take. I keep trying, though, and I’m grateful for courses like this one that let me see what is possible, even if I can’t join in.

MedChem MOOC

Course: Medicinal Chemistry: The Molecular Basis of Drug Discovery
Length: 7 weeks
School/platform: Davidson/edX
Instructors: Erland Stevens
Quote:

This medicinal chemistry course explores how chemists modify a molecule’s structure to design a safe and effective drug.
This course opens with a brief history of drug discovery and introduces the modern drug approval process. Then, we will transition to learning about receptors and enzymes, the body’s molecules most often targeted by drugs. We will also discuss the topics of pharmacokinetics (drug adsorption, elimination, and half-life) and metabolism. The course closes with units on how potential drug molecules are identified and subsequently optimized into safe and effective drugs.

Short version: nicely-done course, with lots of small, well-conceived extras.

I’ve realized for some time that a better understanding of chemistry, particularly organic chemistry, would help a lot with the biology courses I’ve been taking. Alas, I haven’t found an intro-level organic chemistry mooc, but I thought I might get some helpful exposure though this course, even though I’m more interested in how drugs affect biology than in optimizing drugs via lab analysis of their properties. I saw “some experience” with organic chem was recommended, so I spent a week trying to get a sense of the basics on Youtube (Leah Fisch’s vids, aka Leah4Sci.com, were particularly helpful). I also found a Cerego set on functional groups (Cerego’s great for pure memorization and for keeping ideas from getting all dusty between moocs), but wasn’t optimistic about my chances of completing the course. Turns out I did fine, though I suspect my final score greatly exaggerates my overall comprehension. I did get some good exposure to heretofore unknown aspects of chemistry, which was the point. And it was interesting to see the process of drug development.

Each week included six or eight subtopics, each with a combination of video lectures, readings, and a few graded exercises, as well as an ungraded “virtual lab” offering practice in the concepts via computer modelling. Expert interviews closed the week: everything from a patent attorney (Fun Things to Do With a Chemistry Degree if you Don’t Want to Work in a Lab) and drug company CEO – both Davidson alumni – to research scientists specializing in the technical areas featured during the week . Three exams were spaced throughout the course, covering material from two or three weeks each.

I had some concerns early on that, because the course was created “in partnership” with a pharmaceutical company, that there would be some emphasis on the business side of drug development: defending pricing, cutting regulation, that sort of thing. No need to worry: although there was some mention of those factors in Week 1 in the overview of the drug development process, I never felt like an agenda was being pushed (and I’m pretty sensitive, to the point of paranoia, to agendas, especially now).

The second and third weeks were math-heavy, with Excel playing a central role. I’ve always avoided Excel as much as possible, but it was time to bite the bullet. Fortunately, there was plenty of explanation and great forum support. I had a very bad moment when I saw the phrase “area under the curve” – oh god, please don’t make me integrate – but it turned out to be simplified by another formula. Derivation of the formula was part of the material, but I was not in a position to really incorporate it. And that’s part of the reason I feel my comprehension wasn’t equal to my final grade. But I survived, if less nobly than was possible, and lived to fight another day in the sections on chemical bonds and reactions.

Discussion forums were active and helpful, with very prompt responses by Dr. Stevens himself. I’ve become very fond of many of the TAs and grad students who’ve handled discussion boards in various courses over the years, but there’s still something special, maybe because it’s becoming very rare, about the instructor covering the boards. I felt welcomed and supported in spite of my lack of technical background.

Another small extra with great impact: each lecture included a summary; not a transcript, which is available too, but a brief recap complete with clear diagrams. While hand-drawn diagrams are great during a lecture so you can see exactly what goes with what description, when it comes to putting something in my notes, a laser-printed typeset diagram beats a screen clip of a blackboard sketch every time. So the best of both worlds was provided.

Another greatly appreciated timesaver was the FAQ appended to each section. This was a combination of minor corrections to videos, more detailed instructions on various processes, and an accumulated knowledge contributed by forum discussion in previous sessions. I found the answer to many questions here, not to mention interesting extensions or applications of concepts introduced. I’ve never seen this before. If there’s a Best Practices for Moocs handbooks around, someone should add this one; it creates something like a culture for the course, across time.

Each of the brief introductory videos to each week was shot at a different location on the Davidson campus, with some link to the topic of the week: the dining hall kitchen for metabolism, a sports arena for competition. The PR for Davidson College probably doesn’t hurt, either. This is my second Davidson mooc, by the way (the first was in Digital Humanities, way on the other side of the aisle), and both have been very good.

Various databases and software packages, most online (the one that was download-only was in an optional Virtual Lab), came into play, including The Drug Bank, Molinspiration, and the Protein Data Bank. I’ve used similar packages, maybe the same ones through an interface, in my biology courses. Molinspiration particularly amused me: if you draw too many bonds on a given atom, it eventually asks: “Are you trying to draw a hedgehog?”

I picked up a great new vocabulary term. In addition to in vivo and in vitro (“in the organism” and “in the lab”), we now have in silico, “in computer simulation”. I don’t know why this strikes me so hilariously, but it does. It’s perfect!

A pre-test and post-test bracketed the course. Neither were graded beyond a single “extra credit” point for completion. The pre-test instructions emphasized that we weren’t expected to get the questions right; it wasn’t a prerequisite test, but merely a way to establish a starting benchmark. Good thing, since I had no idea what any of the questions were asking. The post-test came after a long, hard seven weeks, and while I was feeling overwhelmed by other courses besides. I made a half-hearted attempt at the first 10 of 15 before I decided I didn’t need the extra point that badly; I was feeling pretty discouraged about my retention of the material at that point.

I commented to that effect on the forums. Dr. Stevens replied with an explanation of how he used those scores, what he looked for in terms of a class “growth” average, and the formula used to calculate it. I was then more motivated to put some work into the last five questions. I regretted my slapdash approach to the first ten, in fact (see what a little pep talk can do? Yes, I’m an attention whore, but seriously, a little nudge works wonders), so I gave the final five a more serious shot. Given the equation, I figured if I got ¼ of the pretest correct merely by probability of multiple choice selection, all I needed to do was get seven of the post test correct to meet his hoped-for growth level. I’ll never know, since the scores aren’t revealed. I hope, at the very least, I didn’t drag down the group average too much. The course deserved better than that.

This was a great experience, even though my primary interest was more around the edges of the course focus. For those specifically interested in the drug development process, I’m thinking it’d be a great place to start.

Religion + cogscience + psych + soc + anthro + digital humanities = MOOC


Course: The Science of Religion
Length: 6 weeks
School/platform: UBC/edX
Instructors: Edward Slingerland, Azim Shariff
Quote:
What is religion? Are we wired to believe? Does science have the answers?…Drawing on new scientific advances, this religion course examines foundational questions about the nature of religious belief and practice.
Topics to be covered will include traditional and contemporary theories of religion, with a special emphasis on cultural evolutionary models.

I’ve always felt one of the factors religion had going for it was its ubiquity in human history and, for that matter, prehistory. This course helped me understand why that might be the case – and a lot of other things besides.

Because I’d already taken the Chinese Thought moocs with Dr. Slingerland, I expected this to include a lot of cognitive and psychological science; I wasn’t disappointed. I discovered a technique of breaking down religion into cognitive units, of tracing religion through history and language, and of studying religious texts, new and old, through the digital humanities technique I’ve previously seen described as corpus linguistics. I even got the verdict on remote prayer (spoiler alert: contrary to that episode of The West Wing, it’s not scientifically verifiable). The material only grazed the surface of most of these questions, but there’s only so much you can do in six weeks and they went for breadth rather than depth. I found it fascinating.

The course setup was standard mooc: a set of lectures, a couple of ungraded “knowledge checks” after each, and a weekly graded multiple-choice information retrieval quiz that comprised the final grade. Each instructor did a week or two as a unit, switching a couple of times during the course. Along with numerous guest experts they look at religion (all religion, from Brazilian simpatias to Polynesian sects to the ancient Chinese to those more common to most of us) from a variety of angles. Do we have some cognitive structure that makes religion as natural as language, and if so, is it intentional, or a side effect, so to speak, of another structure with a more practical evolutionary value? What cognitive elements do religions have in common? What are the psychological benefits to religion? How does religion affect communities? Can we study religious development by examining religious texts of the past? Can we design models to predict religious development? What about atheism, how does that fit in? What is most likely to happen to religion in the future?

Each week featured several optional extended interviews with the guest experts, as well as publicly-available videos featuring Baba Brinkman and Jordan Peterson relating to the topics at hand. A final improv video discussing popular topics and hot debates from the message boards ended each week, and if you still hadn’t had enough, every lecture segment ended with a long list of references for further reading. And to my delight, as in the Chinese Thought course, a weekly “blooper reel” brought the funny. Neither of the instructors comes across as pedantic or stuffy – quite the contrary – but it’s still nice to know even seriously smart people screw up. Sometimes repeatedly. And they manage to maintain a sense of humor about it.

I encountered a couple of things I’d never seen before in a mooc. First, while some introductory material was available immediately, the course content could only be accessed after acknowledging the discussion forum rules. The rules were standard (no threatening, no ridiculing) and are included somewhere in every mooc, but the prominence was interesting, and probably a good idea given the subject matter. The forums were very active and interesting, well-covered by staff, and I didn’t notice any problems at all; I’ve seen hotter tempers in math moocs.

Another new (to me) twist, one which disappointed me, was the inclusion of a fairly common “live hangout” session – but only for Verified, that is, paying, students. More and more, edX courses are finding ways to tuck course material behind paywalls. It wasn’t lack of access to the material that bothered me – I rarely participate in hangouts, though I like to watch them, but here there was more than enough material to keep me very busy – as much as the harbinger of things to come. I have no idea what kind of incentives or restrictions are part of the package these days for course presenters, but I’m guessing it’s persuasive.

Bottom line: I found the course well worth the time invested, and made several connections to other areas of interest that invite further follow-up.

