Tudor MOOC

Course: The Tudors
Length: 6 weeks, 5 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Roehampton, London/Futurelearn
Instructor: Suzannah Lipscomb, et al

From magnificence and martyrs to weddings and war, the Tudor period was one of the most eventful in British history. The reigns of the five (or was it six?) monarchs during the late fifteenth to seventeenth century has enthralled historians, students and television and film producers alike.
On this course you will compare the rule of the Tudor monarchs and examine the significant political, religious and cultural changes of the period. You will be taught by renowned scholars on Tudor England from the University of Roehampton who will reveal how this era has shaped modern-day British politics.

I recently read the S. J. Parris novel Heresy, a work of historical fiction primarily featuring Giordano Bruno but firmly set in the reign of Elizabeth I in 1583. Unlike many fellow USAians who find the monarchy to be romantic and intriguing, I’ve always been bewildered by it, particularly by the roll call of monarchs. So many Henrys! Georges and Richards in triplets! And, in the period of the book, one too many Marys. Maybe two too many, or maybe just two too many names.

In any case, I thought, having discovered spymaster Walsingham and poet Philip Sydney via the Parris book, I might be ready for a more formal look at the period. I was delighted to find a mooc all about the Tudors on Futurelearn, the UK answer to Coursera.

The course starts with the turnover from Richard III to Henry VII and proceeds through the death of Elizabeth I and the ascension of the Stuarts via James I. Or IV, depending on what country you’re in. It’s complicated. That’s the problem, it’s all very complicated, with lots of fighting about who’s a legitimate heir and who’s a bastard child and who’s the right religion and who’s going to the Tower. We also meet a lot of side players, advisors, councilors, dukes and lords and all those things  that bewilder me.

In addition to the marriages, beheadings, religious conversions, and such that make up the actual historical accounts, the course looks at how this period has been recorded in the arts: portraiture, architecture, literature, plays, and, most recently, films. The possible skewing of these forms is discussed: some people get the hero treatment, others are played as the villain, and while sometimes those roles are deserved, sometimes they aren’t.

I took this recreationally, so perhaps I didn’t work hard enough, but I found a lot of the material might have been easier had I grown up in the culture that grew from this period. Some people – earls and such – are referred to by various names reflecting their titles or their given names.  Thanks to having been prepped by  Parris, I was better able to follow the sense of threat felt by the Elizabethan court over the persistence of Catholic orthodoxy  in the country.

One amusing aside: having watched the Netflix series The Crown, I was gratified to finally hear about the Cecils, only to find that the reference in the series – “History teaches: Never trust a Cecil” – was an anachronism. But the familiarity helped me recognize Elizabeth I’s two Cecils.

The course consists mostly of articles – short readings – with a few videos scattered throughout each of the six units. Discussion forums follow each step; most courses have a “live” period when a facilitator monitors the boards and answers questions, but this was an in-between period. An ungraded quiz of two to four questions appears once or twice in a unit. I took the audit version; it’s my understanding that those who pay $27.99/month for Unlimited access to much of the Futurelearn catalog, or who pay $64 for permanent access to this particular course, can receive grades, or at least certificates of achievement.

I found the course very helpful in getting a better handle on this period of English history, both in terms of the succession of monarch, and in understanding, at least in a general way, the most important issues of the day.

Metaphysical MOOC

Course: Reality Bites: Introduction to Metaphysics
Length: 7 modules, 10 hours total
School/platform: Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands/Coursera
Instructor: Tim de Mey
Speculative metaphysics is challenging, but this course will whet your appetite for it, because it explains fundamental metaphysical problems and views in terms of what you can find in your kitchen and what happens in it when you cook and enjoy food. Here are the 8 bites on the menu.
– The first module 1 explains that metaphysics is about the ingredients and recipes of the world, i.e., which kinds of entities exist and how they relate to one another.
– Modules 2 and 3 invite you to reflect on whether the properties of ingredients – such as their shape and weight – are separate from and if so, how they come together in the ingredients.
– Modules 4 to 7 are about cooking: its most important ingredient is time and most cooking consists in causing changes to the ingredients over time. Yet some ingredients persist: although they undergo changes, they remain the same. Moreover, cooking minimally involves putting two or more ingredients together, so that they compose a whole. Hence modules 4 to 7 deal with time, causation, persistence and composition respectively.
– Finally, the last module touch on the smells, tastes and other qualitative aspects of our experiences when enjoying food.

This is my second foray into the philosophy moocs presented by Dr. Tim De Mey of Erasmus University. I was a bit uncertain about the first one on epistemology, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.

Here the topic was existence. That sounds simple enough, until you get to something like: do holes exist? What about color? And then there’s time.  I recently joked around with my blogging buddy Jake about time being merely a construct that he could ignore if it bothered him, but it turns out there are lots of theories about time and existence. The Ship of Theseus provided a convenient way to look at theories of persistence: are you the same person that you were when you were five years old? Causality as well turns out to be a lot more complicated than commonly thought once we start looking at it in depth. That seems to be the entire business of metaphysics: messing with common sense until nothing can be taken for granted, least of all what exists and what doesn’t. It’s great fun.

Each module opens with a brief teaser based on cooking (if you cook an onion, is it the same onion as it was when it was raw? At what point does a group of veggies and spices become curry?), then moves to two or three segments of lectures on the topic at hand. An optional discussion question – which is pretty useless since the discussion forums are ghost towns, a question I raised weeks ago in the Epistemology class is still unanswered – and a quiz consisting of two multiple-choice questions with unlimited attempts, round out the material. An exam of ten questions appears in the last module.

I found the same three problems as I had with Epistemology: first, it’s difficult to organize the material in a way that makes sense and provides for good retention;  second, the lecture transcripts are horrible, particularly in terms of sentence structure and proper names; (while annoying, I have to admit it made for some interesting research opportunities); and third, I wish there were more quiz questions, since they were helpful in getting the material organized in my mind.

If the images provided seem sparse and repetitious, that’s because there aren’t any real images in these moocs. That’s a drawback. When I watch the videos by Carneades or Wireless Philosophy  on these topics, I get visual clues via drawings, diagrams, and sometimes just arrangements of words that helps with comprehension. Here, there’s just the professor and the teaser scenes. Maybe I’m spoiled by soft USAian methods, but I find the visual cues helpful. And they make for more interesting posts.  

In spite of those misgivings, I find there’s a kind of charm to these Erasmus University moocs. They offer a different perspective to the philosophy moocs I’ve found taught by USAian schools, and bring in other materials. And, as I’ve said before, they exist, and they are totally free, with no paywalled quizzes. I’m game to take on the third one on thought experiments.

I have to admit that I lied above (or, as I prefer to think of it, I paraphrased in the interests of simplicity) when I said it was my second DeMey mooc. In between Epistemology and Ontology, I took “The Politics of Skepticism” led by Dr. De Mey and another professor. I didn’t post about it because it didn’t entirely make sense to me; it seemed to me the lectures, the readings, and the discussion questions for the first half of the course were unrelated to each other. I may go over it again at some point when I’ve completed Dr. De Mey’s other courses, and see if it makes more sense.

Epistemology MOOC: What do you know?

Course: The Epistemic Quest for Truth: Introduction to epistemology
Length: 6 hours total
School/platform: Erasmus University Rotterdam
Instructor: Tim De Mey

The introduction of the internet and of social media has drastically changed our information position. We live in a time of ‘truth decay’: the distinction between opinions and facts is blurred, opinions have more impact than facts, and sources of factual information are increasingly distrusted. Since philosophers love truth, they deplore these tendencies. But what can they do about them?
In this course, you will be invited to reflect on whether, in what sense and to what extent, 2500 years of normative epistemology, or theory of knowledge, can be put into practice and help to reduce truth decay. You’ll be invited, more specifically, to reflect on
– the theory of knowledge,
– the analysis of knowledge,
– the possibility of knowledge,
– the structure of knowledge,
– the kinds of knowledge, and
– the value of knowledge.

I initially had some complaints about this course, but the more I looked at them, the more I realized they were the result of my misconceptions and lack of diligence. I’m still a bit surprised that this is listed as a beginner course. There’s a lot of material here, and while much of it isn’t covered in great detail, there’s still a lot of coordinating and organizing of ideas required. I ended up with a lot of concepts and definitions, and little structure. The Learning Objectives included with each week helped me create an outline so I could better understand how they related to each other. 

Week 1 is a fairly general introduction, but it began with a notable passage:

Suppose, for the sake of the argument, that the White House is occupied by a bully president, whose blunt lies not only ever increase in number but also in preposterousness. Or suppose that, to subvert the call for political or legislative action, “merchants of doubt” call into doubt well-established scientific facts such as climate change or evolution. Or suppose that almost every dramatic, politically sensitive event triggers a proliferation of conspiracy theories. Or suppose that journalists and the media continuously get bad press because they are accused of producing fake news. Or still, suppose that although in theory, communication technology allows for maximum freedom of expression of opinion in an ideal marketplace of ideas, in practice, the real marketplace of ideas blocks rather than facilitates the free and open exchange of views.

Yeah, suppose. There was a glimmer of a response to this in the material – foundherentism, connecting the ‘raft’ of convoluted conspiracy theories to reality – but this does not mean there’s a way to combat it, only to recognize it.  Too bad.  Oh, and a later passage assured us this was a fictional example, of course. It’s interesting, though, that anyone complaining about it would have to admit to being, or at least being seen as, a bully and liar.

 In Week 2, the traditional justified true belief definition of knowledge is outlined, followed by Gettier cases and proposed solutions to them: no false lemmas, no defeaters, replacing justification with causality or truth sensitivity, using a purely subjective conception of knowledge. It took me a long time to just come up with that sentence, rather than having all these words floating around. Outlining is a superpower.

Week 3, covering skepticism, was even worse: while I’ve dealt with the Cartesian ‘evil demon’ and the brain-in-a-vat problems before, tons of stuff came up here that needed to be organized, and I still don’t think I’ve got it: the difference between contextual salience, and exclusion of irrelevant alternatives, are still problematic for me. I’ve revisited a couple of quiz questions maybe a dozen times to see if I’ve got it: sometimes I do, but then it slips away from me again.

In Week 4, the solutions to Agrippa’s trilemma got complicated as well, with solutions, and the arguments against them, presented linearly. Here again is where outlining helped. I think this is probably full of very useful approaches, particularly coherentism and foundherentism, in dealing with conspiracy theories, but again, it’s all rather vague to me. This cried out for practical examples.

