Temple, Tabernacle and Medicine: a pair of medieval Jewish manuscript mini-moocs

1) The Tabernacle in Word & Image: An Italian Jewish Manuscript Revealed
2) The History of Medieval Medicine through Jewish Manuscripts
Length: self-paced, each takes about 2 hours total
School/platform: Penn/edX
Instructors: Alessandro Guetta, Y. Tzvi Langermann

1) This mini-course introduces the use of early modern manuscripts for intellectual history—that is, the history of how ideas and the communication of those ideas changes over time…. explore this manuscript, its editions, and how it opens a window into Italian Jewish intellectual life only possible by attention to the physical manuscript
2) This mini-course is a general introduction to both to medieval medicine and to the value of using manuscripts…. [Professor Y. Tzvi Langermann] will not only walk the student through the basics of medical knowledge training and practice in the Jewish Middle Ages and beyond, but he will also show how clues gleaned from the particular elements of a manuscript (such as marginal notes, mistakes, and handwriting) allow us to learn a great deal that we could not have gleaned from a pristine printed version.
(both) No previous knowledge of Jewish history, intellectual history, or manuscript studies is required.

Short version: a terrific pair of lectures for anyone interested in what historians can learn from manuscripts, or medieval Jewish history, science, and culture.

These two mini-moocs aren’t so much courses as they are highly focused single lectures, a little over an hour each, on specific documents and how they reveal not just the content of the documents, but the history and norms of the time. That may sound a bit abstract, but the details explored are fascinating: everything from the interrelations of various cultures in the late medieval period, to linguistic differences, to attitudes towards religious practice.

The first mooc examines a pair of manuscripts describing the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the Tabernacle (a temporary and portable version used before the Temple was built, particularly during the forty years the Hebrews wandered around the Sinai). The second mooc looks at a codex with three different manuscripts on medieval medical practices, and uses these as a way to trace the flow of ideas from Galen to the Islamicate to Europe.

Now, granted, these aren’t “oooh, pretty” manuscripts, the illuminated gospels and breviaries lettered in precise calligraphy. These manuscripts are far more about content than style. But, when examined and described by those who know what to look for, they turn out to be just as interesting as those with artistic flourishes.

Both professors are historians – one of intellectual history, one of medicine – so the focus was on what the manuscripts can tell us about those areas. It isn’t a matter of “in this year so-and-so did this” but a more general history, both in terms of time and scope. For example, as the Talmud had been banned in Italy and bootleg fragments were only intermittently available, different excerpts were added to various versions of the Temple manuscript. While the medical texts list drugs, they do so in Arabic and Hebrew, so marginal notes and end-page glossaries include local dialect vocabularies for practitioners who need to buy these substances from Italian vendors.

One of my favorite segments explored the purpose of documenting the physical appearance of the Temple. The work was an attempt to synthesize a variety of sources into a single description. But why? Prof. Guetta offers three possible factors: the development of “a historical mentality”; a growing awareness of dimensional perspective due to the constant exposure to flourishing Italian architecture of the period, and a reevaluation of the textual description of the Temple in light of that development; or a religious motivation, coming primarily from a specific Protestant group that was more interested in the accurate reconstruction of the Temple as a way to bring about the Second Coming.

I also have to give al-Majusi, a Persian physician, the Bad Timing Award: his comprehensive and beautifully organized medical text, part of the Codex, was considered the ultimate authority, until the renowned physician/philosopher Avicenna came along and wrote an even better text, overshadowing Majusi’s work and pushing him into relative historic obscurity.

These mini-moocs are listed as an advanced course based on predicted audience, but that shouldn’t intimidate anyone who’s interested; the material is very accessible, and all technical and cultural concepts are explained. The medical course is archived at the moment, so the forums are inactive, but all the other material is available. Both lectures are great; the Tabernacle course is slightly more polished, with an artistic lead-in to the videos and varying camera angles, but that’s pretty minor. The lectures are well-organized into specific topics, and images of pertinent sections of the manuscript are embedded in the videos. Links to the complete digitized manuscripts from the Penn collection are hard to find, but they’re there (check the Syllabus).

Grading is based on a few multiple choice questions following each part of the lecture, plus a final covering the basics. Although the forums are inactive for the medical course, the Tabernacle course TA is very helpful and promptly replied to questions and comments. The forums are not terribly active; I’m guessing enrollment is sparse, partly because it’s a niche humanities course in a world obsessed with vocational training, and partly because it wasn’t well-publicized. I stumbled across it by happy accident, in fact.