Mao MOOC

Course: Mao to Now: On Chinese Marxism
Length: 6 weeks
School/platform: University of Newcastly (AU)/edX
Instructor: Roland Boer
Quote:

Rather than praising or condemning, the course focuses on building a deeper understanding of this history through two interwoven elements.
The first structures the course in terms of some ‘red tourism’ to the sites important to the communist revolution in the first half of the twentieth century.
Much of the course footage was filmed on location in China, including Shaoshan, Ruijin, Yan’an and important locations in Beijing, such as Tiananmen and the Nationalities Museum (minzuyuan).
The second element of the course will take those experiences and use them to help answer some fundamental questions:
    • Is China socialist or capitalist today, or is it perhaps both at one and the same time?
    • Is there such a thing as Chinese socialist democracy, and, if so, what is it?
    • Does China have its own theory of human rights, drawn from the long Chinese tradition and Marxism?
    • If the Chinese state is a form that has not been seen before, then what is it?

I really liked the structure of this course: each week after the first covered a location important to Mao’s life, from his birthplace to the location of the first Chinese soviet to the end of the Long March to the mausoleum at Beijing. Lectures are shot at various locations in those cities, in one of the most on-site moocs I’ve taken.

However, I’m left with the feeling that this was a very one-sided picture. In fact, if the Chinese government produced a mooc on Mao, I’m guessing it would look a lot like this, and given the extended access for filming lectures, I have to wonder if there was any outside influence on content. For example, I’m not sure how it’s possible to discuss Mao’s influence on China without mentioning the Cultural Revolution. But then, I’m the first to admit I know virtually nothing about modern China. Some scenes had me wondering if there was a subtext: for example, the video scenes of National Day celebrations in Tianamen Square, while discussing the enormous crowds gathering from the early hours and the respectful and celebratory atmosphere, all featured generous phalanxes of soldiers and police. I looked through some images of typical Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, DC, but I wouldn’t draw any conclusions based on such a casual experiment.

Grading took a variety of forms: most of the points came from multiple choice midterm and final exams, but peer instruction quizzes contributed significantly as well: single questions with four options for an answer. After entering a short explanation of one’s choice, the reasoning other students used for each answer was displayed before final submission of an answer. Additionally, participation in class polls earned a small number of points. I found it interesting to have so much exposure to what others were thinking, and it’s always nice to have different forms of evaluation. On the forums, I ran into a Chinese student I’d met in an earlier ancient Chinese philosophy course. Hang around moocs enough, and you start to recognize a lot of names.

Prof. Boer refers to himself as a Christian Communist; he teaches both in Australia and in China. Overall, I’d call the course a biography, with elements of political theory, history, and philosophy. In spite of, or perhaps because of the strong point of view differing from the one I’ve been exposed to in the US, I enjoyed the material, particularly the more philosophical mentions of how Chinese Marxism blended in both Confucius and the Dao and evolved over time to form its own flavor of socialism. But I still think far too much was skimmed over, even for a basic overview course.

Medieval Spanish Manuscripts MOOC

Course: Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Burgos (Spain)
Length: 7 weeks
School/platform: Universidad Carlos III de Madrid/edX
Instructors: Roger L. Martínez-Dávila
Quote:

• Garner knowledge and assess the history of medieval Spanish intercultural coexistence in the city of Burgos and the Kingdom of Castile and Leon
• Explore the world of medieval manuscripts and texts held in the archives of the Cathedral of Burgos and the city of Burgos
• Learn the craft of medieval paleography, or reading authentic handwritten manuscripts
• Transcribe medieval manuscripts and contribute to new scholar knowledge

By now, everybody expects the Spanish Inquisition (sorry, I just had to say it).

This was a natural extension of the earlier codicology course, focusing on paleography. But at heart it’s a history course – and at that, a real history course, since it’s one of the few history moocs I’ve taken that paid proper respect to original documents and historical research.

We led off with typical exposition of major events on the Iberian peninsula during the late middle ages, particularly as they elapsed in the town of Burgos. Included were museum tours of beautiful artifacts complete with stories: an 11th century ivory chest originally crafted by Andalusian Muslims, then adapted to serve as a repository for Christian relics after the Reconquista; a case for holding balls associated with some sort of Muslim game, carved from an elephant’s trunk so large, the curve isn’t apparent, likewise appropriated during conquest; silver dishes and gold pendants found buried by the Jews of Briviesca when their homes were burned in the (dashed) hopes they could return to claim their family treasures. I kept remembering Ta-Nehisi Coates’ theory that racism is fundamentally about plunder, and hate is just a means to that end. It was a bit creepy to be taking this course while, in the US, Jewish community centers were receiving bomb threats in escalating numbers, several Jewish cemeteries were vandalized, and at least two people were murdered because they looked Muslim (turns out, they weren’t, but that’s beside the point). Even in Canada, slaughter broke out at a mosque. This is why we must know history, because we are living it, repeating it right now, and we can change that if we are willing.

The second half of the course dealt with transcribing documents, which is where paleography came in. It’s something I’d very much like to learn; alas, I didn’t get very far, in spite of the recommended SILReST technique (Scan, Identify easy letters, Locate common words, Recognize abbreviations, etc). I have a feeling manuscript transcription is one of those things I just have to keep doing until I get the hang of it and can “see” words instead of squiggles. I’d spent several hours working on a French poem during the previous class, but didn’t get very far so I finally found someone who could help. Google Translate is useless, since abbreviations are used frequently, the spellings are often archaic, and just figuring out which letters are written is a major challenge in the first place.

The course material assures us that no Spanish is necessary for the course, but there’s no denying some familiarity is of great help. I can’t praise the other students in the course highly enough for their willingness to help and share ideas on the forums. We worked through several issues together such as: is this word vinoor como? Parrador, partador, pairador? I was quite excited to discover that the word I’d thought was “abdat” turned out to be cidbat (the “c” and “i” overly compressed), which is the medieval version of ciudad, city, emphasized by its proximity to the abbreviated form of Burgos. Yes, this is what I consider fun, you got a problem with that?

A focus of the course seemed to be on training and recruiting volunteer “citizen scholars” to help with the transcription of the documents so they can be used in historical research. History is, after all, based on documents, and the stories of the people of Burgos are to a large extent untold as town records gather dust in the archives.

That might be another reason I had such a hard time with the paleography section: in terms of content, these were some of the most boring manuscripts around. Instead of scientific or philosophical texts or literary material, these were more or less property transfer deeds: who sold what to whom under what conditions. In fact, the semantic content was never addressed at all, merely the transcription. I understand the importance of these documents: this is the gritty work of the historian, examining documentary evidence of the relationships of civic and ecclesiastical power in the town as well as the dealings between Jews and Christians. It was just very hard to get excited about it, in spite of the stirring prelude video about the forgotten lives to be uncovered:

Welcome to the Cathedral of Burgos. The Cathedral is the guardian of almost 1000 years of history. The memory of long ago lives still reside here, their hopes and worries, their friendships and enmities, their commitments and broken promises. Patiently they wait, wait to commune with us. Perhaps they walk alongside of us, here in the cloister, escorting us past guarded areas, whisking us past heavy doors, carefully guiding us past the realm of natural light, step by step, an to the home of memories: to the cathedral’s archive.
Thousands upon thousands of individuals like you, like me, carefully cocooned in leather and vellum, their lives now on paper and parchment. Their lives are the true treasure of the archive. It’s time to meet them.

I’m sorry, gentle friends; you’ll have to wait for someone else, since I’m simply not up to the task of hearing you at this time.

By coincidence, at the same time the Citizen Scholar program was unfolding, I got an email from my local library about a similar project: a set of 18th and 19th century state records are waiting for volunteers to digitize them so the information will be more readily available to historians interested in New England. Lives of the past from all over wait for us, as we will wait for historians of the future.

Future installments of this series include similar courses focusing on Toledo and Grenada.

DinoMOOC

Course: Dinosaur Ecosystems

Length: 6 weeks
School/platform: Hong Kong University/edX
Instructors: Dr. Michael Pittman, Prof. Xu Xing
Quote:

Using the Late Cretaceous fossil site of Erlian, China as an example, we bring you to the Gobi desert, as well as leading international museums and institutions to find out how we reconstruct dinosaur ecosystems.
This biology and life science course will focus on the knowledge we can gain from studying animals and plants. You will learn about a dinosaur’s biology including their appearance, classification and diet. We will take a close look at the mostly meat eating theropod dinosaurs, as well as the main plant eating dinosaurs, the sauropodomorphs and ornithischians. At the end of the course, you will learn how palaeontologists use fossil and modern evidence to reconstruct dinosaurs and their ecosystems.

I love the folks at HKU. I’m still studying ancient Chinese philosophy, and China in general, because of their Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought mooc; their Twitter account ranges from interesting to seriously amusing; and they really put a lot of work into their moocs. I mean, just the course logo required several revisions to make sure the dinosaur neck would “align with archaeological findings”. Staff did a great job covering the discussion forums, offering information and resources along the way.

Problem is… I just don’t care at all about dinosaurs.

I thought I’d give this course a try anyway. Given the teasers they were sending out, and my general affection for them, I thought maybe I’d change my mind. I didn’t, but that’s not their fault. The lectures were clear, beautifully illustrated (many of the drawings were by award-winning paleoartist Julius Csotonyi), and varied: some involved sifting through sands at the Gobi Desert, others hunting through back-room storage facilities of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and they even took a trip to Glen Rose, Texas to check out fossilized dinosaur tracks.

The instructors were impressive. While the course was running, instructor Prof. Pittman made some news himself for his research into laser-stimulated fluorescence on fossils to reveal more detailed information than ever available about soft-tissue distribution – news Chelsea Clinton noticed, by the way. And Prof. Xu had previously discovered a new species, Gigantoraptor, among collected fossils from Erlian. They were joined by several other scientists during the course, some in the field, others in classrooms, museums, and labs.

The first four weeks reminded me of the catalogs found in Whitman’s poetry. I love Whitman, but by the time he lists every resident or occupation or flower the mood is lost. Much of the time, the lectures felt like a list of features of various critters, and I didn’t have the background to understand how anything related to anything else. So while it’s great to know that ornithominids and Alectrosaurus have arctometatarsalian feet that help them run faster, I’m not sure how those guys relate to therapods or ornithischians.