Week 5 reviewed reliabilism, and included a tantalizing reference to Sosa’s view of animal and reflective knowledge, but again, I desperately wanted examples or at least more information. And Week 6 was either a throwaway – how the field of epistemology should progress, focusing on heuristic methods of determining knowledge – or I completely  missed the point. I suspect the latter.

Each unit includes a reading assignment, presented as an “elaborated and updated version” of the lecture. I call bullshit. The reading (available online) turns out to be a chapter from an introductory text; there are some differences, but to call them elaborations is misleading. Whether the chapter is a text version of a lecture given every semester, or is a script read in the videos, is uncertain. I will give great credit to the instructor for presenting the lecture in an animated and engaging way, rather than the stiff manner so often resulting from reading a script. I suppose that lecturing from the reading is one way to get students to at least hear the readings, if not actually read them.

What I found most useful about the readings was they were a lot more legible than the transcripts, particularly when it came to proper names and punctuation; eventually I used them instead of the transcripts. The poor quality of lecture transcripts is an ongoing problem with Coursera; I served as a CTA in one course, and begged them to fix the transcripts which referred to Socrates’ daimon as ‘diamond’, to no avail.

The first five units each included a ‘quiz’ that consisted of… two questions. I just mentioned, in my comments about the Genetics mooc I took last month, that it was through quizzes that I was able to put material together and discover what I had and hadn’t learned from the lectures. Two questions didn’t help much, with the exception of two questions in the final unit. And, by the way, one of the questions in unit 1 asked about material not covered until unit 2, which is kind of unfair.

The quiz for the final unit consisted of ten questions, which served as a sort of final exam. As I mentioned before, two of those questions, in fact, still puzzle me, and I’ve gone back maybe  dozen times to look at the differences between the contextualist view of salience, versus the relevant alternative theorist view, to understand the answers. The quizzes are multiple choice and allow multiple attempts, standard for Coursera classes, so it’s possible to pass even if you haven’t bothered to listen to or read the material. But here, even armed with the correct answers, I’m not sure how the concepts work. I left a message expressing my confusion and asking for further clarification on the discussion forums; I’ll check back to see if anyone replies.

Each week also includes a Discussion question which seems to be sparsely answered, also standard for Coursera. Don’t get me started on the forums that once upon a golden time were bursting with activity, and how Coursera decided that was a bad thing so changed their format.

If it sounds like I’m complaining a lot, well, I guess I am, but overall I still ended up, after some grappling with my complaints, with a positive impression. There are several bright spots. For one thing, it exists. Moocs on philosophy – on the humanities in general – seem to be fading away as business and computer science become the focus. And it’s a completely free course; no paywalls, no “in order to see how you did on this quiz, sign up for the verified track” messages (which, I’ll admit as an observer, is brilliant marketing, but as a victim,  er, student, is incredibly annoying).

Another positive was the professor, who, as I mentioned, was animated and engaging throughout. I also enjoyed the little 30-second vignettes that preceded most of the units, titled “For All We Know.”  This was a whimsical cinematic prelude to the material, silent B-roll footage of a small group of students who can’t find their professor, with a voice-over, in Dutch (with English subtitles). The first unit’s entry:

Suppose that we arrive at the ISVW [a lecture hall at the school], but we cannot find our lecturer. As he is late quite often, we wait an academic quarter, but then we really try to find out why he isn’t there and what his whereabouts are instead. What kind of knowledge are we looking for and what kinds of knowledge do we need to find that out? What should we be able to do and with what should we be acquainted to find out our lecturer’s whereabouts?

As I wondered about what seemed to me a lack of explanation of the material, I went hunting for more information on the university of Youtube and found that Jennifer Nagel (no relation to Thomas) of the University of Toronto had a nice playlist on Epistemology for Wireless Philosophy; using that, and creating my own Outline, helped organize the material in a more comprehensible way.

I considered carefully the question of whether I ‘liked’ this course, whether it was ‘good’. Initially I wasn’t even going to write it up; when I have a lot of negatives about a mooc, I skip posting about it, since I feel like I don’t want to discourage anyone from taking, or from creating, learning materials just because they don’t happen to fit my particular needs and preferences.

Then I realized that I did a lot of work to understand what was being taught. I was reminded of Derek Muller’s study (one I refer to often) in which students given a confusing dialog presentation on a scientific concept actually performed better on post-test than those given a clear lecture presentation of the same concept. Maybe that was at work here. Because I was confused, I had to put more work into figuring out the organization of the material, and perhaps learned it better than if it had been presented with bullet points and a pre-made outline. Then again, this is a mooc; my motivation was the only factor that kept me from saying “The hell with this” and unenrolling, so while it seems to have worked, it might not be an effective strategy in all circumstances.

Score another point for blogging about these moocs: had I not done so, I would’ve just shrugged off this course as a bad experience. Since I put in a little effort to document what I didn’t like, I not only changed my mind about the effectiveness of the course, but have discovered a whole bunch of courses by the same professor – and have started one already. That’s probably the strongest indicator that this was, in fact, a Very Good mooc. But you have to want it.


Genetics MOOC: The Fundamentals

Course: Genetics: The Fundamentals
Length: 6 weeks, 4-7 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructors: Michael Hemann, Peter Reddien

How do we know what we know about heredity and how can we design experiments to test hypotheses in genetics? How do we study the inheritance of different traits? How does that information help us understand heritable diseases? …You will explore the foundations of the field of genetics and how to apply those concepts to understand modern studies of heredity.

I’ve noticed, more and more lately, a Conflict of Interests statement preceding academic research papers. Well, here’s my Conflict of Interest statement for this post: I don’t like genetics. While I’ll spend hours poring over biochemical pathways and G-protein coupled receptors and T-cells vs B-cells and the twists and turns of  central dogma of DNA to RNA to protein, I just don’t care about the probability of offspring bearing recessive traits should a recessive phenotype and a dominant phenotype mate. I care even less about gene mapping, which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate its importance, just that I don’t particularly want to get into the nuts and bolts. Conflict of interest stated.

I do, however, feel like some idea of the basics is necessary, given my interest in other areas of biology. So when I saw a tweet declaring this initial-run of the first of three moocs in a series on genetics, I clicked. And in spite of my misgivings, I’ll admit: it was very useful in getting a firmer grasp on the basics, which is, after all, the point.

The course starts off with a solid review of basic concepts and definitions: genes and chromosomes, phenotypes and genotypes, recessive and dominant traits, and complementation. There’s also an optional section reviewing meiosis. From there it moves into Mendelian genetics, inheritance patterns, and pedigrees. The later sections involve mapping strategies using SSRs and SNPs and calculating genetic and physical distances to determine linkages. Some math is involved in the form of Chi square tests, Bayes theorem, and LOD scores. It’s all straightforward basic algebra, with the tricky part, as is usually the case, being knowing what data fits into which variable.

One interesting aside: in the section on pedigrees, which are graphic representations of inheritance showing male and female matings and offspring, some new symbols were included to indicate nonbinary and trans people. Obviously, the crucial info in a pedigree is who contributed the egg and who the sperm, so birth gender and biological sex was of primary significance, but it’s nice to see the effort towards inclusion. I hope this doesn’t get them banned in some states.

The overall structure of the course is similar to other MITx bio moocs: two or three lectures per unit, divided into short (usually <10 minutes) segments followed by graded Knowledge Check questions that allow unlimited attempts (meaning they’re basically free points); and four more stringently graded Quizzes, the fourth of which is paywalled ($99) for those purchasing Certificates.

The lectures will perhaps one day be classified as COVID-era by cyberarchaeologists: one set was delivered online with a zoom or chat function so remote students could ask questions (these are recorded, so this function wasn’t live in the mooc), and another set was live-in-classroom with a Masked Professor. While there were some well-produced graphics, particularly in the SSR and SNP sections, what was missing were those wonderful animated inset videos MITx has always been so good at, explaining specific topics in detail for those of us who don’t have recitation sections. I could have used a few of those for the mapping segments; I found the lectures covering LOD scores difficult to follow and I had trouble figuring out the actual approach being taught. Oddly, I also had a terrible time with gene notation: X^D X^d being represented in several ways to indicate an affected gene and a wild-type gene as dominant and recessive. Some pretty pictures might have helped a bit, though I eventually got it – and this is, after all, listed as an advanced course, so maybe they assume if you need pretty pictures, you shouldn’t be here.

I found the discussion forums very helpful on several occasions, with both staff and other students answering questions promptly and clearly.

The quizzes were where I actually did most of my learning. I’d go back and figure out what in which lecture was pertinent. I didn’t always get it right, but I understood the material much better afterwards. This made the quizzes functionally more of a formative rather than summative assessment. Unlike other MITx bio moocs, there were no assays (beyond performing crosses) so the quizzes were much closer to the Knowledge Check questions. I still could have used a middle level in there, a practice quiz before the real quiz, so to speak. But I did figure most of it out, and that is the point.

It’s interesting that the quizzes allowed access to correct answers immediately on completion rather than at the end of the quiz – or, in the case of some of the instructor-scheduled moocs, after the quiz period closed, which sometimes meant waiting two weeks to find out what you did wrong. This worked a lot better for me, in that, if you get the setup wrong and can’t figure out what the problem was, chances are everything following is going to be wrong. I don’t know if this was a pedagogical decision to provide immediate feedback, or an administrative decision to improve completion percentages, in light of the recent edX move from non-profit to profit-making organization – or, for that matter, a random decision in the time of COVID. Of course, those with more discipline can simply choose to not click on Show Answer. I confess to a complete lack of such discipline.

Despite my insistence that I do not like genetics, it was Duke’s Genetics and Evolution mooc back in 2015 that was my first foray into biology. It was a blast, partly because some mooc friends were CTAs and there was a great deal of camaraderie back in the day when camaraderie was possible in moocs. I’ve been doing bio ever since, though I have to admit, as many times as I’ve gone through Eric Lander’s terrific Intro to Bio course to refresh my memory on assays or whatnot, I’ve always skipped over the genetics section because, say it with me, I don’t care about genetics… too bad, since he’s a world-class geneticist, but that’s how it goes. Still, I’ve taken at least one run-through of all of MITx’s biology moocs – except the computational biology workshop, which scares me – and it all started with genetics.

I asked, as I finished the course, what parts 2 and 3 would cover:

We are still developing the next courses, so I cannot promise what they will entail. However, they will likely include methods and techniques to study and edit the genome (think genetic screens, mutant design, CRISPR, knockouts, etc.) as well as some applications such as gene regulation, development, and behavior. We are also hoping to develop material about population genetics.

Maybe I’ll face that as well, because as it turns out, genetics isn’t so bad after all.