I almost missed these offerings entirely. edX hasn’t publicized the current Tabernacle course at all (I saw it on a tweet by Class Central), and it was only through the Syllabus that I learned about the Jewish Medicine course. That’s a shame, since they’re terrific. I’ve been a bit of a snob about mini-moocs (I’ve called them “Youtube plus a quiz”) but I have to re-think that. For anyone interested in Jewish cultural history, medieval medicine, or manuscript studies, these are tiny little gems.

Physiology MOOC

Course: Introductory Human Physiology
Length: 10 weeks, 5-7 hrs/wk
School/platform: Duke/Coursera
Instructor: Jennifer Carbrey, Emma Jakoi

The physiologist is going to ask two questions. One is, how does the organ and the organ system work? And secondly, what’s the advantage that this organ system provides to the body? As you go through our course, what you will find is that you will learn all the terms and concepts that deal with specific organ systems. But that importantly you are going to develop a working model to allow you to understand how these organ systems coordinate to maintain life in a constantly changing environment…. You eat a bag of salty potato chips, what happens? You’ve been training for a marathon, how does your body respond? When you’re actually running the marathon, what is happening to your body? And what happens if you maintain a low salt diet?

Yes, I’ve been doing guts again. But, rather than cadaveric dissections, this time formulas and pathways were the focus: how things work, rather than where things are. The material was at the perfect level for me: while there was some review of basic anatomy, biology, and chemistry, it pretty much started where my knowledge starts to thin out, and covered quite a bit. It is intended as an intro to physiology, so there’s a lot more detail left for future explorations. The material offers it as a good review for the MCATs, so that’s probably a good estimate of the level: some background is necessary, but we’re still in undergrad territory.

I was very pleased with the content. The first week covered the fluid compartments of the body, a concept I’d brushed up against, but never really understood, in the MedChem course I took last year. These compartments turn out to be the foundation of physiology: the main job of our organ systems is to maintain homeostasis between intracellular fluid (cell cytoplasm), intravascular fluid (blood plasma), and interstitial fluid (everything else). A general overview of the endocrine system also started things off, since it’s nearly impossible to discuss anything else without the that.

The remaining nine weeks all covered different organ systems. There was a lot of overlap, but it was handled very smoothly. We started with nervous system and senses, then moved into muscles (which of course require some understanding of the nervous system), then heart (which requires some understanding of nerves and muscles)… you get the idea.

The first few weeks were very time-consuming, but those basics became the foundation for later weeks. I started the course a few weeks before the official start date, but time wasn’t a problem. As usual, I spent far more time than was strictly necessary, between entering things into Cerego and finding Youtube materials as supplements.

The lectures were a bit uneven. Some of them were great; others were hard to follow, and at some point became a flood of words. The transcripts weren’t much help in this case since they contained all the hesitations, restarts, half-thoughts abandoned in mid-word, but without the auditory clues to ignore them. However, what was very helpful was a lecture note summary outlining the lecture material. These were at a higher academic level, without a lot of preparation or metaphor to help with understanding, but combined with the lectures I found them invaluable. I wish I’d started using them before the last couple of weeks (stubbornness is my downfall again). Yet, again, I found the content to be great, which made up for any quirks of delivery. Example: I’ve been struggling with the different hormones secreted by the three layers of the adrenal cortex for years now, but one phrase – “salt, sugar, sex” – clarified everything.

I found the quiz material – some graded, some not – to be very well designed. Rather than a recitation of facts, most of the questions asked us to extrapolate from the pathways and processes covered and predict or explain the result of some action. I used Cerego for the rote stuff, but the in-video questions, the post-lecture practice quizzes, and unit exams were excellent opportunities to turn rote into reasoning. Example: “Increased delivery of Na+ to the principal cells of the renal tubule leads to increased…?” I was expecting one answer, but it wasn’t in the list; it took a bit of doing, but I realized another answer was, indeed, correct (and, in fact, turned out to be clearly stated in a lecture, though, hey, I can’t remember everything, y’know). Some units had fewer practice quizzes than others; I missed them terribly. It’s not just that I’m weird and I like taking tests (which, well, yeah, why take a course if there’s no test?), it’s that it really helped point out exactly what I needed to understand better, before getting to the end of the unit.