In other words, I really needed to create an overal taxonomy, but when I went looking for one, I found lots of conflicting information so I never got there. (addendum: during the last days of the course, I noticed a poster with a taxonomic layout was stored in a section of the course I hadn’t visited; I don’t know if it was there all along, but it’s exactly what I was looking for). I also should have made a chart for all the critters, with information about size, earliest and latest fossils, eating habits, etc. etc., but I didn’t do that either. I didn’t put enough effort into making the course meaningful to me, and that’s my fault. I feel like I let down the graphic designers who put so much work into a scientifically accurate logo.

The weekly graded quizzes relied on information-retrieval questions, so even with my cursory effort and primitive understanding I managed to do quite well grade-wise. I would think creative questions would be a natural for a course like this, more along the lines of “It’s 180 million years ago, the treetops are shredded, who am I?” But that might be a lot to ask for an introductory-level course offered to people from all educational backgrounds.

As I write this post, I’m beginning to see that I did pick up more than I’d realized from the course, and greatly enjoyed many aspects of it (which is one reason I write these posts). HKU has a great overview of the course that’s more reliable than my mumblings. Those who really like dinosaurs and have some idea of who’s what would probably find it packed with detailed information that helps determine what life was like for these guys; the forums were full of praise at the end of the course. Oddly, my favorite lecture was about foraminifera, teeny tiny marine animals unrelated to dinosaurs. Go figure. I also greatly enjoyed the sections on bone histology in the last week. I’d have to say the last two weeks were my favorite part of the course, in fact; they were less of a catalog of this-dinosaur-has-this-kind-of-teeth-and-that-dinosaur-has-a-beak.

Of course, the idea of dinosaur beaks is pretty cool in itself. Fun fact: Tyrannosaurus Rex had feathers. Or, at least, feather-like structures covering its skin. Want to amaze your friends? Tell them birds are dinosaurs. Which, by the way, they are, but only a scientist will believe you. A friend of mine (Hi, Lisa) just made a joke about the dinosaur-noodle soup she had the other night, and one of the clever tweets the course made, sent during Chinese New Year festivities, was a video about the Year of the Dinosaur (which most people are calling the Year of the Rooster).

About once a decade, I check to see if I still can’t play the guitar (I could when I was 16, but I seem to have lost it shortly thereafter), and more often I try to do some kind of visual art to see if I’ve suddenly developed some artistic sense (I haven’t). It was worth a try to see if I could get interested in dinosaurs, and if anyone could lure me in, it would’ve been these guys. I guess it’s just not to be. Foraminifera, maybe…

Questioning Reality MOOC

Course: Question Reality! Science, philosophy, and the search for meaning
Length: 6 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Dartmouth/edX
Instructors: Marcelo Gleiser
Quote:

How much can we know of the physical world? Can we know everything? Or are there fundamental limits to how much we can explain? If there are limits, to what extent can we explain the nature of physical reality? RealityX investigates the limits of knowledge and what we can and cannot know of the world and ourselves.
We will trace the evolution of ideas about the nature of reality in philosophy and the natural sciences through the ages. Starting with the philosophers of Ancient Greece and ending with cutting edge theories about the universe, quantum physics, and the nature of consciousness.

Current events have a lot of us questioning reality these days. Different type of questions, though. The main questions in this course are outlined above: how do we know things, and how much is it possible for us to ever know? The course combines philosophical and scientific explorations, and proceeds chronologically from the pre-Socratics to the Renaissance to Einstein to the present day. Prof. Gleiser is a theoretical physicist specializing in particle cosmology, and the course roughly follows his book The Island of Knowledge, written for the general science reader.

I’ve taken three or four of these science/philosophy courses, and each time I get a little more comfortable. This one is pretty introductory, and it hits all the “ooooh, cool” spots (How would we know if we’re brains in vats? Why should we care about Schrodinger’s cats?) without requiring reading anything beyond Gleisner’s NPR blog articles. I have to say I found his explanation of electron orbits to be the most helpful one I’ve encountered, though it’s possible I’m just now at the point where I’m ready to start understanding things like what standing waves have to do with quantum theory.

Each week started with a great feature: an ungraded What Do You Know pretest, full of questions that range from factual (T/F: Violet light has more energy than red light) to conceptual opinion (Agree/disagree: Mathematics is something we invent; Reality only exists in our minds). These questions are repeated at the end of the week, offering concrete evidence that something was, indeed, learned, even if only a better definition of “reality”. Material also included a video lecture and several interviews with other philosophers and scientists on the topics covered. A few graded multiple-choice questions were scattered through the material, along with several short written assignments in the form of posts, journal entries, and short self-graded essays. A Reddit AMA with Prof. Gleiser finished off the week.

The discussion forums were active and I got into some excellent discussions along the way. I also enjoyed a project from the first week: understanding a pendulum’s motion. Now, I took the easy route and used the available online pendulum simulator, because I’m a klutz, but it was an interesting way to play around with the topic of observation and experiment.

I found myself often confused by the logistics of the course, so I just plugged away at whatever looked interesting, be it posting on a discussion or self-grading an essay or answering questions (though I never did find the Learning Journal). I say that a lot, don’t I. In this case, the multiple evaluation options were complicated by a bilingual approach: the course was offered in Portuguese as well as English, with all written material in both languages so everything appeared twice. I wholeheartedly support broadening the appeal to include more people worldwide, and I would rather deal with my befuddlement than restrict the audience. It’s a tough problem, and I applaud them for taking it on. I got used to the double-entries after just a few weeks; if more courses took this approach, we’d all get used to it, and it’s a small price to pay for inclusion of those who would otherwise be unable to participate.

One of the great discoveries for me in the course was another book, mentioned in Week 3: Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern . I’ve only gone through 80 pages, but it’s wonderful: Poggio, Medieval Book-Raider, goes among the monks to rediscover Lucretius and atomism as Europe turned towards renaissance. Manuscripts, history, philosophy, science, the classics, all packaged in a wonderfully told story: who could ask for more.

Science & Cooking MOOC: What a difference 3 years and 80+ moocs make

Course: Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science (part 1)
Length: 6 weeks, 5-7 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: Michael Brenner, Pia Sörensen
Quote:

This course was originally developed as a way to teach science to non-science majors at Harvard University…. As a way to do this we’re now going to use food as a way to explain the underlying scientific principles that are all around us when we interact with food, or we eat, or go to a restaurant and so on.
We’re going to do this not only in the context of recipes that you cook in your very own kitchen, you’re also going to be watching amazing dishes being created by world-famous chefs, and you’re going to learn to understand the underlying scientific principles. And sometimes they work, but not always, but we’ll understand both when they work, and when they don’t work, from the scientific principles behind them. And as a way to cap all of this off we will then send you into your kitchen where you will do your own experiments; you’ll take measurements and make observations, and you will then get to eat your lab.

Three years ago, this course was impossible for me. The math scared me, the science was bewildering, and I had no idea what I was doing, mooc-wise. My specific goal for taking it again was to see if I’d made any progress at all. I’m relieved to report: I have! It was a lot easier this time around. Whew!

I should say that I suspect the course has been pared down from the version I took back then. I don’t remember it as being two parts, I remember it as being longer, and I remember it as having a lot more complicated material, so it’s possible the part that was so difficult just wasn’t included in this run. In that case, I’ll have to see what happens when Part 2 rolls around.

Grading is based on three components: weekly homework (they’re quizzes, no matter what they’re called), weekly labs, and a final project. I only did the homework. This was partly because that’s all I was interested in for my comparison, and partly because I didn’t want to make extra purchases. Nothing serious, mostly routine things most people have in their homes, like sugar and eggs, but there were a few things I don’t have, like a kitchen scale and a reliable thermometer. I did some of the labs the first time around, and they’re quite useful for anyone practicing for future lab science courses, as they require record keeping and hypothesizing. And they’re fun, or what most people would see as more fun than calculating moles and temperature diffusion. Because of the grade structuring, it’s possible to completely skip the traditional problem-solving homework and just do the practical aspects, and still pass the course.

I found the first week – moles, pH, a touch of stoichiometry – to be the most difficult. The equations for heat diffusion and transfer were extremely simplified, so were pretty much plug-ins. Phase transitions, which gave me so much trouble last time, turned out to be quite easy, mostly because of the work I’d done in Mike Brown’s Solar System mooc. Each unit had conceptual questions, usually as ungraded “practice” problems; these were understandable either from cooking experience, or from a bit of reason based on the lectures.

Ungraded review materials offer extra practice in math and the very basic levels of science: density, concentrations and so on. Last time, I found these oppressive and this time they were a snap (though they are still very casual about rounding and significant figures). Personally, I’d rather use my own stash of materials collected from Youtubers over the past several years, and Khan Academy is great for isolated subjects, but it’s all there for anyone who wants it. There’s also a section of advanced materials more in line with traditional science courses – mostly readings, with ungraded problems –for those who want to better understand the equations (and it’s possible some of the earlier material has been moved there), so there’s a broad range of appeal for students from various mathematical and scientific comfort levels.

And of course there’s the fun stuff: watching serious professional chefs do their thing. Ferran Adria talks spherification. Joan Roca evaporates lemon peel into a cloud; Dave Arnold demonstrates how a degree or two can change the texture of an egg; Joann Chang spins sugar for croquembouche; Enri Rovira makes his famous chocolate eggs. Most of this material is available on Youtube in one form or another; every once in a while I pull up a tape and watch something amazing (and I see Top Chef‘s Voltaggio brothers are now in the mix).

Add to that two of the most likeable professors I’ve encountered on mooc videos (be aware they have nothing to do with the course at this point; after so many iterations, it’s run by TAs). There’s a reason this has been running over and over as long as it has: it’s fun!