Rhythms of the World MOOC

Course: World Music: Global Rhythms
Length: 5 weeks, 5-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Leslie A. Tilley

In this course, you’ll be learning about musical rhythm from across the world. You don’t have to read music notation to take this course; you don’t have to play an instrument. You don’t need to know any special musical terminology or theory to begin; You will learn all the concepts you need as we go… and the terminology and how it varies across the world. The course will explore music from all over the world and throughout time, from traditional African music, to Balinese Gamelan, to classical Japanese, Indian, and Western music, to contemporary reggaetone and punk music. You will learn how to recognize specific kinds of rhythms, and follow their development through time and around the world. You will also learn how different cultures developed different styles and ideas about rhythm, meter, melody and structure, and learn to start to distinguish some main ideas.

What Prof. Tilley does quite well here is encourage students to embody the rhythms she’s discussing, by embodying them herself. “Tap your foot!” she says, “shake your head, slap your thigh, clap, tap the table!” She has a good presence on camera without that deer-in-the-headlights stiffness so many mooc professors get when they lecture. She’s constantly in motion – tapping, nodding, clapping, running a clip, demonstrating kriya – hand motions used in Indian classical music – conducting a beat with one hand, tapping the rhythm with the other. It’s a very engaging methodology.

For those with less musical background: True to the teaser, at no point is reading music required; everything uses felt/heard rhythm. If terms like “monophony” seem scary, don’t worry, they’re well explained.

About half the music discussed was familiar to me, present if not originally from the Western world: European classical traditions, American jazz, rock, and pop, ballroom dance from Austria to Cuba to Argentina. And to that point, Tilley doesn’t miss the opportunity to point out how rhythms from Western Africa ended up in twentieth and twenty-first century American top-forty tunes:

Now, you’ll find elements of the tresillo rhythm in a bunch of important timelines all over Africa and Latin America. And a lot of this has to do, unfortunately, with slave trading. Many really, really great drumming traditions in sub-Saharan Africa, out of which rhythms like tresillo grew, come from West Africa, places like Ghana and Senegal. And many of the people who were stolen from their homes and forced into slavery in North America also came from West Africa. And their rhythms traveled with them. So rhythms like tresillo are ubiquitous in pop music now. But they have a much longer history, which I encourage you to learn more about.

She also mentions Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay “The Danger of a Single Story” – an essay I’ve mentioned in these pages before – in connection with habanera rhythm:

The wonderful Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, talks about what she calls the danger of the single story. When we know very little about a place or a people, the one thing we learn about them becomes a one-dimensional story of who they are. Not necessarily untrue, but definitely incomplete. And this is even more dangerous when there’s a power imbalance between the two sides as we inescapably get from a history of colonialism. The habanera rhythm in the 19th century became, in some ways, like a sonic, single story of Cuba and, by extension, the rest of Latin America and the Spanish-speaking world. And it became associated with characters like Carmen. And effective though that scene and that musical decision may be, she then becomes her own kind of single story and perpetuates stereotypes through that reduction. It’s a way to exoticize in a single sound. Lots to think about there and perhaps an online class isn’t quite the right forum to open up that particular Pandora’s box, but I hope you’ll listen to Chimamanda’s TED Talk and think about these important questions of representation in music and elsewhere.

In the I-Love-A-Good-Coincidence department: I usually have one old series going on Netflix at any given time as sleepy-time fare, and while I was taking this course, it was the comedy 30 Rock. Several times in the first season, I heard a habanera (S1E3,5:52; you don’t wanna know how long it took me to find that) – a different melody, but the rhythm was unmistakable.

Other topics included conducting motions for standard, cut, and three-four time; various kinds of multiple strands (monophony, biphony, homophony, and polyphony), syncopation, and density. Musical examples ranged from Asia to Africa and South America; although much of the music was Western, or at least Western-adopted, about half came from other places and showed the variety that might exist in, say, northern and southern India, eastern and western Africa.

The course consists of fourteen very short modules, each of which includes a couple of five-to-ten minute lecture/demonstrations, plus several activities: rhythm-matching applets (click the space bar on the beat; press p on the downbeat and q on the upbeat; etc), multiple-choice questions, discussion questions, self-graded essays. I took the audit course, so graded assessments were paywalled; for only $49 they can be unlocked. I found the rhythm matching exercises to be helpful, but difficult, since I can’t really tap my spacebar fast enough. And, perhaps the most important thing I learned from this course, it turns out I have a very poor sense of rhythm. Oh, I can handle four/four, three/four, six/eight time easily enough, but when it comes to other rhythms, I start to trip over myself. But it was fun to try.

I took this as a recreational mooc, meaning I didn’t work very hard at it (one of the benefits of moocs is that you can choose where to focus your efforts; here, I let it be fun, not work). I think it would be a great course for anyone producing their own music, whether as an artist or for use in videos or games. Even for me, with no delusions of being a songwriter, the ideas were swarming around – “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to use this and do that with it.” And it’s just interesting to see what music means in different places.

Music MOOCs are incredibly difficult to put together. I’ve taken several – including the Balinese Gamelan mooc by the same MIT World Music faculty – and I can tell you, it’s not easy to convey elements of musical technique, theory, or style to unknown students of varying backgrounds in asynchronous format. Sometimes it works, like it did here, for the purposes outlined.

Molecular Bio MOOC, part II: How DNA becomes RNA and other fun stuff

Course: Molecular Biology – Part 2: Transcription and Transposition
Length: 7 weeks, 4-7 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Stephen Bell, Tania Baker

In Part 2 of this Molecular Biology course, you’ll explore transcription of DNA to RNA, a key part of the central dogma of biology and the first step of gene expression.
Take a behind-the-scenes look at modern molecular genetics, from the classic experimental events that identified the proteins and elements involved in transcription and transposition to cutting-edge assays that apply the power of genome sequencing. We’ve designed the problems in this course to build your experimental design and data analysis skills.

Yes, I’m about to rave about another MIT bio course. What can I say about this second course in the Molecular Biology trilogy that I haven’t said before about MIT’s bio-offerings: the in-class lectures are clear and engaging, they use animations and diagrams better than I’ve seen anywhere else, and the quizzes are based on interesting and occasionally amusing laboratory narratives (continuing the saga of poor confused Brian). And now that we’re all becoming experts on mRNA and DNA and PCR thanks to COVID, they’re more practical than ever. 

I’d started this course back in 2017, right after I’d finished the first part on DNA replication. I could tell right away I wasn’t up to it – assays in particular were still too unfamiliar – so I dropped it almost immediately and went on to other things. I decided to re-take the first part late last year as prep, which helped. Things went a lot more smoothly this time around.

In basic biology courses, we learn that RNA is made from DNA. Here, we find out that it’s not a simple process. First, different cells make different proteins, so the same DNA has to make one set of proteins when it’s in a liver cell, and another set when it’s in a bone cell. And sometimes it has to make more utility proteins (like for digesting sugar) than other times. This is what epigenetics is for: how DNA expresses different RNAs, ultimately different proteins, depending on the circumstances. We got into nucleosomes in a big way, as well as promoters, suppressors, and activators that regulate transcription.

Then there’s transposition, which is kind of a secret you don’t hear about in basic biology. It’s a process by which pieces of DNA get pasted into genes just for the fun of it. Or to silence a gene. Or to create new mutations which may or may not be beneficial. Some downright scary statistics show up, such as: half the human genome is transposon-related sequences. But it’s ok, because most of them are ancient, more like fossils of transposons. And it could be worse: 80% of corn’s genome is transposon-related.

After all this, they snuck in an extra week on CRISPR, which was fun. That required a refresher of meiosis and crossover recombination.

And of course all of these were discovered by lab assays, and are still examined by those assays. How can you tell where the promoter is? How can you tell if a drug silences a destructive gene? How did we learn how RNA is released when transcription is done? Assays. Dozens of them. Keeping them straight is still my Achilles’ heel: which are in vivo, which are in vitro, which are quantitative, which yield sequence information, which are quick and easy, and which take months and cost a fortune?

Once again, while the post-video “test yourself” questions cover the specifics of a lecture, the graded quizzes are based on little lab scenarios: you’re trying to figure out how a particular organism regulates transcription, what assays do you need, what does this output show, what is your positive and negative control, what do you expect to see when you do this or that (and why would you really not want to do that in the first place). All this is in service of understanding exactly what’s happening in a process. As I’ve said before, you can’t fake your way through this.

The first three quizzes are included in the audit course so can be accessed for free. The final four quizzes can be unlocked for $99. This series is the first time I’ve paid for a mooc. I consider them worth it. You can decide for yourself after the first three weeks if it’s worth it to you.

There’s one more part to this molecular biology series: RNA translation into protein. I want to focus on reading for a little while, so I may take it later this summer, or I may wait until next year, but I’ll get there.

Black Hole MOOC

Course: Astro 101: Black Holes
Length: 10 modules, 18 hrs total
School/platform: University of Alberta/Coursera
Instructor: Sharon Morsink et al

What is a black hole? Do they really exist? How do they form? How are they related to stars? What would happen if you fell into one? How do you see a black hole if they emit no light? What’s the difference between a black hole and a really dark star? Could a particle accelerator create a black hole? Can a black hole also be a worm hole or a time machine?
In Astro 101: Black Holes, you will explore the concepts behind black holes. Using the theme of black holes, you will learn the basic ideas of astronomy, relativity, and quantum physics.

Class Central keeps coming up with ideas to make MOOCs fun again. Their Cohorts program allows for better forum discussion and a weekly Zoom meeting to recapture both the sense of being in a class with others, and the student interaction that has given way to on-demand scheduling. This particular course is part of their Science Friday cohort, with each Cohort week covering two modules of the mooc. When I saw it on Twitter, I knew I’d join in. I’ve finished the coursework through Coursera, but the cohort is still running through February 4; feel free to join in.

The mooc itself is a great introductory look at astronomy in general with black holes as a focus. It begins with a general discussion of black holes, particularly as they are presented in various movies and TV show (spoiler alert: Interstellar wins for accuracy). They then show us the life cycle of stars, and when that life cycle ends in a black hole.

The next several weeks take an interesting journey to a hypothetical black hole, covering gravity, relativity, and general astronomy as we move from a far distance to the accretion disk to the event horizon and, finally, to the inner singularity, where what happens is speculative. A couple of weeks on observation techniques round out the course – how do we find, measure, and observe black holes – including information on optics and various forms of telescopy, and ending with contemporary examples.