The forums were sporadic. Staff – including the professors – answered technical questions, but most of the answers were repetitions of the lectures. I didn’t have any questions that couldn’t be answered by searching for a relevant post from past sessions (this course has been running for a while). As far as connecting with other students over a topic of interest, well, that just doesn’t happen any more.

I’ve overall been quite pleased with Duke courses, particularly their neuro and medical options; this one was no exception. At times things could get a bit wordy, but if the goal is to understand the basics of how the body works, this fits the bill very nicely.

Demons and angels and gods, oh my! mooc

Course: Oriental Beliefs: Between Reason and Traditions
Length: self-paced; 8 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium)/edX
Instructor: ~24 instructors

This course takes a journey through the world of beliefs as they have developed in a great variety of cultures, ranging from Ancient Egypt, the Near East to Central Asia, India, China, and the Far East. We will discuss where these beliefs, theories and practices originated from, how they were passed on over the ages and why some are still so central to large communities of believers across the world today, whether it be amongst Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists or Shintoists.
We’ll be dealing with everything from gods and spirits, to angels and demons, to afterlife and the netherworld, as well as the great cycles of the universe and the tremendous power of lunar and solar eclipses. The interpretation of dreams and all sorts of magic and miraculous deeds will also be covered during this course.

Short version: Enjoyable survey course, covering a broad range of interesting topics with a couple of deeper dives towards the end.

I’ve said several times in the past that I tend to have trouble with survey courses, that I prefer depth to breadth. Still, while there were a few “catalog lectures” early on (this god does that, this demon does the other thing), I found many of the units quite interesting – and last three weeks were great.

It’s self-paced, with all material available at the outset. I completed it in about four weeks. The course twitter account sent messages once a week about the course and some of the material covered.

The first week opened with the usual introduction, including geographic and thematic scope and a word about interdisciplinary methods used. I was relieved to find the elephant in the room – the word “Oriental” in the title, which to me felt like fingernails scratching on a blackboard – was addressed in these introductory lessons, with an acknowledgement of the critique leveled in the Edward Said book which tarnished that word for some of us.

However it should be clear that where universities still have “Oriental Studies” as an administrative department of teaching and/or research, such as the Université catholique de Louvain, it has absolutely nothing to do with a lack of sensitivity with regard to the problem just alluded to, and even less to do with a neo-colonial attitude towards the languages and cultures under scrutiny. Instead, the survival of such departments should be understood almost entirely in terms of institutional politics, numbers of students, and budgetary considerations.
While acknowledging the historical fact that Oriental Studies as a discipline originated in these universities in times when an ethnocentric approach was a norm unchallenged by anyone, the “Oriental Beliefs” team is fully aware of the global nature of its audience and we have done our utmost to avoid any kind of “Eurocentrism”, bias or prejudice.

The material was arranged, not by culture or region as might be expected, but by topic: a week on gods, another on angels and demons, then the afterlife, astrology, and magic. I would guess the idea is to get a cross-cultural perspective on these themes. Astrology and alchemy, where so much material was passed via translations and adaptations, was particularly rich in this. I was a bit surprised gods, angels, and demons weren’t explicitly connected across cultures (the nature theme, for example), since it seemed to me there were obvious similarities and differences. I probably should have been more active on the forums to discuss these.

The roster of 24 different lecturers allowed for a great deal of diversity in what was covered and how it was presented. This approach comes with advantages and disadvantages: there’s a loss of connection, since there’s no one instructor (some of us have attachment issues, y’know?), but it also allows different approaches. I had several favorites; whether it was the material, or the presentation, I can’t be sure (that would be a cool research project for mooc learning, by the way). I found the lectures on Buddhism to be nearly incomprehensible (I stuck with my interpretation – Buddha was an agnostic who incorporated Hindu gods as a marketing tool – and moved on), but 23 out of 24 is still excellent any way you cut it.

The graded material consisted of brief quizzes (“training exercises”) at the end of some units, about five per week. Most of the questions were multiple choice; a few were matching or short-answer, one was a self-graded short-answer essay. The final exam counted for 60% of the grade; it covered all seven weeks of material, so I was very glad I used Cerego as a study aid for this course, as I was refreshing my memory on earlier material all along. The material isn’t hard, it’s just that there are a lot of different parts that interrelate, and it’s easy to get them confused.