Another Medieval Manuscript MOOC

14th C manuscript, Royal Library of the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, Madrid, Spain

14th C manuscript, Royal Library of the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, Madrid, Spain

Course: Deciphering Secrets: The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Europe
Length: 7 weeks
School/platform: University of Colorado and Universidad Complutense Madrid; Coursera
Instructors: Dr. Roger Louis Martínez-Dávila, Dr. Ana B. Sanchez-Prieto
Quote:

Perhaps no other relic of the European Middle Ages captures our imagination more than illuminated medieval manuscripts, or those documents decorated with images and colored pigments. Serving as windows unto a lost world of kings, ladies, faith, war, and culture, they communicate complex visual and textual narratives of Europe’s collective cultural heritage and patrimony. In this fashion, illuminated manuscripts are dynamic messages from our communal past that are still relevant today in fields like graphic design and typography.
In this seven-week course, students will explore the material creation, content, and historical context of illuminated medieval European manuscripts. Students will acquire an introductory knowledge of their distinguishing characteristics, their cataloguing and periodization (when they were created), the methods utilized to produce them, and their historical context and value.

A couple of years ago, I took Stanford’s manuscript course, “Digging Deeper,” as a recreational mooc: no notes, just watched the videos and poked at the assignments. I still got something out of it, and hoped I’d get the chance to do more someday. Guess what: Someday came.

I had a few complaints about this course, but about halfway through, the fun overtook the complaints and I ended up having a great time. There was nothing recreational about my approach this time around: I went all in, doing everything there was to do (plus some additional explorations), which meant twice as much as was required for a certificate I had no use for, let alone for the audit course.

If that sounds confusing – well, yes, it is, and that’s one of my complaints. The basic path through the course is confusing, with multiple options. I think they’re trying to be accommodating to different interests and needs, which is admirable, but to me, the course didn’t always feel integrated. Once I stopped reading instructions and just did stuff, I was a lot happier.

The first six of the seven weeks had both history and manuscript studies sections. Each week of the history section included a brief introductory video and four to seven readings. The weeks proceeded chronologically, if very briefly, from the fall of the Roman empire to the Spanish Reconquest before giving a nod to paleography – except… well, we never looked at actual writing, just translated content, so maybe I’m misunderstanding the use of the term. Then came the Global Middle Ages project, a cross-disciplinary, multiuniversity exploration of various aspects of medieval life. They’re extremely proud of this, and I feel bad because I missed the point; it just seems like a website to me. A website with a lot of interesting sections, but why it’s such a big deal, and what game-developers had to do with Virtual Plascenia, went by me. Still, it was interesting to discover that DNA evidence indicates a Native American woman must’ve travelled to Iceland sometime around the year 1000 CE, and her descendents still live there.

The Manuscript Studies portion made a lot more sense to me. Each week included about an hour of video lecture divided into sections, and progressed along a more familiar functional path: writing substrates, inks, page layout and preparation, scripts and hands, decoration, bindings. Both sections offered weekly quizzes, but only one was required. The presentation was a little flat, but that happens sometimes. I’ll never understand how people who so obviously love their field and very much want to share it with as many others as possible stick to a “stand in front of a camera and read a lecture” approach, which so often sucks the oxygen out of the room. Plenty of optional further written resources were provided. Some are available online, and I checked one of the recommended books out from my local library.

The Manuscript section included two options for peer-assessed projects that ran the length of the course, and again, only one was required. I did both, because how am I supposed to know before I do it what will be more beneficial? As it turns out, both of the peer-assessed projects were extremely beneficial, though in very different ways; I’m very glad I did them both.

The first option was a “pinboard” project: for every week, find five examples (photos, usually) of the concepts discussed in the lectures. For example, in Week 2, the idea was to find and present examples of such things as various writing substrates and tools of manufacture, parchment defects/repairs, contrasts between the two sides of parchment, and the like. Every week, five more pins would be added, along with five pins pertaining to prior weeks’ topics. I started out thinking this was kind of dumb, but by the end of the course, I’d collected some more general articles that covered wider topic ranges, and discovered some wonderful manuscript lore and resources. If you’re curious, my board is here, but it’s the process, not the result, that was productive.

The other project option was to make a reasonable approximation of a medieval manuscript, within practical limits of budget, material availability, time, and skill. In other words, we weren’t expected to skin a cow to make parchment, nor were we expected to create beauty (a lot of my classmates did so anyway) but only to demonstrate that we understood the procedures and knew the difference between authentic techniques and our shortcuts. Again, I was quite cynical at first, since we started by staining one side of our writing support with coffee to simulate the difference between the flesh and hair side of parchment (the Middle Ages were not for the squeamish) but I ended up putting a lot of thought and work into making quires, designing page layout and prepping, writing, illustrating, and binding my manuscript. It’s pretty much refrigerator art, but it’s MY refrigerator art, and dammit, I’m proud of myself for having managed to get it done at all. In fact… I’ve started working on a second one. I know how to avoid a few pitfalls now, so I hope it will look better.

Some of my favorite discoveries:

I added to my “casual educational” material. I’ve been following the Bodleian Rare Books twitter feed from Oxford since the Stanford mooc, but they don’t really tweet pretty pictures as much as they used to. Just before taking this course, I somehow discovered Penn medievalist Emily Steiner (@PiersatPenn) and her feed just delights me every day: lovely images, often with clever captions (sometimes relating to current events). Through the course itself, I’ve discovered Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel), book historian at Leiden University (I took an anatomy mooc from them last year); he also runs several blogs, all of which provided lots of detailed information for my Pinboard project. And just in the last week, I stumbled across Damien Kempf (@DamienKempf ), medievalist from Liverpool University and another great tweeter. I’ve been trying to include more art, poetry, beauty, and joy in my twitter feed, and less political news; while that isn’t the point of the course, the more exposure I have to pertinent materials, the better. I’ve even begun to recognize some manuscripts – the Lindsfarne Gospels, the Black Hours.

Through the History material, I fell in love with The Cantigas de Santa Maria, a series of poems with musical notation celebrating Mary. Not only is the idea that these songs can be interpreted and performed from 13th century notation, but there’s one fascinating story about a guy who just wants to find a safe place to put his ring while he plays baseball, and ends up engaged to Mary so has to leave his wedding bed for a monastery. And yes, the illustration of the ball game is quite recognizable as American baseball, though nobody’s sure of the medieval rules and many depictions seem to include two balls in the air at the same time.

Through the pinboard project, I found a rather drab-looking page that turned out to be fascinating: it’s an oath sworn by a woman, a midwife, that she will return the book or die. And I thought my library was uptight about interlibrary loans. Beyond the humor, this gives a little window on medieval life: there were libraries, women borrowed books (this one is a poetic bestiary), and, for that matter, women could read. I thought only monks and church people could read at that point. And by the way, other pages in Der naturen bloeme (The Flower of Nature) include floating illustrations that are lovely and often whimsical – like the elephant carried upside down on the trunks of two of his friends.

It seems some parchment was sometimes was damaged in the curing-stretching-drying process, as it was repeatedly scraped to remove hair and flesh (not for the squeamish, this manuscript stuff). Modern repairs could be quite lovely, but sometimes the original scribes took matters into their own hands an incorporated holes into the writing of the books (images from Erik Kwakkel’s tumblr and one of his several blogs.

In spite of the few drawbacks, this course was very much worthwhile, and I’m glad I signed up. I’m going to miss it! To fill the void, I’m taking one of the sequels, in fact: Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Burgos (oddly, it’s on edX instead of Coursera), which, as I understand it, focuses on history via manuscripts and includes more of what I thought paleography was: the reading and transcription of manuscripts for interpretation. So it’s an extension of the History portion, rather than the Manuscripts, but who knows, great stuff lurks everywhere.

The Immune System Gone Wild MOOC

Course: Fundamentals of Immunology: Death by Friendly Fire
Length: 5 weeks
School/platform: Rice/edX
Instructors: Alma Moon Novotny
Quote:
In this biology and life sciences course, we’ll flip the basic question of, “How does the immune system protect you?” to, “How can your immune system endanger you?”
First, we will look at basic mechanisms that determine whether the immune system is roused to action or instructed to stand down, including the roles of inflammasomes and T regulatory cells and the results of mutation to genes and their importance in producing regulatory proteins. Then, we will apply these insights to explain the etiology and treatment of autoimmune diseases and look at a variety of misdirected immune attacks, including allergies, attacks on red blood cells and cellular responses that can produce damage ranging from rashes to autoimmune cellular destruction. Finally we will discuss the protection of transplants from an immune system that views them as foreign invaders instead of necessary replacements.

Short version: Good course, covering a lot of ground (with some unique flair) in a very short time.

It’s the third in an Immunology series from Rice. I’d missed the first two, so I spent a couple of weeks getting up to speed on the basics. I had most of the essential vocabulary and some understanding of what was going on – innate vs. acquired, MHCs, opsonisation, even some understanding of the complement cascade leading to MAC attack though I didn’t get to the point of memorizing the pathways – but still ended up scrambling for a lot of detail I seem to have overlooked. On the plus side, I’ve done enough medical reading to be perfectly comfortable with the overall physiological mechanisms of myasthenia gravis and lupus etc., so until we got to which cytokines or antibodies or receptors were involved, I could relax for a while. I passed with room to spare, but I wouldn’t say I’m secure in the subject. It’s more like I understand the general outline of what’s involved, and I now have the background to nail down the details more firmly. But for a free 4-week course, that’s plenty.

The four content weeks covered tolerance (how our immune systems learn to tell the difference between what’s dangerous and what’s not), autoimmune disease, hypersensitivities, and transplant issues. Each week included practice questions and a weekly exam, and some weeks had review exams of prior material (a terrific idea; I wish more courses did this). Week 5 was for self-review and the final exam.

The lectures included clever drawings of various immune system cells coded with their distinguishing characteristics: what receptors they carry, what they upregulate, downregulate, or bind to, what features they’re armed with. Other illustrations provided good support to the lectures as well, though I went hunting for some of my own personal favorites on antibody structure and MHC genetics. We all have our favorite diagrams. If I’d taken the first two courses before this one (like you’re supposed to), I might’ve not needed the extra visuals.