Each module of the mooc includes one to two hours of lecture videos, plus a ten-question multiple choice quiz. Most of the questions are information retrieval, but a significant number require putting together several ideas, which I find particularly helpful for understanding the material. A few math questions appear, but they use the equations as provided and involve only basic algebra.

Each Friday cohort zoom session allows for discussion of the material in two weeks of the class. Several members of the cohort have science backgrounds so it’s an opportunity to ask questions about the material and to discover some interesting tangents (I was particularly interested in the mention of the Planck length, which I vaguely recall from somewhere; it was fun to re-examine the idea).

I was particularly interested in this course because I’d heard that CalTech’s Mike Brown is revamping his Solar System Astronomy mooc for next fall. He’s been adding updates every year since I took it back in 2015, and I guess it was time for version 2.0. It was a challenge back then; I’ve taken a lot more science since, and this course in particular helped get me primed for another run.

Even if black holes aren’t your primary interest, there’s plenty in this course that makes it worth taking, particularly for those who might be intimidated by the physics and math of more advanced courses.


Course: General Chemistry II: Chemical Equilibrium, Kinetics, and Transition Metals
Length: 14 weeks, 8-12 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Matthew Shoulders, Patti Christie, David Grimes

This course is the second in a series of two general chemistry courses that together cover first-year University-level chemistry. In this course, you will explore fundamentals of chemical reactions, such as how thermodynamics defines the energy released or consumed by a reaction, the nature of chemical equilibrium, and whether a reaction is spontaneous. You will also learn chemical kinetics to examine rates and molecular mechanisms of reactions, and learn about the design and use of catalysts.

Short version: Thumbs up.

When I wrote about MIT’s General Chem I: Atoms, Molecules and Bonding, I whined a little about chemistry being all math and having little of the magic we think of when we consider science in the real world. This second half of the year-long course makes up for that by including lots of real-life examples, from how much energy we get from various substances, to CO2 cleanup, to how the body processes glucose, to increasing crop yields via nitrogen fixation, to how batteries work, to the ozone hole. Ok, it isn’t fireworks and making baking-soda volcanoes, but there was a unit on how colors are formed by transition metal solutions that was pretty cool.

At heart, though, chemistry is still about math. They can talk all they want about creativity in figuring out reaction processes or designing batteries or buffers, but it’s still going to come down to doing the math. As with Chem I, they kept calculus out of things, though in places there were calculus-like expressions in disguise, and they did show a single integration problem just for fun. The math is just algebra. It’s a matter of figuring out how to get from what you’ve got to what you want to find, and that can get complicated.

The course was taped using black lightboards, giving it all a somewhat mysterious and dark air throughout. For those who think distance learning should be just as easy for teachers as regular classroom teaching, I’ve got news: there are little things that have a big impact. One is: Get out of the way.  Prof. Shoulders mastered this throughout; the Recitations, less so. There’s also the little matter of shaking the pens immediately berore use, which seems so minor, but makes a huge difference in how the writing shows up. This was a problem in the first couple of videos, but it got better fast. Just in case, at the end of each lecture a nicely formatted PDF of lecture notes was provided, including all equations and diagrams, alleviating any visibility problems.

In each of the six modules, the graded problem set began with a bulleted list of  What We Have Learned. I found this very useful as a review, since five of the six modules included three lectures and spanned two weeks (module 6 was two lectures in one week). Oddly, it also reminded me of Clare Beams’ short story, “We Show What We Have Learned,” which has nothing to do with the course but always made me smile (in the not-quite-realism story, a teacher literally falls apart in front of her class). A further treat for those of us from the literary side of the street: In the introduction to the topic of Kinetics, we’re treated to Prof. Shoulders’ dramatic reading of Dickens’ Bleak House, which terrorized him as a child with the description of spontaneous human combustion and served as a way to discuss why, thanks to kinetics, a spontaneous reaction doesn’t necessarily just happen.

Another high spot for me came in the discussion of the Michaelis-Menten equation. I’ve run into this in three or four other moocs, and it wasn’t until this course, when they flashed a photo of Michaelis and Menten on the screen, that I realized Menten was a woman.

It was a long course, made longer by two midterms and a final which were not available to audit students; full access cost $149. I would assume those evaluations, as is usually the case, offer fewer tries at a question (the problem sets allowed ten tries for all calculated answers), and involve more figuring out how to get an answer rather than plugging numbers into equations.

On the down side, the course was far more error-prone than I’ve experienced in past courses, particularly in the first module. Problem set questions were marked incorrect when they should have been correct; recitation videos included incorrect answers. I realize these are things that occur in all moocs, especially first-runs, but they seemed excessive. The good news is Prof. Grimes was on hand to fix problems, reset attempts, extend deadlines, and generally make sure correct answers were given credit. The other good news is that this is not likely to be a problem in future runs, since the errors have been fixed. I’m going to chalk it up to lack of staff for proofreading, the side effect of putting together a mooc during a pandemic. I’ve been accused of blaming everything on COVID, but the fact is, there has been a lot of disruption so I’m inclined towards  generosity.

Although I went astray in some of the calculations, I feel like I got some sense of what was being asked. In particular, I have a much clearer idea of the difference between thermodynamics and kinetics. I even used an analogy from kinetics in speaking with a tech consultant the other day: I told him he was to be a catalyst to get me over the hump of activation energy, because without that help I’d dither for another year. He thought I was a little crazy, but that’s ok, he’s not wrong.

Zoroastrian MOOC

Course: Zoroastrianism: History, Religion, and Belief
Length: 4 weeks, 3 hrs/wk
School/platform: SOAS, University of London/FutureLearn
Instructor: Sarah Stewart, Celine Redard

Zoroastrianism has had a profound influence on major world religions. Its history tells the story of imperial culture, persecution, migration and the establishment of diasporic communities.
Utilising a rich visual repository of artifacts, paintings, and texts, this four-week course will take you through the story of Zoroastrian religion, history, and culture.
The course draws inspiration from an exhibition titled ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’, as well as the book of the same name.

Every once in a while, I’ll run into a reference to Zoroastriaism in something I’m reading or in a mooc or a video on philosophy, religion, or ancient history. Yet I know very little about it. Most of what I knew prior to this course came from the Global History of Architecture mooc I took a few years ago, but that wasn’t much: fire, sky burial, Persia. So when Class Central tweeted this into my feed, I thought, hmmm, that looks interesting.  

The mooc is based on SOAC’s 2013 exhibit, and companion book of scholarly essays, titled The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination. Material, about half video and half article, is divided into four weeks: an overview of the texts and beliefs of the religion, its history in the ancient world, the diaspora and contemporary Zoroastrianism, and the Avestan language, the original language of the sacred texts.

My biggest takeaway was how so many aspects of the religion were similar to Christianity; in fact, one section looked at the influence of Zoroastrianism on the three Abrahamic religions, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism. We have a fight between good and evil, with a fallen angel being cast out of heaven, and a final battle between good and evil at which point a descendent of Zarathustra (aka Zoroaster), the primary prophet, born of a virgin, will resurrect the dead to dwell in perfection as Ahura Mazda, the creator god, had originally planned. I have often heard that the three Wise Men, the Magi, were thought of as Zoroastrians from Persia. To complicate matters, there’s also the judging of souls after death by weighing of the heart, which sounds a lot like the process outlined in the manuscripts now known collectively as Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The history of the religion, as covered in the course, is somewhat fragmented. The original tenets, prayers, and worship features were transmitted orally for a few thousand years; they were eventually written down in one language, then translated to others as the followers were subsumed within other cultures due to migration or conquest. Thus, little of the original written material remains. After the Islamic conquest of Persia, Zoroastrianism moved to India, which I found surprising. I get the impression of a proto-religion, something like the Indo-European language that in itself no longer exists but can be retroactively surmised by combining aspects of the languages descended from it.

The final week was about the Avestan language of the original documents, though these are piecemeal and need to be combined with later transcriptions into other languages to provide a potential picture of the original religious practices and beliefs. Normally, this is something I’d jump all over, but I had a lot of distractions and I’d really lost the thread by then.

Some of the more unusual parts of the course include a reading of a particulary popular story of the test of faith, comments from contemporary Zoroastrians on their connection to what is a widespread but distinctly minority religion, and the language piece which includes practice in writing alphabet and in reading a few words.

I’ll take most of the responsibility for my less-than-stellar focus in this mooc, but for me the presentation wasn’t the most engaging. Others, if the forums are any indication (and they usually are) were quite delighted, including a number of contemporary Zoroastrians from around the world, as well as many students with  backgrounds in the general vicinity of interest. I’m glad it was offered, as I do know a bit more now than I did before. Maybe at a future time, I’ll be able to better absorb more of the material.  

Cell Biology MOOC (Part 4: Cell-to-Cell Interactions)

Course: Cell Biology Part 4: Cell-Cell Interactions
Length: 7 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Profs. Rebecca Lamason and Sebastian Lourido

This is the final cell biology course in a four-part series…. How do we know what we know about cells at a molecular level and how can we use that knowledge to design experiments to test hypotheses in cell biology? How do you go from a single cell to trillions of cells working together? And what happens when this amazing collective is confronted with pathogens?

Short version: This was a great way to end the Cell Bio series. While proteins, receptors, and the like are still important, the context is more familiar than inner-cell machinations: the structure of tissues, growth and development of various organs, reactions to pathogens and cancerous changes.

A few years ago, I came across an article by a Bio grad student who was discovering that academic biology wasn’t what he’d become enchanted with via Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and Steven J. Gould. He felt kind of screwed: “[W]hat do you do next when there is nothing you have been trained to do well enough except inspect a single protein or a single gene every day for six years[?]”

Sometimes, deep into some of these biology moocs, I have a glimmer of what he means. When you’re tracing down the result of inhibiting one protein in a pathway of inhibitors and activators, when I’m trying to remember which receptor goes with which ligand, or, at my basic level, whether it’s kinase or phosphatase that removes a phosphate, or, as in the prior course in this series, why actin matters at all, it’s hard to remember how fascinating cells and organisms are, how impossible it seems that bacteria, let alone people, live at all given the complexity necessary to sustain life. 

This mooc reminded me. I don’t mean to sounds hyperdramatic, but it was exciting to see bits and pieces from other moocs – anatomy, physiology, pathology, immunology – show up (I love that “Hey, I remember this!” feeling) and to in most cases take a deeper look into how topics within those fields actually work.

The first week was all about tissues. No, not the things you blow your nose into, but bodily tissues. How many kinds of tissues are there, and what’s the difference? What holds our tissues together, how are some anchored to a basement membrane, while others move around? I remember learning about the tight junctions of the blood-brain barrier, and here I not only found out how those junctions are tightened, but where else they exist and why.  And I finally found out what’s so interesting about actin and microfilaments.