I greatly enjoyed, somewhat to my surprise, the material on astrology and astronomy, magic, and alchemy, and, even more surprisingly, sorting out the Egyptian gods and theogony (I’ve always been distinctly uninterested in ancient Egypt, but it seems there was a way to intrigue even me). I also found the centuries-long ever-evolving story of the acheiropoieton, the miraculous portrait of Jesus “not painted by human hands”, to be of great interest. I also loved the last week, a more in-depth case study of another continuing saga of a miracle, this one from Coptic Egypt involving the moving of a mountain. Manuscripts got into the act, and, well, manuscripts, what else can I say. I feel like I finally have some understanding of Copts beyond “Egyptian Christians.” That, to me, is the real value of these types of courses: we feel more connected to places we’ll probably never go, places like the Muqattam area of Cairo, Ise in Japan, Armenia, and Georgia. These days, we need all the connection we can get.

It’s a class well worth taking for a broad overview, and a brief glimpse into what more in-depth work might involve, hinted at in the introductory remarks: “Most of the time, in fact, you will be implicitly exposed to methodologies deriving from a variety of fields, including archaeology, history in general, the history of ideas, the history of religions, the history of literature, and the branch of philology called textual criticism or (in a larger sense), textual scholarship.” Oooh, now there’s a mooc I want to take! We got a glimpse of this during the last two weeks, in the tracing of the miraculous portrait and the moving of the mountain. I hope to discover more along those lines in future moocs.

Fat Chance: Counting & Probability mooc

Course: Fat Chance: Probability from the Ground Up
Length: 7 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk (self paced; this session open until October 2018)
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Benedict Gross, Joseph Harris, Emily Riehl

Increase your quantitative reasoning skills through a deeper understanding of probability and statistics.
Created specifically for those who are new to the study of probability, or for those who are seeking an approachable review of core concepts prior to enrolling in a college-level statistics course, Fat Chance prioritizes the development of a mathematical mode of thought over rote memorization of terms and formulae. Through highly visual lessons and guided practice, this course explores the quantitative reasoning behind probability and the cumulative nature of mathematics by tracing probability and statistics back to a foundation in the principles of counting.

My experience with math moocs (I’ve taken about a dozen) has been: it all depends on where you’re starting from, and what kind of instruction/exercises work best for you. This course was perfect for me: it went over some basics I needed to review, and went just a little beyond my comfort zone. Both the “how it works” and the “how to do it” were covered clearly. There was enough repetition to build a kind of security, in both explanation and exercises. An occasional hint of goofiness made it fun. I got lost a couple of times, but plenty of signposts helped me find my way back. Perfect.

The seven units that comprised the course were released two at a time. I see now that each unit was expected to take two weeks (I really MUST start paying attention to introductory material and instructions) but I had no problem completing it all in four weeks. Each lesson, usually three or four per unit, featured a lecture video that gave the basics of the concepts to be covered, showed how important formulas were derived, and ran through an example or two. Each of these lessons was followed by a short set of 2 to 4 practice exercises, complete with an “office hours” step-by-step video, usually showing a slightly different way of working the problem than was presented in the lecture (I could have used a couple more of these in some units, but it was sufficient as is). Each unit ended with an evaluation problem set covering all the lessons of the week. The instructors were all personable and relatable; diagrams helped concretize abstract ideas, and little drawings brought in a little fun.

The practice exercises made up 20% of the grade – and, since they were mostly multiple choice and allowed unlimited attempts, were more or less “gimme” points. The weekly evaluations, also multiple choice but allowing 2 attempts, counted for 80%.

The first two units covered counting. Now, when I was in school back in the Dark Ages, counting meant… well, counting. 1, 2, 3, etc. You were done with it by 2nd grade. But it means more than that now (it probably always did, but way back in the days of yore, nobody thought it mattered). It’s all about permutations and combinations (in this class, referred to as sequences and collections, which is more familiar to programmers) with or without replacement, binomial and multinomial coefficients, x choose y. But it’s all put in very understandable terms: pulling marbles of different colors out of a bag, making anagrams, assigning dorm rooms of different sizes to a group of students.