All exams were multiple choice; the weekly exams allowed three chances to answer. I’m usually pretty dismissive of that kind of thing, but the questions were very well-designed: some information retrieval things (they called them “factoids”) but lots of “thinking” questions that required analysis or synthesis of information in light of the concepts presented. Sometimes the question structure itself was a little weird, but it’s all about being able to manipulate the material. The final exam was also multiple choice, but allowed only one try, and counted for 50% of the grade, so guessing doesn’t work as an overall strategy (not that I’ve ever understood why anyone would bother to fake his way through a mooc, but it happens). I loved that the 40-question final was broken down in to 8 parts of 5 questions each. Not only is it less likely to trigger panic (oh my god, look at all these questions, how will I ever do them all?!?), but it forces kind of mini-reviews along the way.

The forums were active and staff, including Prof. Novotny, were available to answer questions that went a bit beyond the material (like, Hey, do animals also have a sex differential in autoimmune disease frequency? Yes, yes they do, in fact. That seems significant to me for some reason). There were a few minor first-run glitches: edX opened more of the system than they were supposed to in the Week 0 period, intended only for review of the outlines from the previous two courses (which, as someone who didn’t take the earlier courses, I found helpful, but nowhere near sufficient as preparation for this segment, by the way). They did an admirable job keeping up with unexpected but eager hordes of students flooding the forums before staff was in place. A few answer-coding problems cropped up throughout the course in ungraded sections. But overall, the execution was great. They really put a lot of thought into the images used, and I found it helpful in remembering what roles individual cells played in the immune process.

I was quite pleased with this course. It’s a nice balance of detailed molecular interactions and general clinical features, done with creativity and humor. I also have become a big fan of im-profthe immune system. I’ve had these vague notions of B cells and T cells, but I’m always amazed, whenever I take a biology course, that anything ever works – do you know how many millions of things have to happen for you to just go on living? – and the interactions of all the moving parts are fascinating. I’m eager to take the first two courses when they roll around again (and possibly retake this one, since I’ll be much better prepared). I understand there’s also a fourth part coming, The Immune System Fights Back. That sounds like fun.

Keep Calm and MOOC: early 2017 plan

For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.

~ Sylvia Plath

So now the new year’s about to start, along with a whole bunch of new moocs I can bury myself in. Which is what I’ve been doing for about three years now, but this time, it might just save my life, or at least my sanity as 2016 leaves me drained of all hope for 2017. If that sounds like a lot riding on very little, well, yeah. But there’s nothing like wondering just how egg plus flour plus sugar equals cookie, or exactly how leukocytes know what’s bacteria to be killed and what’s a necessary body cell, or what Brunhilde means when she starts screaming “Ho yo to ho!” to distract me from impending nuclear annihilation and the end of what’s passed for democracy for the past 200-odd years.

As always, this is an approximate list. Somehow it doesn’t look like much when I write it down, but there are a couple of heavy-duty reading courses in there, and a math-heavy science course that’s already got me nervous. Plus my self-directed side projects, mostly math-related (Alcumus, Lemma), and reading –the new Pushcart is ready to go. I still might just curl up in the corner and stare into space with a blanket over my head, never let it be said I didn’t try.

Anatomy (Xseries)
Start: Self-paced, opens January 1  Rescheduled for Summer/Fall, 2017 4-5 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk per course
School/platform: University of Michigan/edX

Official blurb:

[Y]ou will explore human anatomy using a systems approach, and a vast library of multimedia materials, so you may understand the features of different organ systems in relation to the human body’s form and function.

Given the short duration of the four individual courses in this series, and the expected time expenditure per course, I would imagine they’re more generalized than some of the anatomy courses I’ve already taken. Then again, maybe Michigan just expects more. In any case, I haven’t previously covered some systems, and it’s always nice to review. The four individual courses are:
(1) Musculoskeletal and Integumentary Systems opens Jan Summer 2017;
(2) Cardiovascular, Urinary, and Respiratory Systems opens Feb Summer 2017;
(3) Human Neuroanatomy opens March Fall 2017;
(4) Gastrointestinal, Reproductive and Endocrine Systems opens April Fall 2017
Those dates have changed several times, and quite dramatically, since I enrolled.


U.S. Government – Foundations, Democracy & Politics
Start January 10, 2017 6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Purdue/edX

Official blurb:

Learn about the Constitution, political processes, and democracy in the United States and prepare for the AP United States Government and Politics examination.

Status: Dropped by 3rd lecture. Courses like this is why high school students think civics, history, politics is boring. I’m also in too raw a state to listen to phrases like “the welfare state” right now.

I laughed when I heard that the UK Parliament had produced a mooc about themselves (on Futurelearn) and cringed to imagine what a mooc created by the US Congress would look like, so I’m relieved this is by a university instead, which gives it more credibility (doesn’t that say a lot about government right there). It seems to be an AP course for high school students, but hey, why not, the about-to-be-real-life US government seems to be making it up right now so maybe knowing the rules is a good thing so I know how mad to be when they’re broken. I’m not sure I’m up for this; maybe it’s too soon. I have a feeling the forums are going to be quite, shall we say, energetic. But I’ll give it a shot.


International Human Rights Law
Start January 10, 2017
10 weeks, 6-8 hrs/wk
Instructor: Olivier De Schutter
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain/edX

Official blurb:

Human rights are developed through the constant dialogue between international human rights bodies and domestic courts, in a search that crosses geographical, cultural and legal boundaries. The result is a unique human rights grammar, which this course shall discuss and question, examining the sources of human rights, the rights of individuals, the duties of States, and the mechanisms of protection.

Status: Inactive, may resume later. This turned out to be the course I feared the first one would be: a great deal of difficult, time consuming work for a goal of highly technical detail that I’m not sure I’m interested in acquiring. Because it’s self-paced, it can be completed any time in the next year, so I haven’t dropped it, but I have too much going on right now to approach it with the effort required; I may pick it up at some point in the future when I have less going on.

I so enjoyed (to my great surprise) the introductory International Law course offered this past fall by a different Louvain instructor, I decided to take some additional courses in their “Micro-Masters” series. The intro course or equivalent is listed as a prerequisite for this; that means, prepare to work (the intro course is offered concurrently). I’m not sure I’ll be able to give this enough attention, since a lot of moocs are clustered in January, but I’ll give it a try. And, ironically, due to current events, as a US citizen I might need to know more about human rights in the near future.

Fundamentals of Immunology: Death by Friendly Fire
Starts January 10, 2017
5 weeks, 7-10 hrs/wk
Instructor: Alma Moon Novotny
School/platform: Rice/edX

Official blurb:

What if your own immune system attacked you? Learn what can go wrong and how to deal with immune errors.

Status: Completed; good course, see complete comments here.

I missed the introductory courses which are recommended as prerequisites (I’ve heard good things about them from my mooc friends), and while they are archived, for some reason enrollment is closed. So I’m combing youtube, where there’s tons of fairly high-quality basic medical education info, hoping that will be sufficient preparation – and in any case, I’m having a great time. I’m looking forward to this.
Addendum: in the Comments below, Prof. Novotny has posted the course trailer – thank you!

Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science (part 1)
Start January 18, 2017 6 weeks, 5-7 hrs/wk
Instructors: Michael Brenner, David Weitz, Pia Sörensen
School/platform: Harvard/edX

Official blurb:

Top chefs and Harvard researchers explore how everyday cooking and haute cuisine can illuminate basic principles in physics and engineering.
During each week of this course, chefs reveal the secrets behind some of their most famous culinary creations — often right in their own restaurants. Inspired by such cooking mastery, the Harvard team will then explain the science behind the recipe.
Topics will include:
• How molecules influence flavor
•The role of heat in cooking
•Diffusion, revealed by the phenomenon of spherification, the culinary technique pioneered by Ferran Adrià.

Status: Completed (at least the portions that I found relevant to my purpose). Fun course. Full comments here.

I took a crack at this three years ago, the first year I went moocing. It was a nightmare. I was still trying to figure out how moocs work, I wasn’t prepared for the math and science, and ended up impatient with the cooking because of it – I mean really, if I don’t have the four cups of flour I need to make cookies, I just wing it, I don’t get out a calculator and figure how much moisture matches with how much starch. I’ve seen it run a couple of times since then, and always thought, gee, I really would like to try that some time. I’m not taking any formal math this quarter, and you know, sometimes you just gotta. It’ll kind of be a little self-check to see if I’ve gotten anywhere in math and science. I’m definitely better at moocing, so that might help.

Question Reality! Science, philosophy, and the search for meaning
Start January 31, 2017 6 weeks 2-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Dartmouth/edX

Official blurb:

What is reality? Explore how physics and philosophy have changed our perspective on the nature of the universe, matter, and mind over time…. This course is a project of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth (ICE), dedicated to transforming the dialogue between the sciences and the humanities in academia and in the public sphere in order to explore fundamental questions where a cross-disciplinary exchange is essential.

 

Status: Completed; see comments here.

I’m curious to see what this is. Sounds a little like the Einstein mooc, though probably with less technical material. Maybe closer to some of the puffball philosophy moocs I’ve taken, designed not to frighten people, and resembling a late-night dorm room bullshit session than a course. I never had the late night dorm room bullshit session experience since I went to a commuter school when I was in my 30s, was married and working. And I love phrases like “dialogue between the sciences and the humanities” though these usually turn out to be just a bunch of parallel monologues talking past each other. (as an aside: I’m re-reading this whole post just prior to posting; it was written piecemeal over several weeks, I’m seeing a great deal of cynicism; not surprising, but I’ve gotta keep an eye on that)

Dinosaur Ecosystems
Starts February 8, 2017
6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
Instructors: Dr. Michael Pittman, Prof. Xu Xing
School/platform: University of Hong Kong/edX

Official blurb:

A global adventure to learn how palaeontologists use animal and plant fossils as well as living forms to reconstruct dinosaur ecosystems.
Using the Late Cretaceous fossil site of Erlian, China as an example, we bring you to the Gobi desert, as well as leading international museums and institutions to find out how we reconstruct dinosaur ecosystems.