Week two got into how tissues and even organs replenish themselves over time, and the importance of stem cells in doing so. One of the many mysteries of biology for me has always been, how do we start as one cell, a fertilized egg, and then turn into people with livers and kidneys and brains and skin? I’ve always found embryology mysterious, so it was interesting to get some idea of how cells differentiate. I was surprised at how interesting the intestinal epithelium can be, given how those cells regenerate so often.

Then it was on to death. Apoptosis – programmed cell death – comes up in a lot of bio courses, so it was great to see some of the mechanisms that initiate the process, and those that prevent it from starting in error. Week Four introduced salmonella and listeria,  how they differ – and how they don’t – as infective agents.

Week Five introduced the immune system, a timely topic and one pretty familiar to me since I’ve previously done Rice’s three-part immunology series – not to mention the variety of explanations of immunity and how vaccines work dispersed via Twitter and TikTok over the past year, from the professional classroom versions to the goofy-but-accurate metaphors (Seize the Forks!).

The final week gave us a look at cancer at the cellular level. The bit of information that sticks with me is that cancer cells still have features specific to the types of cells from which they developed. This turns out to be useful in figuring out how to treat different cancers. We also saw an overview of what types of changes cells undergo that allow them to not only over-replicate, but move around the body and seed themselves outside the tissue of origin. I’m not particularly interested in cancer, but this really grabbed my attention and made me wonder what else I’ve been missing.

The material followed the typical structure: each week consists of a lecture broken up into several video segments, each followed by a “Test Yourself” quiz that’s graded but allows unlimited tries. A weekly quiz follows five of the lectures.  Four of these quizzes are available to auditors; to take all five, and keep access to the course material requires a $99 verification fee.

These quizzes take the form of lab scenarios: you want to test a hypothesis about a protein so what qualities and functions of the protein do you need to keep in mind, and how might you test your hypothesis; or you predict what to expect from an experiment, and explain why something different happened. Often there are graphs representing results and interpretation is required. It’s the best part of MIT’s bio courses: these are not information retrieval questions, you can’t just look up the answers, you have to understand what’s going on. More teachers should pay attention to this, because it’s extremely effective, and a lot more fun than memorizing pathways.  And I’m guessing it better represents the experience of a bio major and/or grad student.

As with the other parts of this series, students could submit Mudslips, that is, comments and questions about the parts of the lecture that seemed muddy or unclear. Staff also answered questions on the discussion forums; students often chimed in as well.

There were some signs that COVID had interfered with production. Most MIT Bio moocs use lectures taped in live classroom settings. Here the professors were speaking directly to camera, which has a slightly less connected sense. Prof. Lamason worked in an empty classroom using those amazing movable chalkboards; Prof. Lourido worked from what looked like a narrow office, appearing in a mini-window tucked in the corner of the screen to leave room for notes and diagrams. It seemed like there were fewer animations and diagrams, and more drawings, and the animations that were used weren’t as smoothly incorporated as usual, though that’s just an impression. None of this was disruptive or problematic; it just wasn’t peak MIT presentation. Considering the circumstances, I’m impressed they were able to put together anything at all.  

I’d highly recommend this for bionerds. I remember feeling a bit disenchanted after the third part of this series, covering actin and the cytoskeleton. This course perked me back up. It made a very nice finale to an excellent series. I’ve heard they’ll be condensing the first two courses, Transport and Signaling, into one, so next year it will be a three-part series. I’m planning to take it again, this time entering material into Cerego so I have a better chance of remembering it! What can I say, I grow old, and I like it when questions pop up a year after the course has ended. Gives me another “Hey, I remember that!” moment.

Stylistics MOOC: How something is written can matter as much as what is written

Course: Stylistics: Using Linguistics to Explore Texts and Meaning
Length: 4 weeks, 4 hrs/wk
School/platform: FutureLearn/ University of Huddersfield (UK)
Instructor: Dan McIntyre, Lesley Jeffries and Louise Nuttall
Stylistics is the study of linguistic style in texts. It helps to explain how politicians mislead; how novelists and poets move their readers; how advertisers persuade us to buy their products and how the media influence public opinion. Stylistics empowers students to become critical readers by developing rigorous techniques of linguistic analysis.

Style in this course is defined as “linguistic choices made by the producers of texts.” I write a lot about what I read, and my primary focus is how a particular story or novel affects me the way it does, so I jumped at the chance to take a mooc that might help me better understand what I’m reading, and possibly communicate my understanding of it more effectively. This was an introductory course with no particular prerequisites, so it covered a few general topics and created (hopefully) the desire to learn more.

First up was foregrounding. We looked at how unexpected word choices or even spellings can emphasize some aspect of a text, and at the use of parallelism and defamiliarization. for a similar effect. Just yesterday I posted about a story’s use of repetition and what I called “almost-anaphora” in the opening pages, and I’m still debating some phrasing regarding the narrator’s gender and what it might mean.

Week Two featured characterization, and ventured into two areas that are of particular interest to me. One is Grice’s theory of implicatures, something I first came across in a wonderful logic mooc offered by the University of Melbourne (it is, sadly, no longer available), so I was thrilled to see this topic again here. Another topic I enjoyed was subtitles, and how these sometimes have to be altered to fit in allocated time and space. This week happened to coincide with several twitter comments about the English subtitles for The Squid Game, which some viewers felt left out a great deal. We also looked at bottom-up versus top-down processing, and how conversational style gives information on characters.

The third week took a look at speech presentation. Part of this covered the range of discourse from direct speech to indirect free discourse to narration and the implications of each level. We also looked at the more real-life situations of reportage, and how even accurate quotations can be used to convey something that was not said. Anyone paying attention to what is happening to news coverage, particularly of elections and legislative agendas, has some experience with this.

Finally, we looked at corpus techniques such as key words and collocations in connection with concepts such as semantic prosody.  I confess I didn’t do much of the actual software work due to lack of time; I’d just taken the course using these techniques on Shakespearean writings, so I used what was provided rather than doing my own software runs. Nevertheless, the material included a lot of interesting tidbits, such as: the word “asked” appears quite a bit more frequently in The Wizard of Oz than would be expected, leading to the question, what might that indicate about the story?

Each week started out with a video introduction; written articles made up most of the rest of the material, except during the corpus section which included several videos on using the software. I tend to find this approach disappointing – if you’re going to do a mooc, why not use features that aren’t available in books and articles, like videos and animations – but since the course is likely to appeal to readers, it’s hard to complain about it. As with audited FutureLearn courses, there are no grades, although a brief quiz wraps up each week; I found them useful as a review of the material.

The message boards were active, and staff, particularly lead instructor Dan McIntyre, gave frequent feedback and answered questions promptly.

And, as with the mooc on Shakespeare’s Language from Lancaster that I took a couple of months ago, the discussion boards provided me the opportunity to ask a general question about the subject. That is, I asked, given that close reading usually generates the same insights that statistical examination of the text does, what is the benefit of corpus linguistics in literary analysis? I was not asking a hostile question, quite the contrary; the inquiry was generated by a nonfiction piece by Pam Houston I read in Pushcart 2019 (this is the second Houston essay that’s really given me something to bounce off of) which was in part dismissive of a corpus-based technique she referred to as distant reading. I wanted to know how to respond to such resistance, since I find the use of such analysis, as I’ve encountered it in three moocs now, to be fascinating. How does one respond, I asked, so such dismissal? Is there an example where statistical methods have changed traditional literary interpretation?

Prof. McIntyre took the time to give me a rather extensive response that included several points: evidentiary confirmation of intuition and rhetorical persuasion with evidence is no small thing in itself; and that changing interpretation is not the point, but adding greater nuance to existing interpretation is. He provided an example from his own work on Hemingway’s use of subordinate clauses (Papa H does not underuse them, as is often claimed, but uses them in direct speech rather than narration) and gave me the link to a paper using semantic prosody, one of the concepts examined in the course, to consider an alternative to irony in a particular poem.

It’s been my experience that discussion and staff participation is one of the strengths of FutureLearn. This is the second time I’ve received a detailed and specific response to a question related to, but slightly outside, the course material. It’s really quite exciting. This would be a great class for anyone who’d like to better understand how writing affects us, from how literature works to how politicians and salespeople try to influence our choices. Even those who’ve done significant prior work in literary analysis will probably find something new, particularly in the final week.

Shakespeare’s Language: A Corpus Linguistics Approach MOOC

Course: Shakespeare’s Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths
Length: 4 weeks, 3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Lancaster University/FutureLearn
Instructor: Jonathan Culpeper, Andrew Hardie, Sean Murphy etc.
William Shakespeare is a global phenomenon, yet there is actually relatively little work specifically devoted to his language, and even less deploying the latest techniques from linguistics.
On this course, you will explore Shakespeare’s language and, more generally, the language of his time. Over four weeks, you will be introduced to “big data” corpus methods (methods that use computers to explore large volumes of language data) which you can use for your own investigations, and will explore how words and meanings pattern across plays, characters, and more.
Along the way, you will find out why various beliefs about Shakespeare’s life and language–like that he coined an extraordinary number of new words–are actually myths.

I’ve taken several moocs on Shakespeare over the years, from the thorough reading of Young Love/Tragic Love offered by Wellesley, to the more emotional focus on individual scenes via Adelaide University’s Shakespeare Matters, to Stephen Greenblatt’s cultural and historical approach of Othello’s Story. Now add to those this linguistic examination of the language used in, primarily, the plays, with the assistance of corpus linguistics – augmented by a bit of myth-busting.

We started with a general examination of Early Modern English and the printing methodologies in use during Shakespeare’s time. That, combined with frequent use of CPQ Web to look up word frequencies and collocations, helped set the stage for the myth busting segment: Did Shakespeare really invent 1700 new words? When viewed through software including the amassed work of the period, that number seems to fall, and other possibilities (collaboration, printing-induced revisions, the difficulty of recording spoken language), it falls even more. Other sections looked at questions about Shakespeare’s vocabulary – was it more extensive than other playwrights of the day? – and his supposed lack of training in Latin.

It was great fun to explore these questions using the tools made available in the course, with the help of videos providing detailed instruction. I was surprised to find I still had a CPQ Web account from back in 2014, when I took Lancaster’s Corpus Linguistics mooc, one of the first moocs I ever took (and, I still say, one of the best designed, particularly for learners of different levels from novices like me to professional linguists and professors looking to add CL skills). All I had to do was add permissions for the Shakespeare corpora, and I was good to go.