The third unit covered the basics of probability, which boils down to: success over possibility, with slightly different twists depending on whether you’re dealing with coins, dice, or cards. Then we got into expected value in the fourth unit – why slot machines are a losing game – a topic I’ve seen several times in various contexts. Conditional probability in unit 5 – the Monty Hall problem, election probability – got a little scary but made sense. The sixth unit on Bernoulli Trials was one place I got lost – it was where I completely dropped the ball in a prior class – but eventually I caught on. Normal distribution, likewise, was tricky, but thanks to the Office Hours videos, I was able to work my way through it.

I found this course extremely helpful in my continuing struggle to learn math, any math. I’m still concerned, because my grasp of all this is very context-dependent. For instance, I don’t really see the connection between Bernoulli trials, random walks, and distributions as covered in earlier classes, and as covered here. Maybe that means I just need to get a wider view.

And in that vein, the best part is: there’s more! In July, yet another HarvardX course, Intro to Probability, will begin, and the teaser video looks like a lot of fun (I’m a sucker for any math course that includes good animation). It doesn’t look like it was intended to be a Part II to this course, so I’m not sure how much is overlap and how much is new material, but I’m betting it’s going to be worth it either way. [Addendum: The “Look! Animations!” teaser was bait-and-switch; this was seriously mathy stuff, theorems and proofs and now go figure out what to do with them. I got through the first two weeks just fine, but really, seriously crashed and burned on week 3; week 4 only got worse, so I’m gonna need to find an easier sequel]

Human Rights Philosophy and Theory mooc

Course: Human Rights Theory and Philosophy
Length: 12 weeks, 8-10 hrs/wk
School/platform: Curtin University (Australia)/edX
Instructor: Dr. Caroline Fleay et al

The course commences through exploring the development of the conventional understanding of universal human rights and then moves to critiquing this concept from cultural relativist, postmodern, postcolonial and feminist perspectives. It also examines understandings of human rights from a range of cultural and religious perspectives as well as other contemporary rights issues.

Last year, after completing two of the Louvain international law courses, I started their Human Rights mooc; I dropped it quickly because I was exhausted from all the legal reading I’d been doing. So I was very glad this course came along, a more philosophy-based approach to human rights. While the legalese was greatly reduced, it was a course that took itself seriously, possibly because it’s part of a MicroMasters program Curtin offers in Human Rights. When taken as a Verified (i.e., paying) student, can be used to apply for admission to the degree program (as well as, I believe, earning credit in that Masters program, but check the details for yourself).

Each of the 13 weekly lessons consisted of two or three academic papers, and about 45 minutes of lecture divided into two videos. The videos were mostly voice-overs covering prepared slides (available as a separate download). You could read the transcripts, download the slides, and read the articles without watching the videos at all. The lectures were well-organized and followed the slides very closely.

Grading material took two forms: discussion board posts, which counted for 20%, and two peer assessed essays, which were 30% and 50% each. Verified students had their essays graded by the ad hoc mooc professor who also covered the discussion board. The assignments were very general – basically, sum up some part of the lectures for the period covered – yet the criteria were very specific. Sample essays were provided.

As I said, this course takes itself seriously, and the assignments reflected that: I flunked both essays. That’s not a complaint; because I was taking the course for my own purposes, I wrote about what interested me rather than worrying about criteria. In a less serious course, that sometimes works, but here, not a chance. Be forewarned if you want to take it for credit or as a path to admission: take the sample essays seriously. By the way, though I fell below the 70% pass mark on both essays, the discussion points brought me just barely up to snuff in the end. Be mindful, though, that to use the course as admissions criteria, a higher score is required (80%, I believe).

Week 1 started with a general look at human rights. Week 2 got into Locke, Hobbes, Marx, and all of the usual suspects (I’ve taken several political philosophy OCWs and the same crew always shows up), negative and positive rights. Mary Wollstonecraft was included, which was nice, since all lectures included the caveat that rights, as declared by the “classic liberals”, were for white property-owning men only (Jeet Heer would approve). In Week 3 the process of drafting and approving the UN Declaration on Human Rights was covered, along with its major provisions.

Then we moved into some critiques of the UDHR: particularly from the postmodern, postcolonial, and non-Western views. This was an eye-opening part of the course for me, and while I loved the review of early philosophy, I found weeks 4, 5, and 6 most valuable in terms of ideas new to me. Weeks 7 plus looked at critiques of the Western HR narrative from various points of view: indigenous populations, feminists, LGBTQ activists, the disabled, asylum seekers, and environmental activists.