Status: Completed, my comments here.

The folks at HKU, who I met last summer via their great Chinese philosophy course, are incredibly eager to create wonderful moocs, and that goes double for the Dino people – just take a look at their twitter account, @dinoecosystems. The problems for me are: 1) I’m really overbooked for this time period, and 2) I seem to have been born without the “Dinosaurs, oh cool!” gene. Yeah, I confess, I don’t like dinosaurs. I mean, I don’t hate them or anything, but I’m not particularly interested in them. However, with a team this enthusiastic – out of all the posts I’ve written about moocs from a students-eye POV, they’re the ones who showed the most interest in my opinions, even arranging a Google Hangout interview with me last fall – I’m willing to meet them half way. And it does sound pretty fascinating, more about scientific practice than dinosaurs per se. And it’s only a couple of hours a week. Let’s see what happens.

The Science of Religion
Start March 15, 2017 6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of British Columbia/edX

Official blurb:

The course is based on the idea that religion is a naturalistic phenomenon — meaning it can be studied and better understood using the tools of science. Religious belief and practice emerge naturally from the structure of human psychology, and have an important impact on the structure of societies, the way groups relate to each other, and the ability of human beings to cooperate effectively.

Status: Completed, comments here.

I’m very much looking forward to this course. It’s by the same UBC department that did that wonderful mooc on Chinese philosophy (which I loved, per my comments), and in fact one of the same instructors is working on it; he’s said it’s all different material, so I’m very curious. It was originally scheduled for January, but moved to March; that suits me fine, since January was feeling a little overbooked.

International Humanitarian Law
Start March 21, 2017
7 weeks, 6-8 hrs/wk
Instructors: Raphaël Van Steenberghe, Jerôme de Hemptinne
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain/edX

Official blurb:

Learn how international law regulates armed conflicts, protects individuals in wartime, including terrorism, and guarantees minimum compliance.

Status: Completed, good course, requires significant time and work; complete comments here.

As with the Human Rights course, I decided to take this based on my experience in the prerequisite International Law course.

The Great War and Modern Philosophy
Start April 4, 2017
8 weeks, 6-7 hrs/wk
Instructor: Nicolas de Warren
School/platform: KU Leuven University/edX
Official blurb:

Learn how philosophers responded to the First World War and how the war changed philosophical reflection.
Students in this course will be introduced to different philosophical reactions to the First World War through discussion and analysis of texts, documents, images, artworks, film, and music. The relation between philosophy and poetry will also be explored. In this course, students will gain historical knowledge, conceptual understanding, and literacy for a clearer grasp of the complex ways in which philosophy and the Great War intersected.

Status: Completed; notes posted here.

Never has Yeats been more appropriate:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….

Seems like an appropriate class for right now.

Introduction to German Opera
Start April 11, 2017 4 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Dartmouth/edX

Official blurb:

Want to listen to an opera for the first time? Have you been listening to opera for your entire life? This course is suited for beginners and advanced opera listeners alike…. No previous knowledge of music or opera is necessary. Join us as we embark upon this community-focused journey to explore the wonders of German opera as it touches upon the human experience!

Status: Unenrolled, not due to lack of interest but I just was overloaded with too many heavy-duty but truly wonderful courses, most of which aren’t even on this list (because that’s how it goes sometimes). I hope this will run again so I can take it later,

I greatly enjoyed the Italian opera mooc Steve Swayne led last year. In my post about it, I quipped, “Hoping for a sequel on contemporary opera, or maybe even German opera (with these guys, I might even sit still for Wagner… nah, probably not)”. Springtime for Wagner and Germany… perfect.

Antarctica: From Geology to Human History
Starts April 15, 2017
5 weeks, ?? hrs/wk
Instructors: Dr. Rebecca Priestley, Dr. Cliff Atkins
School/platform: Victoria University of Wellington/edX

Official blurb:

Take a virtual field trip to Antarctica, as we go on location to explore the geology and history of the coldest, driest, windiest continent on earth.

Status: Unenrolled, primarily because I’m overloaded and the subject is only of mild interest to me. However, another factor was disappointment at encountering this “sheep/goats” thing that’s pervading edX just like it infested Coursera: verified students – that is, those who pay a fee – have access to additional materials, in this case, more evaluation materials. This is the second course I’ve seen this year that has some type of behind-the-paywall content. The end is near.

I signed up on impulse: this is Victoria University’s (NZ) first edX offering , so I’m curious. And I like earth science. And we might be the last generation to see the Antarctic before global warming turns it into beachfront properties with hotels and Luau nights and a big oil refinery right smack in the middle. I’ll have to see how the schedule fills out for Spring before committing fully, though

Humblebragging: Intellectual Humility MOOC

Course: Intellectual Humility: Theory
Length: 3 weeks 2-8 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Edinburgh/Coursera
Instructors: Various
Quote:

Faced with difficult questions people often tend to dismiss and marginalize dissent. Political and moral disagreements can be incredibly polarizing, and sometimes even dangerous. And whether it’s Christian fundamentalism, Islamic extremism, or militant atheism, religious dialogue remains tinted by arrogance, dogma, and ignorance. The world needs more people who are sensitive to reasons both for and against their beliefs, and are willing to consider the possibility that their political, religious and moral beliefs might be mistaken. The world needs more intellectual humility.

I’d never heard of a subfield of philosophy called Intellectual Humility before about two weeks ago; then, in the space of two days, I heard of it twice from two different sources. I’m sure that was just confirmation bias (see, I haven’t been doing all this for nothing); I’d probably hear the term before but didn’t remember it until I signed up for a mooc about it.

I haven’t been paying much attention to Coursera since they went with this new platform. But I do follow professors and departments from past moocs, and since I’ve taken a couple of Edinburgh philosophy courses, a series of cute tweets about Icarus and intellectual humility came across my feed and made me curious.

All material was released at once, so I ended up finishing in about 2 weeks. A few technical glitches, typical of first-run courses and not likely to recur, started things off: the course didn’t open properly, and since that was scheduled on a Friday, there was no staff to fix it until Monday; a couple of lecture videos and transcripts were out of place. The lectures themselves were clear; a couple of them had some minor issues – “place illustration here” instead of the illustration, for example, but they were easy to follow and visually appealing. Grading was done on the basis of multiple-choice information-retrieval tests of the take-as-many-times-as-you-want variety. Many academic articles were provided, mostly as draft versions of journal articles, which is a great compromise between open and closed access.

As is usual with Edinburgh courses, I found the overall course structure a bit confusing. They admirably try to accommodate different levels of interest and experience by dividing each week into Learn, Engage, and Go Further sections, but there are tradeoffs. It’s kind of hard to tell, but only the Learn part is required to “pass” if a certificate is all that’s desired. It’s pretty disconcerting when a notice suddenly pops up: “You’ve passed Week 2” – or worse, “You’ve passed the course!” – when half of the items on the task list were still undone. It’s not exactly conducive to covering the “Go Further” material.

I was startled, and absolutely delighted, to see an article incorporating Edward Slingerman’s Trying Not To Try, the supplementary text from the UBC Chinese philosophy course, as a starting point. I can see the point: can you try to develop humility? Doesn’t that lead to being arrogant about being humble? I haven’t fully digested the article, but it looks at anti-individualism, which is another topic I’ve been running into a lot lately.

The point of intellectual humility seems to be to get people to be more open minded and willing to look at facts instead of relying on things like “the people I like believe this so I do to” or “this is what my parents told me so it must be right” or “Gee, if that other thing is true, I’d have to change how I live, and I don’t want to do that so it must be false.” Good luck with that. The course results from a grant by the John Templeton Foundation, which, among other things, advocates civil discourse about matters of science and religion. Good luck with that, too. I’ve never seen the two as conflicting. No, I don’t believe the world was created in six days, but as far as I know, science can’t tell us what caused the Big Bang or what happened before, and I’m perfectly fine with the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen as long as no one tries to legislate them or teach them in science class.

I enjoyed the overview of morality, and the creation of a philosophical structure using one of four questions: What is valuable? What is a good person? What are good actions? What is a good life? with the other three questions are subordinated to the first. I rather enjoyed the week on measuring intellectual humility as well, though it seems it’s mostly in the self-report stage. I also liked that each week opened with a very brief introduction of the subject, followed by an opportunity to explore ideas without worrying about grades: short answer questions on, say, how intellectual humility could be measured.

Posting on the forums was plentiful – several interesting discussion questions were suggested, inviting but not requiring response. I tried, but found minimal interaction on points raised by lectures or applications thereof, lots of parallel monologues and opinions, and a couple of arguments. I missed the point most of the time. I don’t know if I’m clueless, if my bleak outlook is clouding my vision, or if the whole subject is truly much ado about nothing. It seems to me a lot of this belongs to the discipline of psychology.

Two additional modules, one on “practice” and one on “science”, are scheduled for 2017. I’m glad I took the course, given the minimal time investment, to get an overview, but at the moment I’m not interested enough to follow up; I suppose that may change by the time the future modules open.

Timing is everything. Edinburgh is in Scotland, of course, and the UK just went through their own upheaval last summer. I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that this course was scheduled for the period while we wait for the world’s (arguably) least intellectually humble person to take on the world’s (arguably) most important job. If anyone survives the next few years, some great research might result.

Around the World in 77 Days With 13 Writers: World Literature MOOC

Calicut: Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572

Calicut: Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572

Course: Masterpieces of World Literature
Length: 13 weeks, 5-7 hours/week
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: David Damrosch, Martin Puchner
Quote:

This literature course explores how great writers refract their world and how their works are transformed when they intervene in our global cultural landscape today.
No national literature has ever grown up in isolation from the cultures around it; from the earliest periods, great works of literature have probed the tensions, conflicts, and connections among neighboring cultures and often more distant regions as well.

Feels like a really good time to celebrate cross-cultural exchange and the global community, eh?