The focus on language gave a different way of looking at Henry IV, Part I. Is the focus on Wales more about the Elizabethan view, or about an individual character? How can Falstaff’s “verbal dexterity,” or just his oaths, be examined in context? These sections were very brief, but served as introductions that made me want to know more.

The lectures were very short (generally about 6 minutes) and highly structured in the traditional manner: tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em. Futurelearn doesn’t do grades for auditors, but does have periodic “Check Your Knowledge” quizzes which are quite sufficient for keeping track of which points you’ve retained and which you need to review.

As a fun postscript: After I completed the material, an article came across my twitter feed (I can’t find exactly how, one of the literary/language accounts I follow must have retweeted it) titled ‘How Data Science Pinpointed the Creepiest Word in “Macbeth”’, written by Wired columnist Clive Thompson. It reports on an academic article by Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore titled “The Language of Macbeth” on keywords in the play, in particular, an examination of the word “the” and how it contributes to the “creepiness” of the play. This is exactly the kind of thing I’d just been learning about! It’s quite exciting to come across something in the wild that relates so directly to course material.

The scheduled portion of the course was over; we were in the 10-day “catch up” period included (for those of us auditing) but I posted a comment anyway, to see if anyone else had any thoughts on this, particularly the question I didn’t really see answered in the article: how does that keyword statistic stack up against the other plays, particularly the tragedies? A student responded with the results of his investigation, which was helpful. Then, to my surprise, Prof. Andrew Hardie, who’d guided our CPQ Web adventures via video and provided discussion board feedback throughout the course, replied in detail. He put the article in context and recommended some alternate approaches using corpus linguistics combined with grammatical theory to examine the question of informational vs interpersonal interactions. It was a real treat to see this kind of response; this is what moocs can be at their best.

There’s frequently a negative bias towards data-driven analysis of literary work. I remember reacting strongly to Pam Houston’s exasperation on hearing about “distant reading” (a specific type of analysis using similar technology, as far as I can tell) in her article “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately?” from Pushcart 2019. Rather than replacing close reading – which, by the way, itself was a new technique less than a hundred years ago  according to the Yale Theory of Literature OCW – corpus linguistics and related data-driven methods offer other ways of examining questions of meaning as well as questions of literary history and development.

I’d highly recommend this course to anyone who’d like to think about Shakespeare in a way that’s perhaps different from the hushed reverent tones of traditional literary analysis, and to anyone who enjoys thinking about how language works to convey meaning. I only wish it had been more extensive; perhaps there will be other moocs that continue to explore questions like these.

Cell Biology MOOC (Part 3: The Cytoskeleton and the Cell Cycle)

Course: Cell Biology: The Cytoskeleton and the Cell Cycle
Length: 7 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Iain Cheeseman
Do you think you know how cells grow and divide? Professor Iain Cheeseman will challenge you to see the cytoskeleton in new and beautiful ways. You will explore these structural elements of cells with an expanded toolkit to better understand the dynamic processes that generate incredible amounts of force and regulate function throughout the cell cycle.

The MIT series on cell biology continues with this third installment. Most of the segments covered actin and tubulin: how they form, what their function is, and how that function is examined and the force they generate is measured. The last segment showed how these structures fit into mitosis in the form of mitotic spindles and chromosome segregation.

I think COVID hit this course hard. Prof. Cheeseman, who was also an instructor in part 2 of the series, mentioned at the outset something about fewer people being around, and it appeared he was talking to an empty classroom (except for someone handling AV recording, presumably). I’m not sure why that would be such a confounding factor, but something was off here. Perhaps it was missing support staff, the people who do the diagrams and animations that help explain a lot of the material. I found the lectures themselves to be a paradoxical combination of low-content and confusing. Maybe there just isn’t that much to say about the cytoskeleton; things picked up a lot when we got to the cell cycle.

It could be I just am not interested in actin. I was doing a rerun of biochem at the same time (creating Cerego sets for the material, something I haven’t been doing with the MIT courses, but I think I should because it really helps) and was very into it; then I’d switch to Actin, and I still have only the vaguest idea what actin does.

Tubulin was a different matter, since it’s one of the most visually spectacular aspects of cell biology. First you have the structure, a tube of small proteins, which undergoes a process of deconstruction called catastrophe that looks like an exploding firecracker. Then you have motor proteins that quite literally walk along the tubules, dragging various substances from one part of the cell to another. If you take a look at the video Inner Life of a Cell, the animation is just amazing.

The problem wasn’t Prof. Cheeseman either. He put himself into the course 100%, telling stories of his early days in biology and how he at first thought actin was boring (I could sympathize). He brought pool noodles in to show how sister chromatids were bound together, and socks to demonstrate other chromosomal segregation patterns. Then there were the dance moves he used to demonstrate how different motor proteins “walk” along tubules in different ways.

I appreciated the cell cycle material after the fact, since I started the Molecular Biology series (all about DNA replication, repair, transcription, and regulation) just as this course was winding down, and the cell cycle is an important part of that.

So whether it was distraction, or COVID-related furloughs, or some other factor that made this course one of the less successful ones from MIT Bio, I still can’t complain; their mediocre courses are still quite good. There’s one more course to go in the series, and then I plan to take them all again, putting the material into Cerego which keeps it active in my mind as I review even months down the line. Maybe I’ll find a lot more to appreciate about actin then.

Logic in Tarski’s World MOOC

Course: The Semantics of First-Order Logic
Length: 4 weeks, 5-10 hrs/wk
School/platform: Stanford/edX
Instructor: John Etchemendy, Dave Barker-Plummer
First-order logic is a restricted, formalized language which is particularly suited to the precise expression of ideas. The language has uses in many disciplines including computer science, mathematics, linguistics and artificial intelligence.
We will describe how to write sentences in the language, how to determine when a sentence is true in a particular situation, how to recognize important relationships between sentences, and describe some limitations of the language.

It’s been a while since I took a logic mooc. I still miss the one from the University of Melbourne, which had logic trees and subunits on linguistics, philosophy, math, and a few other things. But that disappeared when Coursera brought up their new platform in 2017. The last time I took a logic mooc from Stanford, I got so depressed I was quoting Stevie Smith on the forums (“I was too far out all  my life, not waving but drowning”).

But I really like logic, so when I saw ClassCentral’s tweet about this, I signed up.

First off, though it’s intended for beginners, I don’t think it’s the best choice for a first logic class. There’s just too much verbiage. Secondly, it’s not the best course for those who wish to audit, since there are very few exercises on this side of the paywall, and logic is, like math, something that requires practice. Third, it requires additional software; a textbook/manual is included, but it’s still not the best choice for anyone who doesn’t have a fairly high comfort level with figuring out how new programs work (since it’s part of the Computer Science curriculum, that was probably a given in the mooc design). Fourth, and I realize this sounds petty but it was somewhat serious, I  had a lot of trouble seeing some of the video material, particularly screen shots of sentences from Tarsky’s World (blurry to begin with, so enlarging only goes so far) and handwritten notes. I was working on a 17” screen; anyone working on a phone would need a microscope.  

On the plus side, the software – Tarski’s World, where all the worlds are named after philosophers – is a pretty cool way to play with and test statements. And, while the forums were dead (the only questions were technical issues, and there was no discussion of the logic at all), it was a pleasant surprise that one of the professors, Dave, was on hand to field problems (I caught some unbalanced parentheses, for instance).

A great deal of empnasis is placed on the idea of what certain statements say about the world, and what’s truth functional and what isn’t, the differences between tautologies, logical truth, tautological consequence and equivalence. This is where all the verbiage comes in. I’m not sure it’s productive, since I still don’t think I actually understand what they were trying to convey.

Still, I found the gold nugget: normal forms, and especially prenex form. But there’s a caveat: I had no idea what prenex form was from listening to the course videos, so I went hunting on Youtube and found a couple of playlists that were very helpful. Once I knew what Dave and John were talking about, I could understand what they were talking about. Since there weren’t many examples (two, in fact, one very easy and one very complicated), I’m going to need more practice, but it looks like there’s some out there. And, let me tell you, putting things into prenex form is the coolest thing since logic trees. Alas, it’s kind of a silly thing to get hooked on, since it’s a means to an end rather than an end in itself, but it is fun.

I probably sound like I didn’t care for this course at all, but that isn’t the case. The FOL-to-English translation exercises reminded me a bit of the first couple of weeks of Keith Devlin’s Intro to Mathematical Thinking (also a Stanford course), which I loved. I think, if I were to take it again, I’d want to pay the $50 so I could find out if the exercises I was doing were turning out right. But the real test is in the follow-up course, “Language, Proof, and Logic”: It seems to cover most of the same territory, but over 15 weeks. Will I dare to take yet another Stanford logic course? Maybe. I have a full plate for the moment, but we’ll see.

Mountain MOOC – with a Class Central Study Group that attempts to recapture the MOOCs of old

Course: Mountains 101
Length: 12 weeks, 18 hrs total
School/platform: University of Alberta/Coursera
Instructor: Zac Robinson, David Hik
Mountains 101­­ is a broad and integrated overview of the mountain world. This 12-lesson course covers an interdisciplinary field of study focusing on the physical, biological, and human dimensions of mountain places in Alberta, Canada, and around the world. Specifically, we’ll study the geological origins of mountains, how they’re built-up and worn-down over time; we’ll learn about their importance for biodiversity and water cycles, globally and locally; we’ll explore their cultural significance to societies around the globe, and how that relationship has evolved over time; and we’ll learn how mountains are used, how they’re protected, and how today they’re experiencing rapid change in a warming climate.
At the end of each lesson, Mountains 101 will also provide learners with some smart tricks — Tech Tips — to safely enjoy time in the high alpine environment: from how to pick the best footwear for hiking to making smart decisions in avalanche terrain.

Short version: An excellent survey course, made truly special by its inclusion in the first open Study Group run by Class Central. One of the most engaging mooc experiences I’ve had – and before this I would’ve told you I wasn’t particularly interested in mountains!

When I have two great things to write about at once, I start tripping over myself. Should I start with the class, or with the Study Group? Pick one – let’s talk about the mooc itself.

What would you think a course on mountains would include? Earth science, geology? There’s definitely a good amount of material on mountain formation, but there are also chapters on the weather and climates generated by mountains and their importance to the water cycle, on the physiological effects of altitude on people as they climb mountains or live at high altitudes, on the flora and fauna that inhabit mountains and how both plants and animals adapt, on glaciers and volcanos and avalanches and landslides and ecology – and on cultural and artistic views of mountains in various places around the world, as well as economic realities. When they say interdisciplinary, they mean it! 