All of these held interesting material. For example, the indigenous section was taught by Carol Dowling, a professor of aboriginal descent whose twin sister Julie is an artist painting pieces that the experience of the Australian aboriginal peoples and their family specifically. The section on rights for the Disabled included a TED talk by journalist/teacher/comedian Stella Young, who I’ve seen before in several venues; she passed away in 2014. The week on asylum seekers and refugees was heart-wrenching, given the frustration level I and so many Americans feel about our current administration’s refusal to provide more assistance.

I found it a valuable course; the ideas are very much worth understanding. It was, however, a lot more academic and less companionable than some moocs, and may not be the best starting point for some. I’ve often mentioned moocs that boiled down to “Youtube and a quiz”; this was more like “a podcast and two hours of reading you sum up for academic credit.” I wonder if that’s because it has to take itself seriously, in order to be taken seriously by academia; and I wonder if that’s a paradigm that can be changed to broaden the field.

Anatomy, the Yale way (mooc)

Course: Anatomy of the Chest, Abdomen, and Pelvis
Length: 4 weeks, 5 – 10 hrs/wk
School/platform: Yale/Coursera
Instructor: various

This course has two main aims. The first aim is to teach you the language of medicine, and the second aim is to teach you to learn how to reason in three dimensions. Put in a more simple way, we’re asking you to learn how to see and feel what you cannot see.

Short version: These folks aren’t fooling around: if you want a detailed anatomy course without any frills, this is it. For me, it worked fine, but I think there are better options for anatomical novices.

I’d just completed the 16-week Anatomy series from Michigan when I signed up for this. I was hoping for more detail, and boy, did I get it. But there was a downside. This is not so much a mooc – that is, a cohesive course – as it is a collection of videos. Because I spend a lot of time thinking about literature, I started thinking about narrative. This is what happens when a course lacks narrative. It isn’t necessarily deal-breaker – the information is there and, drawing upon experience and using other techniques to stay oriented and motivated, it’s workable – but it certainly is a less pleasant, less engaging experience.

The course consisted of four weeks, each with one or two units: introduction/chest and lungs; mediastinum/heart; abdomen; pelvis and perineum male and female. In general, basic anatomical detail with stylized diagrams was presented first in each unit, followed by detailed cadaveric dissections, often with live clinical or testing procedures interspersed. However, there was little connective tissue, so to speak; no effort to tie anything together, or provide any kind of pathway; the result was some material felt incomplete until much later, and some felt duplicated several times. I can’t say I “enjoyed” the course, but I can say I improved my understanding of anatomy.

I suspect the time estimate for the course – 4 weeks at five to ten hours per week – would be a bit tight for anyone trying to learn the material. It would be possible to pass the course in that time frame; it’s possible to pass most Coursera courses these days without even taking the courses, because you have unlimited tries at the exams. But learning the material? Getting a good picture in your head of what’s posterior to what and how nerves and arteries branch off? Recognizing structures on dissections? I suspect, for most of us who aren’t in medical school, that takes longer. I entered a lot of material into Cerego, so that took a great deal of time, but it also helped with retention (and will continue to remind me for months to come), and I consider it time well spent.

The first unit was a review of various anatomical planes and, with the participation of a live model decorated with markings, identification of external landmarks of various organs. Since this was new to me, I spent a great deal of time on it (I started the course early so took more like six weeks than the official four, but these courses are all self-paced anyway and roll over into the next session without penalty if they aren’t completed by the end date). Several videos covered imaging techniques – x-ray, CT, MRI, and ultrasound – from a light overview of technical foundations to a guide to reading images. It’s kind of a kick to see an MRI on Grey’s Anatomy and know, “Oh, that’s with IV contrast, supine.” And it’s really fun to hear Dr. Bailey refer to the SMA or the IVC and know what that is.

Then came the actual anatomy. While I still have a lot of trouble telling a nerve from a vein from an artery from a tendon on cadaver dissections, in this case the dissection was videotaped rather than photographed, and often proceeded from skin to deepest structures. Several warnings were provided, advising us that “some people find these images disturbing” and requiring an acknowledgement to continue. The chest would be incised, the skin peeled back, the muscles examined, explained, and reflected one by one, the bones sawed through and removed, and the deeper structures pointed out. This was a lot more helpful than an isolated labeled photograph of a dissection. Material also included endoscopic videos from bronchoscopy, upper and lower GI screening endoscopies, cystoscopy, and a laparoscopic gallbladder removal. And if you stick with it to the very end, you can see a penis dissected. Longitudinally, then transversely. I may never eat kielbasa again.