If you’re interested in studying any of these individual works in detail, this probably isn’t the best place to do it. After all, how can anyone possibly cover a dozen works, some of them pretty massive, in twelve weeks? The course is more of an exploration of the development, purpose, and effect of this thing called “world literature” which is more than just a collection of books written in different countries. It’s a type of literature that relates the writer’s native culture to the world at large and/or examines how that culture is affected by, or affects, the world. Issues of cross-cultural translation, colonialism, cultural imitation, and national literary ethos of various eras and places predominate, as interpreted through various authors’ experiences of living in one, two, or multiple countries.

It’s a much more generalized viewpoint, at least in this mooc version, than most literature courses would be. I was mostly unaware of the existence of “world literature” as an academic discipline; I found it a highly useful introduction to the field.

I chose to take this as a “recreational mooc” and thus didn’t read much beyond a page or two of the works I hadn’t already read. Fortunately, I’d encountered most of them before. I also didn’t participate in the forums, though they were active and well-covered by staff. A multiple-choice information-retrieval style graded quiz finished off each week and constituted the grading for the course. I found the questions were well-selected to emphasize the main points of the interviews and discussions, and beyond covering the works themselves also covered the discovery and translation of older works, to authorial biography with more contemporary authors when those details impacted upon the literary outlook.

Each week involved about an hour of video material, both discussions between the two instructors about a certain time period, author, and work, plus an interview with a specialist in the particular writer – and in one case (Pamuk), an interview with the writer himself. The introductory week on Goethe, who the instructors consider the discoverer, or perhaps midwife would be a better term (in their words, “…we know that the birth of world literature took place in the afternoon of January 31, 1827 at Goethe’s house”) featured a walk-through of the garden house in Weimar where he spent a good part of his writing career, as well as a walk through other areas connected with his work. During the week of The Odyssey, Prof. Puchner generously braved sailing the Aegean Sea 😉 to demonstrate Homer’s settings. Most interesting to me, we saw a lot of Istanbul during the week covering Orhan Pamuk; I’ll say more about this presently.

As is natural, I preferred some weeks to others. Each week offered some new insight, of course, but in general I’d say the material covering works I had less familiarity with were the most interesting to me. I found the Odyssey and Borges material, works I’m quite familiar with, to be the most disappointing, though I did greatly enjoy the comparison of worldviews of The Lusiads to the Odyssey. We looked at several works from east Asia, and I was thrilled to recognize some concepts, a familiarity I would not have experienced just a few short months ago before this year’s China binge: the “testing system” of China, the classical emphasis on “rectifying names”, the interaction of Chinese philosophy and Buddhism.

I greatly enjoyed learning about Wole Soyinka through his Death of a Horseman. Since I’m not only unfamiliar with the work, but also unfamiliar with drama as a genre, and even more unfamiliar with the Nigerian rituals he incorporates into his work alongside British ritual, this was all new discovery. How fitting that during the course, Soyinka, who was once exiled from Nigeria for criticizing the government, who has held professorships at Cornell, Emory, and various other American universities, and has lectured at Harvard, Yale, etc etc., destroyed his green card and vowed never to return after November’s election. The man knows repressive authoritarianism when he sees it.

Another particularly insightful week covered Orhan Pamuk’s works. Again, I plead ignorance (I seem to need to beef up my reading of Nobel Prize winners) coming into the course, but I’m fascinated by the foundations of the two works discussed. In My Name is Red he uses the 16th century Ottoman Empire as a setting for a story about painting, and the transition from Persian miniatures, which use a top-of-the-minaret point of view and idealized style, to Venetian realism as a vehicle for discussing the change in Turkish culture in the 20th century after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI. I hadn’t realized the secularization and modernization of the “Young Turks” had included changing the alphabet; that’s quite a lot to deal with. Here in the US we’ve never been able to adjust to the metric system, I can’t imagine if someone tried to change the alphabet on us.

The other Pamuk work discussed, Museum of Innocence, was particularly interesting as it comes complete with an actual museum Pamuk prepared as he wrote the book, filled with 50s and 60s Turkish kitch and everyday doodads just as in the book, where the narrative is a tour of the museum of his beloved. An interview with Pamuk, the only author interview in the course, showed him to have a great sense of humor, and this comes through in his willingness to play with structure. I’m very fond of unusual structures that reinforce the theme of a work (actually, I’m fond of structural play for any reason, but it’s extra special when it’s thematically significant) so I‘m going to have to read these books. They’re the only new-to-me works from the course that I have a real desire to explore further. I’m intimidated, however; I’m not sure I’m up to such masterworks. We’ll see.

And today, as I write this post, I’m hearing the news, sketchy at best, of a bomb exploding outside a stadium in Istanbul. Last week, Istanbul was just the name of a place. Because of this course, it’s now a very real place to me, and I feel for the people there. Maybe that’s the whole point of studying world literature: to make them, us, not just to feel compassion and unity, but to understand, as through Soyinka, that whatever it is, it really could happen here. Not a very popular viewpoint right now, but maybe that’s why it’s important.

Overall it was a successful course, if in an unexpected way. If you’re looking for detailed textual analysis, this probably isn’t the place to get it, but I think it’s valuable for the broader view taken, and as such I’d recommend it highly.

Perry Mason Goes Global: International Law MOOC

Map of course enrollment

Map of course enrollment

Course: International Law
Length: 8 weeks
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain/edX
Instructors: Pierre d’Argent
Quote:

International law can be considered as the law of the international community, the law that governs relations between States. But it also relates to what international organizations do and, increasingly, it concerns individuals, corporations, NGO’s and other non-state actors.
…Despite their differences in size, power, culture, religion and ideologies, states rely on international law to cooperate and to coexist; they speak the language of international law and international law serves them as an important common language.
This law course will extensively rely on judgments and advisory opinions of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN).
…This course will teach you what international law is, the role it plays in the world today, how it can be used. You will also gain knowledge to help you better discern legal arguments within the flow of international news and reports.

I signed up for this course out of curiosity, figured I’d drop it very quickly, but the content turned out to be far more interesting than I’d expected. There’s nothing particularly special about the presentation style – it’s lecture-reading-quiz-final with three live hangouts – and it’s not an easy course; I found it challenging. And, by the way, I spent more than the 5 – 7 hours/wk estimated in the course overview (but then, I usually do. I’m slow), more like 10 hours. But I was interested throughout.

The prerequisite recommendation states:

“No prior knowledge of international law is required. However, students should be familiar with the requirements of graduate-level courses and should preferably have already followed some law courses in order to be familiar with legal concepts and legal language.”

Most of my prior knowledge of legal concepts comes from Law & Order. My repetitive re-watching of The West Wing was probably more helpful. But I think it was all those logic and philosophy courses, sorting out text written in unfamiliar styles about mysterious il-peace-palaceconcepts, that did me the most good. And reading fiction, because putting myself in someone else’s head is good practice for everything.

Even though I’m by nature a reader, the required readings were complicated and took more concentration than usual. And, by the way, whereas in a lot of humanities moocs you can skip the readings because the lectures will explain them, that isn’t the case here; the readings are crucial. While some are backed up in lectures, others aren’t, and the quizzes depend on being able to find particular legal reasonings in them. The most frequently referenced readings are provided in a 120-page PDF packet of a dozen or so documents, most predominantly the UN Charter, the Statute of the International Court of Justice, the Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (affectionately referred to as ARSIWA), and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Additionally, case studies with excerpts from individual ICJ decisions were interwoven with video lectures, readings which featured a couple of pages of this kind of thing:

95. The Court first notes that resolution 1244 (1999) must be read in conjunction with the general principles set out in annexes 1 and 2 thereto, since in the resolution itself, the Security Council: “1. Decide[d] that a political solution to the Kosovo crisis shall be based on the general principles in annex 1 and as further elaborated in the principles and other required elements in annex 2.” Those general principles sought to defuse the Kosovo crisis first by ensuring an end to the violence and repression in Kosovo and by the establishment of an interim administration. A longer-term solution was also envisaged, in that resolution 1244 (1999) was to initiate

“[a] political process towards the establishment of an interim political framework agreement providing for a substantial selfgovernment for Kosovo, taking full account of the Rambouillet accords and the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the other countries of the region, and the demilitarization of the KLA…”

It’s one of those “find the words that matter” situations (and, in this case, find Annex 1 and 2, not to mention knowing what Resolution 1244(1999) was). A good portion of what I’d say I learned in the course was how to read legalese, because some words are more important than others, and it isn’t always obvious which ones they are. For example: “national troops put at the disposal of the UN” is not the same as “the UN Army.” To those sensitive to military or legal procedures, this is probably glaringly obvious, but to those of us with less sophistication, it’s tricky.

This “learning how to read” orientation was emphasized in the final lecture, after an acknowledgement that we’d only scratched the surface:

…its ambition was to teach you the essentials of international law — so that, with this knowledge about the structural concepts and rules of the international legal order, you could by yourself continue to learn more about international law and more about its sub-fields.
The only thing I tried to do through this course was to introduce you to the language and the grammar of international law. International law is a professional language of justification. In order to engage in the argumentative practice of international law, you need to be familiar with its concepts and fundamental rules, and see how they fit together as a normative system.

What I lacked most of all was a detailed understanding of some pretty major world events over the past 60 years, things I’ve heard of but I’m your average lazy provincial and hey, it’s over there somewhere and doesn’t have anything to do with me so I didn’t really have more than a general idea at best what was going on. The breakup of the Western Balkans. The Palestinian Wall. Lockerbie. Legal cases resulting from these events featured prominently, usually with a very narrow focus on one particular legal issue or UN action, but it would’ve helped if I’d had more background. Fortunately, there’s Google, and it’s just a matter of finding a reliable source.

Topics ranged from principles of international law to specific cases demonstrating those principles. Both concepts and detailed workings of treaties, the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Court were featured in separate weeks. It’s a lot of content. If I were to do it again, I’d pay a lot more attention to the cases, perhaps listing them separately as to what point of law they feature and what convention or charter that derives from. I’d also do a lot more outlining/memorizing of major points: what are the elements of statehood? What are the political means of dispute resolution, and what are the differences? That sort of thing.