If that isn’t enough, each week included a “Tech Tip” aimed at teaching mountaineering skills: from boots and clothing to camping gear, as well as more advanced advice about not getting lost or falling into the crevasse of a glacier!

And oh and by the way geography: most weeks included a “name that mountain” segment which I found useful since I’m embarrassingly ignorant of basic geography.

The mooc is set up to run over twelve weeks, but each week is fairly short, one to two hours. The quizzes are standard information-retrieval multiple choice, but then there’s that geography segment which is more interactive and engaging. It was completely free in this iteration, so quizzes were graded (yeah, none of that “go ahead and take the quiz and then pay up to see how many you got right” teasing that is both brilliant and annoying).

Now, about the Study Group…

Dhawal Shah, founder of Class Central (a great place to check out all things mooc; I follow them on Twitter to hear about interesting moocs I might want to take, but they also come up with some interesting articles about education and what various platforms are doing, or planning on doing) came up with the idea of a Study Group last year, in an effort to recapture the feeling of the early moocs as described in his April 2021 article. The features he envisioned were: a more cohesive experience with a start date and a weekly schedule; discussion boards that can handle actual discussions (don’t get me started about how Coursera took what was best about their platform and torpedoed it because some study suggested that active discussions were bad for paying customers); and instructor involvement, however limited.

He ran a few Study Groups with a small number of Class Central people as participants, to get a sense of how to best design the feature. I remember feeling quite jealous of Pat Bowden, another of my Twitter follows, when she wrote about her experiences in the beta Group taking a mooc on ancient Egyptian writing systems.

So I was delighted when Class Central announced their first open Study Group would run with the Mountains 101 mooc. It’s probably not a course I would have really jumped at by itself, but I’ve done some Earth Science in the past and I loved the idea of the Study Group. I had no idea how great it would turn out to be.

Instead of running for twelve weeks, we covered three lectures a week for four weeks, with an extra week added on to accommodate both busy people who needed to catch up (that’s called flexibility) and to welcome back one of the instructors who had been on a research project on Mount Logan in the Yukon. The Group was on its own site separate from the course; participants were free to create whatever topics we wanted. I particularly enjoyed the “Favorite Bits from Lecture X” threads, which was just a “hey, I never knew that balloonists were the first to experiment with physical effects of altitude” or “Who knew glaciers cover 10% of land area!” Sharing  articles about topics of interest was also a favorite.

The other fantastic feature of the Group was a weekly live Zoom session with one of the Instructors, David Hik. He’d bring in additional materials about the topics covered, answer questions, and share research. It was a high spot of my week – and it provided a lot of motivation to keep up, and to keep going.

The fourth live session included Zac Robinson, the other instructor, who told us about his trip to Mount Logan. The Mountains 101 Twitter Account sent out regular updates on that project, so we were primed and ready to talk with him about it. He described the process of getting to the summit (with lots of pictures), avoiding crevasses and avalanches, being very cold, and dragging equipment around. One purpose of the trip was for the ice-core scientist to take readings with ground-penetrating radar in preparation for collecting a 200-meter-long ice core next year, a huge undertaking. Another was to place equipment on the summit to both get a GPS read of the exact height of the mountain (it’s shrunk 2 meters since 1999, maybe) and to set up weather recording equipment to monitor changes. We asked the kinds of questions you’d expect: what did you eat? What kind of camera did you bring? And we heard tales of frostnip and solo-climber rescues and snow walls. It was a fascinating session. I’d already confessed that the only mountains I’d ever been on were the kind where you drive to the top in your car and visit the snack bar and souvenir shop, so I was impressed.

The best news is that Class Central, encouraged by the success of this group, will be starting three additional study groups next week for other courses about Excel, Redis, and Happiness. Visit their site to find out more and join up.

Translation MOOC

Course: Working with Translation: Theory and Practice
Length: 4 weeks, 4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Cardiff University/Futurelearn
Instructor: Loredana Polezzi et al
Translation is one of the most fundamental of human activities, allowing us to interact with one another within and across cultures.
Drawing on the research and expertise of specialists at Cardiff University and the University of Namibia, on this course, you will discover a wealth of practical tips and knowledge about the nature of translation in an increasingly multilingual world.
You will explore translation in a global context, and observe translation in healthcare and the justice system as well as in music, manga, video games and historical romances. You may even discover your own ‘inner translator’ in the process!

Somewhat ironically – since I’ve never been able to attain anything like communicative competence, let alone fluency, in a second language – I’m fascinated by translation. In college, I had a blast working on different ways of translating Beowulf into contemporary English, while looking at various literary theories of translation. I also enjoyed learning about interpreting in the Deaf community via a couple of ASL courses I took, and at the same time learned that ASL is not simply signed English but is a separate language with a grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of its own. I still marvel at the translation of a medieval French poem that appeared in the 2014 Pushcart; while maintaining the form of the original, the language reads naturally yet is very close to the original. And then there are also those hilarious mistranslations that make their way to the internet, some courtesy of Penn’s Language Log blog which focuses on East Asian languages.

I’m sorry to say this course didn’t really do much for me. However, I am of the belief that, if you don’t care for a mooc, it’s probably because it was the wrong mooc for you in the first place. This one seems to be more about generating interest in translation as a career, possibly as a subtle advertisement for the translation program at the university. So it had very little to say about translation theory, and a lot to say about the career of translators and interpreters. It’s a fine course for that purpose.

I did find a few topics of interest to me. The first week looked at different words for translation, and what they indicate about the function. Our word translate means “to carry across” but other metaphors include narrative construction, and opening a box.

Towards the end of the  course a Polish translator discussed her work on a Nigerian novel and its prior translation into English. The book has fantasy and folk elements, so the language is somewhat nonstandard in places. In translating that, if she keeps the nonstandard language in order to remain true to the tone and sense of the original, does that seem to make the book seem poorly written? This question of how close to remain to the original is a core question of translation, and is mentioned many times in various ways.

Another interesting aspect is in translating in a medical or legal setting, where the interpreter/translator must remain neutral. A video showed a husband and wife who seem to have different ideas about the wife’s medical issues. Again, it’s an interesting idea. When I took the ASL class, we were invited to ask questions in the first class and I said that the translator seemed to be putting a great deal of energy into some signs, conveying some kind of emotion or emphasis. The interpreter refused to break role and explain, because she was working. Again, it’s the kind of boundary issue that interests me.

And of course there were some humorous translation errors. My favorite was a sign in Wales: the English portion is the typical “Truck must be under x tons to cross” but the Welsh portion said, “I will be out of the office today.” It turns out someone emailed a request for a translation, and when they got an out-of-office reply, they thought that was the translation. That it made it on to the sign itself, which must have taken considerable time and gone through many hands, says something about the lack of curiosity everyone had for Welsh.

While I didn’t learn much about technical or literary translation theory, a lot of interesting questions were raised. Just because it isn’t for me doesn’t mean it isn’t a good course for those it’s aimed at.

K-Phil MOOC: An Introduction to Korean Culture and Philosophy

Course: Introduction to Korean Philosophy and Culture
Length: approx. 12 hours total
School/platform: Sungkyunkwan University/Coursera
Instructor: So Jeong Park
This course will give you the cultural and historical background to begin your journey into Korean philosophy, and there is no prerequisite knowledge on philosophy required. Anybody who either has an interest in Korean culture, maybe through K-Dramas or K-pop, or an interest in philosophy from a cross-cultural perspective, are all welcome….
The Korean cultural, social, and political environment has informed and transformed the intellectual assets of China and the West. You’ll explore the creative tensions that Koreans have experienced, and broaden your worldview as you discover a new philosophical approach.

I know nothing about K-Pop except that it exists (it even shows up in some Duolingo Spanish dialogs) but apparently it’s hoped that some fans will use it as a springboard to study Korean philosophy. That’s cool. Me, I just like philosophy, so when I saw this course was available, I jumped at it.

I expected there would be some carryover from Chinese philosophy, and that was very much the case. The first couple of weeks dealt with how Korea both adapted Chinese ideas, and developed its own writing system rather than using Chinese characters, via mechanisms referred to in the course as adaptive and disruptive innovation. Since I have a longstanding interest in linguistics, I found the writing system’s use of not just familiar concepts of forward and backward placement and vocal mechanisms, but of aspects of Yin and Yang as well as the Five Elements found in East Asian cultures.

History also played a role. The name of the university offering the course became a lesson, as the word Sungkyun was a Chinese loanword that, while it lost most of its meaning in China, became an educational standard in Korea, with the extra twist that it was used for the University during the Yuan dynasty as an act of rebellion. For details, you’ll have to take the course; it’s worth it.

One of the central issues with Korean philosophy – with Chinese philosophy as well – is that of connection rather than opposition. This may start with Yin and Yang, which are not seen as opposites but as feeding into each other. The course focused on reason vs emotion, which in Western philosophy are seen as opposites in conflict with each other. Much of Korean philosophy observes how the two generate and moderate each other, more as a circular spectrum than as separate ideas. We spent some time listening to students discuss the term for mind-heart, Maum, 마음. The Four-Seven debate, concering the moral emotions and the everyday feelings, made up another major philosophic topic, as did the Horak debate about whether animals have morality and if anyone can achieve sagedom. The complexity of the term Uri, 우리, the first-person pronoun, was a major topic as well, as it is not quite I and not quite we but about seeing onesself in connection with others, yet distinct. All of these topics require further investigation; this was merely an overview to introduce the ideas.

The format was what I call “Youtube plus a quiz”: several lecture videos, and sometimes a student Q&A, made up each module, with an information-retrieval test of ten questions at the end. The graded final exam of 25 questions is paywalled; you can see the questions but not submit for grading (or find out if you got the questions right, which is a brilliant way of encouraging the competitive among us to shell out $49.00 for a certificate).

A four-week course can only cover so much, of course, but now that I’m reviewing the material to write this post, I’m surprised at how much was included. The course was designed for absolute beginners in both Korean culture and in philosophy in general, so there’s a lot of unexplored depth, but it still conveyed a substantial introduction. I was quite pleased.

Switching it Up: Instead of Biochem, let’s try Chemical Biology MOOC

Course: Chemical Biology
Length: 6 units, total approx. 21 hours
School/platform: University of Geneva/Coursera
Instructor: Robbie Loewith, Marcus J. C. Long, et al
…[C]hemical biology straddles a nexus between chemistry, biology, and physics. Thus, chemical biology can harness rapid chemistry to observe or perturb biological processes, that are in turn reported using physical assays, all in an otherwise unperturbed living entity.
…We will discuss fluorescence as a general language used to read out biological phenomena as diverse as protein localization, membrane tension, surface phenomena, and enzyme activity. We will proceed to discuss protein labeling strategies and fusion protein design. Then we will discuss larger and larger scale chemical biology mechanism and screening efforts. Highlights include a large amount of new data, tailored in the lab videos, and a large number of skilled presenters.

I’ve often said that one of the drawbacks of moocs is that classes in a sequence can be separated by months or even years. A student enrolled in a biology program at an on-the-ground university would be taking bio and chem classes all the time, allowing for more reiteration and keeping the ideas in active brain storage; if six months elapse between bio classes, I forget what PCR is and have no idea what the RAS pathway is. And suddenly it occurred to me: I can do something about that! Wow, revelation. So instead of waiting around for the next in MIT’s cell biology series, or their continuation of general chemistry, I went looking for related classes. Though I had a couple of retakes in mind, I stumbled across this, and thought it might be interesting. Is there a difference between biochemistry and chemical biology? Turns out, yeah, but it’s a matter of emphasis: in biochem, it’s finding the result; in chembio, it’s figuring out how to get there.

I knew from the start this would be over my head, and boy, it sure was. A couple of lectures were just rivers of words floating by. But that’s one of the benefits of moocs: you can take a class that’s a little beyond your grasp, take away as much as you can, and save the rest as aspirational motivation.

I learned the difference between fluorescence and phosphorescence and all about the Jablonsky diagrams that spelled it out; I learned about membrane tension and the pathway that detects and adjusts for it; I got a good refresh on the properties of amino acids and things like the catalytic triad; and in more general terms, I dealt with assays at a level of detail that was scary. Oh, and plasmids, I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about plasmids. So it was very much worth it, though I often missed entire swaths of material. And, by the way, I passed, which should give someone pause about the utility of passing scores on moocs: I didn’t deserve to pass, yet I did. I put in the work, to be sure – I spent 51 hours on site rather than the 21 hours predicted – but a lot of my answers were the result of test-taking skills,  guessing, and perseverance rather than knowledge.

The more aspirational material, saved for a later time, was fascinating. I’m still reeling at the different ways biological molecules and processes can be examined, both in vivo and in vitro. There’s the SNIFIT which generates one ratio of fluorescent colors when closed, and another in the presence of target molecules which open it. And photocaging, which keeps a molecule inert until activated by light, allowing precise targeting of the process under study. I’m a lot hazier on TREX, GREX and barcoded libraries, but even with minimal understanding they’re fascinating. Then there were uses of my old friends from the MIT Biomoocs SDS-PAGE and Western blots, which now seem a lot simpler.

Besides video lectures by several different professors, there were also several lab segments showing fancy machines and the people who operate them (these mostly went by me), and short Readings explaining individual concepts. Several Practice Quizzes showed up during each module; these required the 80% to pass, but didn’t count in the eventual overall score. They displayed what was right and what was wrong, and could be taken over and over until the desired score was obtained (the “choose all that apply” questions were kind of tricky); I ended up getting 100% on all, not to get the score, but to make sure I had the correct information. Each module also had a Final Quiz, which partly drew on those Practice Quizzes. The Final Quizes displayed nothing except a score for the first three modules; the last three modules displayed whether a question was right or wrong. These could only be re-taken after 72 hours.  I had to retake a couple of them to get to the 80% passing score. And as I’ve said, that was mostly unearned, so I’m not putting any feathers in my cap.

For someone with a better chem baseline than I, this would probably be a great class for looking at these techniques in depth. For me, it was still a great class, just not in the way the instructors probably intended it. But some day I’m going to run across something like barcode libraries again, and I’ll be a little better prepared to understand it, now that I have some idea of where it’s going.

And now I’m going to take some additional chem and bio courses to keep me primed for the new moocs this summer; but now that I’ve had a stretch, I’m going to find something more within my level. Because stretching is great – once in a while.

Chem 1 MOOC (MIT)

Course: General Chemistry I: Atoms, Molecules, and Bonding
Length: 15 weeks, 10-12 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Sylvia Ceyer, Mei Hong, Patti Christie, Alisa Krishtal
This course is designed to build core skills in chemistry, including drawing chemical structures and predicting molecular properties and reactivities, as well as to gain the necessary fundamental knowledge for advanced courses….
This chemistry course is the first in a series of two courses that together cover first-year, University-level chemistry. In this course, you will uncover the principles of chemical bonding, in the way it historically occurred: starting from the first experiments that revealed the fundamental dual wave-particle nature of energy and matter.

Short version: a great, if challenging, way to get back into chemistry.

Here’s the problem with chemistry as a subject: It sounds really cool. We all remember the baking soda volcanos from elementary school, and a lot of us would like to know just what all those ingredients in our shampoo are doing there. Not to mention fireworks and medicines and all kinds of other interesting stuff. But when you come to chemistry class, you get… math. Icky math. Equations with symbols you’ve never seen before, not to mention really complicated radicals and exponents. And sigfigs. Chemistry is obsessed with sigfigs.

But that’s what’s required. Here, the mathy stuff – about half the course – was handled very smoothly, with gradual introductions of more and more complicated elements and recitations (thank Zeus for those recitations) that went step by step through problems to make sure you’ve got it straight. It’s all about energy, speed, distances, and the *#@% Ideal Gas Law, all of which are quantitative. They deliberately avoided requiring calculus, so it’s only algebra; it’s just nasty. But that’s why God made Wolfram Alpha. It’s hard, and there are  some aspects I think I need to go over again, but it’s not out of reach. Prof. Ceyer’s simple-to-complex approach was perfect for me; as time went on, I became more and more appreciative of her, and by the end of the class, I adored her.

I had more trouble with the qualitative material — types of bonds, orbitals, periodic table trends —  much to my surprise. I think part of that was Prof. Hong’s more off-the-cuff lecture style, though I suspect more advanced students would be perfectly fine with it. However, the material is pretty standard and is easily available on Youtube, plus I’d covered most of it in earlier moocs, so it was manageable. If the instructors had been reversed – if Prof. Hong had handled the math and Prof. Ceyer the bonds – I would’ve been sunk.

A Module 0 containing basics of high school science and chemistry was provided; I spent way too much time on that, and so was behind for most of the course. In retrospect, I probably could have skipped the review entirely, but there was no way to know that in advance.  

The course page lists this as an Intermediate course. In spite of the Module 0 material, unless you were really good in high school chemistry, it’s probably not the place to start. But for that, there are other options, like the University of Kentucky chem mooc I took (twice) several years ago. Now that I think about it, I never did take the second part of that mooc; maybe I should, because MIT will be releasing a second part to this course sometime this year. I’m looking forward to it, but I’d like to be prepared. And I’m still hoping they’ll come up with an orgo course one of these years.

Cell Biology MOOC (Part 2: Signaling)

Course: Cell Biology: Signaling
Length: 5 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Iain Cheeseman, Frank Solomon
This is the second cell biology course in a four-part series…. these cell biology courses transition to a comprehensive discussion of biology at an experimental level. How do we know what we know about cells at a molecular level and how can we use that knowledge to design experiments to test hypotheses in cell biology?
….You will embark on a lively journey through cellular signaling mechanisms, regulation, and specific examples and learn how to apply key concepts and themes of this dynamic experimental science to understand the fundamental workings of cells.

Short version: Another great bio class from MIT.

I took the first part of this unfolding four-part series last summer, covering transport within the cell. I wish I’d thought to review it before starting this part, because, while it isn’t essential, there was enough overlap that some refreshing would have been helpful, particularly when it came to assays. But no matter, I’m probably going to take the entire sequence over when it’s complete. For that matter, I’m probably going to take the entire MIT Bio curriculum again, since I feel like I’d do a lot better, and get a lot more out of, the earlier courses now that I’m beginning to feel more familiar with cellular processes and lab techniques. Repetition truly is everything. In a normal university setting, I’d be in these classes all the time, but with moocs, they end up spread out months, years apart, so the accumulation process is slower.

Primarily the course covers various signaling pathways: G-proteins, which send second messengers out to start cascades;  various pathways that use dimerization and autophosphorylation to start a signal; and a few more specific paths, like insulin, epinephrine, and RTKs, and some general cell reactions like the Unfolded Protein Response. As with all MIT bio courses, the emphasis is on experimentation, both historical and contemporary, to discover how pathways work and to confirm or discard hypotheses, rather than on memorizing individual players in each pathway. Thought questions — “how might you verify that X is necessary or sufficient?” — show up frequently, since the idea is to generate the skill of thinking as a scientist. A couple of the features introduced in Part 1 were repeated here (see that course for details): “Neat Experiments” showing how certain features were initially discovered; and Mudslips (a forum for  clarifying points that seemed unclear in the lectures). The forums were active and well-covered by staff, presumably grad students.

The course is labeled as Advanced, but don’t let that intimidate you. I wouldn’t consider myself an Advanced bio student by any means, and while parts of it were difficult, it was at a good level for me. It wouldn’t be the best first bio course; if you’re not comfortable with concepts like ligands, receptors, domains, and the compartments of a cell, it might be better to pick that up first. Since there’s an emphasis on experiments, some familiarity with common procedures — blots, gels, that sort of thing — is assumed. Some review material in experimental design and processes is included, including a very helpful tutorial on Western Blot. While there’s no substitute for actual lab experience – which of course moocs can’t provide – they do a pretty good job of conveying the thought process behind various procedures.

Grading follows the usual combination of after-video questions, unit quizzes, and tests. The audit track (that is, free of charge) includes two tests, as well as after-video questions and weekly quizzes; the third test is for those on the Verified track only ($99).

Someone pointed out in the forums that it can be difficult to understand the pathways one of the professors is outlining, since his lecture style is somewhat erratic due to his enthusiasm (I suspect he’s beloved by in-person students). As compensation, online students have access to Youtube, which covers the pathways mentioned, even if not in the same terms. I found it much easier understand – and enjoy – the lectures about UPR, for instance, once I’d found a couple of Youtube videos that were more straightforward about the actual steps. By the way, this problem is not unique to this course; it comes up in most team-teaching courses, and I suspect it’s deliberate to pair instructors with different styles since some students will gravitate towards each. It’s quite possible more advanced students would prefer a more effusive style, since they’re already on board with the basics.

I’m really psyched about the next installment, coming this summer, covering the Cell Cycle. In every mitosis lecture, there are a couple of checkpoints where “the cell checks to see if everything’s ok before going on to the next step” but I’ve never seen an explanation how it knows whether everything’s ok. Now I get to find out!