Genuinely amusing moments: a reference to “Canadian Insurgents” in a lecture about imminent threat of force; ok, so you have to go back to 1837 to call a Canadian an insurgent, but it made me smile. I was also tickled to discover there is a Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects in force: even though the maker/launcher/owner of the space object is not at fault, it is still liable for damages (and, since the Convention went into force in the 70s, there hasn’t been a single instance of a manmade-space-object injury outside of a TC Boyle short story, as any obsessed The West Wing fan can tell you – but just in case, there’s law for that). And by the way, it’s a lot of fun to hear something in a movie or TV show and holler, “Hey, I know what reservations are! I know what the ICC is!”

In my planning post for this course, I made a crack about the “stuffy” graphic they chose to represent the course: a painting of the signing of the Versailles Treaty after WWI. I was gratified when Prof. D’Argent, in the first week’s introductory materials, acknowledged the male whiteness of the image, as well as the ambiguous result of the treaty, as WWII continued WWI within barely a generation, and we still feel the aftereffects of the reshuffling of borders made in that room. We were invited to create our own image of International Law; I chose a proportional infogram of world languages. I wonder what kind of image the words will generate four years from now, given current trends and circumstances.

The forums were very active, but I was a bit intimidated and used them sparingly; the responses I got to a couple of questions were adequate. The hangouts seemed to be mostly repeats of lecture material. Again, a lot of this impression is due to my insecurity about my level of general preparedness; YMMV. Finer distinctions and opportunities for more fluent discussion may well present to those with more experience in law or international relations.

But as I said up front, the content was incredibly interesting, discovering all the little details that go into one state complaining about another, the rules of treaty negotiation, and how law happens to begin with. I’m not sure who the intended audience is – law students? Lawyers? Policy aides? The general public? – but I was so pleased with the course, I’ve signed up for two of the subsequent modules on International Humanitarian, and Human Rights law. I’d say that constitutes a high recommendation for those interested in the topics covered – but be prepared to work.

It only hurts when I LAFF: Linear Algebra MOOC

Course: Linear Algebra – Foundations to Frontiers
Length: 12 weeks
School/platform: UTAustin/edX
Instructors: Maggie Myers, Robert van de Geijn
Quote:

Students appreciate our unique approach to teaching linear algebra because:
       • It’s visual.
       • It connects hand calculations, mathematical abstractions,
                 and computer programming.
       • It illustrates the development of mathematical theory.
       • It’s applicable.
What you’ll learn:
       • Connections between linear transformations, matrices,
              and systems of linear equations
       • Partitioned matrices and characteristics of special matrices
       • Algorithms for matrix computations and solving systems of equations
       • Vector spaces, subspaces, and characterizations of linear independence
       • Orthogonality, linear least-squares, eigenvalues and eigenvectors

I’ve never taken a linear algebra course before, though I’ve had some very basic work on geometric vectors, working with matrices, and Gaussian elimination through a variety of algebra and precalcs. I was looking forward to this. But, as sometimes happens (especially with math), it didn’t quite work out.

In brief: The course is set up as a series of lectures with embedded exercises, an additional set of problems at the end of the week, and four exams scattered throughout. A temporary license for Matlab is included, ending when the course is over. Staff coverage of the forums was excellent. A PDF of some material is provided, but they presuppose viewing the videos, and as usual with any math course, the video transcripts aren’t all that helpful without the videos. Disclaimer: I only made it through the middle of Week 8.

I quite enjoyed, and seemed to be doing very well at, the first three or four weeks. I think I learned a lot about linear combinations and transformations, what they have to do with matrices, and I had a lot of fun smashing Timmy Two-Space all over his grid. I saw a little hint of another point of all this with a (very primitive) weather prediction system, and that was pretty exciting. But it went downhill from there. I gave up in week 8, about halfway through. It wasn’t impossibly hard, but as time went on it had grown impossibly tedious; I just got seriously bored with slicing and dicing matrices for purposes that weren’t all that clear to me. We did have the option to skip over the Matlab algorithm exercises, but I had trouble telling where they began and ended. I completely lost the thread of “what am I doing and why am I doing it?” as calculations – small calculations, just adding and multiplying really but the stuff of nightmares for me – took over my life. I know there was something I was missing, but I never really understood what.

Let me say that I have no doubt at all that the material is essential to those who need linear algebra, and that those who are more comfy with math and computer programming would probably find it a great course. If I want to get to the point where I “know” linear algebra, I’ll probably have to take it again, but it wasn’t the right entry point for me. Of course, how would I know, since I’m still a bit hazy on what linear algebra is for.

I think one of the problems for me was that this was taught by computer science instructors, with a view towards optimizing algorithms as well as teaching linear algebra. Hence, memops and flops (which I actually understand, but don’t care about). Loops and indices. If those sound like music to your ears, this is the course for you, but as for me, STFU and leave me alone.

I’ve been hearing so many mathy people talk about how cool linear algebra is, and the course description includes “It’s visual” as a selling point. Other than Timmy, and a brief graphical description of two-rotation transformations, the only visuals I saw were printouts of algorithms and matrices, endless matrices to partition, multiply, transform. Maybe it got more visual in week 8, but I just didn’t want to do any more.

The instructors were very involved on the forums, promptly answering questions with humor, warmth, and encouragement. Prof. Myers told me about a very cool children’s book about basic combinatorics, Socrates and the Three Little Pigs; why kids that young would be learning combinatorics, I don’t know, but I spent a couple of nice hours figuring out how to fit three pigs into five houses under various conditions. Her videos of detailed proofs and exercise solutions were very helpful. And a mysterious image turned out to be computer wallpaper made from a beautiful image of a stained glass window from Prof. van de Geijn’s grandfather’s house in the Netherlands. These are great people! So I’m kind of puzzled about this: they seem to have gone out of their way to strip all that humor and warmth out of the course material itself. As a result, it was a “I’m going to read a textbook to camera and you watch the low-contrast, slightly out-of-focus slides” kind of course.

I’ve never thought of myself as someone who needs to be entertained in order to engage, but maybe I am, more than I’d like to admit, at least where math is concerned. And I admit I am somewhat spoiled by the truly exceptional moocs I’ve been fortunate enough to take. It’s also possible I no longer have the attention span for a longer course, especially one that requires so much of my time and fully focused attention over an extended period, since I was quite content for several weeks. I can sometimes skim through a philosophy or history lecture, but I have to pay attention to every detail when it comes to math, and it’s hard to sustain, even when I’m into it. And, of course, it’s very possible that, contrary to the Howling Stanfordtoids and their growth mindset, I’m just stupider than I think I am.

Even though I chose not to complete the course, I did find it very worthwhile for initial material. I’m investigating several other linear algebra sources – 3Blue1Brown’s linear algebra playlist on Youtube (which takes visual to a whole other level), Pavel Grinfeld’s lemma unit on linear algebra, and a couple of OCWs (I have trouble with OCWs; I can never figure out how to navigate them, where all the pieces are), and I’m finding that the initial material from LAFF has helped enormously. And, by the way, I think I finally understand mathematical induction thanks to this course, or at least I understood its use in the cases encountered here. So I’m glad I did as much as I did, and I hope to some day pick it up again.

Philosophy’s greatest hits MOOC: God, Knowledge, Identity, and like that

Course: Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness
Length: 12 weeks 5hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructors: Caspar Hare
Quote:

What you’ll learn
•    How to construct and analyze philosophical arguments
•    How to write clearly and communicate complicated ideas effectively
•    Arguments for and against the existence of God
•    The distinction between epistemic and practical rationality
•    Theories of Knowledge
•    Physicalist and Non-Physicalist theories of consciousness
•    Free Will and Determinism
•    Personal Identity

I very much wish I’d take this course before I took Alex Byrne’s “Minds and Machines” mooc. For one thing, it would’ve shown me the correct approach to the readings: tease out the argument being made into premise/conclusion format, or identify the premise being disproved for objections. In fact, I kind of want to take the Byrne course again; I think I’ll get a lot more out of it.

This one serves as a very good introduction to some of the foundational papers for the topics covered, from Hume, Descartes and Pascal to 20th century thinkers. I have some quibbles with presentation style, but that’s a matter of personal preference. I did finally get to see Damien, the TA from both Minds & Machines and the earlier Infinity course, as he took part in a couple of skits (and managed to nick $5 in doing so… you’ll have to take the course to find out how). And there was a rather hilarious running trope about psychotic Oprah, infected by a bacterium that causes her to attack anyone in sight.

I find the MIT courses have an odd structure in terms of how weeks, modules, and lectures are subdivided, but it boils down to lecture/quizlet/essay. The lectures are broken into short segments, and classroom discussion videos are interspersed. Most videos are followed by a couple of graded questions. Three 800 word essays round out the evaluation materials, but they’re self-graded unless you want to pay $300 for the “human-graded” (for some reason I find that phrase hilarious) option. I skipped the last essay out of sheer laziness. I’m not doing this for grades, and I’ve been rather low on motivation of all kinds since November 8.

The discussion boards were well-covered, though they included too much, since it was one of those “what do you think about this” which generated hundreds of single-post threads. This is a problem with the edX system itself, not with the course, but it’s mostly evident in courses that use this forced-posting element; no matter how many times you tell people to reply instead of starting a new post, most of them will start a new post. However, I did get a couple of questions answered (oddly, both about math – the use of the term “induction” and “identity” in math vs philosophy).

In spite of my seeming lack of enthusiasm, I think this actually works quite well as a first “serious” philosophy course. I like the use of actual papers (or translations thereof) rather than explanations accompanied by a quote or two; I also like the pursuit of a topic through argument A, refutation, counterargument, argument B, etc. And I like the focus on the logical argument being made, rather than the “gee whiz, what is the mind anyway” approach – and hey, I like that kind of thing, it’s fun and a great way to play with ideas, it’s just easy to get disorganized and end up not knowing what it is you just learned. So it’s really a pretty good class; I just wish I’d taken it a couple of years ago.