“Digital practical exams” followed each section (don’t worry, it’s not a prostate exam, it’s a kind of “click on the [phrenic nerve/ureter/psoas muscle]” thing off stills from the dissection or procedure videos). I found these quite difficult. First, there’s my difficulty telling a preserved nerve from a vein from an artery from a tendon, and second, the clickable areas were sometimes oddly construed. There was a kind of logic to it once I figured out any given structure; I could relate everything else to it. These tests weren’t graded other than for completion.

Ungraded multiple choice questions ended several of the videos; these tended to show up on the graded unit exams later, along with additional questions. The questions were often difficult, as they involved putting visual concepts into words: what structure is medial to the carotid artery, what’s posterior to the hilum of the lung, how does the piriformis muscle relate to the superior gluteal nerve? This requires having a good mental image of the anatomy, in order to translate it into verbal description. In general, I’d say the testing material was effective at reinforcing learning.

It was a cold class; the only people who appeared were in the first section on physical exam and external landmarks. Everything else was voice over image. I’m not sure if that was deliberate, or just convenient. One of the post-course survey questions was on course engagement, and I gave it a 0. Anatomy engages me; the course did not. I’ve read textbooks that were more communicative. But I’m not complaining; I was here for anatomy, after all. However, I’ve taken Duke’s neuroscience course, which was every bit as detailed and intense, and they managed to maintain a high degree of engagement and even community, so it can be done; it just requires attention to narrative.

Medieval Icelandic Sagamooc

Course: The Medieval Icelandic Sagas
Length: 6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Iceland/edX
Instructor: Hjalti Snær Ægisson, Beth Rogers

The Medieval Icelandic Sagas is an introductory course on the single most characteristic literary genre of Medieval Iceland. Mainly written in the 13th century, the Icelandic Sagas are comprised of roughly 40 texts of varying length.
In this course, you will learn about three Sagas, written at different times, with the aim of giving an overview of the writing period and the genre as a whole. These are Eyrbyggja Saga, Njáls Saga and Grettis Saga. We will explore the landscape and archaeology of Iceland to see how they can add to our understanding of the Sagas as well as take an in-depth look at the most memorable characters from the Sagas.

Short version: Terrific course for anyone interested in story structure, medieval history, contemporary research of medieval sources, or manuscripts. Presentation is sometimes a bit awkward, but the content – and the podcasts – more than make up for it.

I seem to be the only person on earth who’s never read anything based on Norse mythology: No, I haven’t read Neil Gaiman, or even LoTR (so sue me; I’ve always been anti-cool). Shame on me, considering my father’s Scandinavian background (my aunts taught me a couple of words of Swedish and a few recipes: Vetebröd, which I made every Christmas until a few years ago, mandel kakor, and kroppkakor, a potato-meat dumpling I never could get myself to even taste, it looked so gross). But beyond “Babette’s Feast” and “Sophie’s World” I’ve never been particularly interested in the details of Scandinavian culture. So this was all new to me. Well, ok, I knew about Thor and a little about Vikings, but that’s about it.

What really worked for me in this course was the multi-dimensional approach: the sagas as literature, as metaphors for Icelandic events, as sociocultural apologias, and as physical manuscripts. The purposes of the stories, the themes in various times, and the social forces affecting their popularity and remembrance all came into play. For a six-week course, they packed in a great deal, yet the reading was surprisingly limited. While we were, of course, free to read the sagas discussed in their entirety, the course focused on specific sections as exemplars of various points; individual chapters or short groups of chapters were the only assigned reading.

Each week included brief video lectures, written material (often in graphic layout), one or two interviews with an academic with particular expertise in the issues being examined, and a few ungraded “knowledge checks”. Graded material included and a weekly quiz for weeks 1-5 (totaling 40% of the final grade), the final exam (30% of the final), and three Peer Assessments, one every other week (30% of the final grade). I’m always a little anxious about peer assessments, but these were relatively simple and the grading criteria were open-ended and thus forgiving. I found the first one particularly helpful in getting the material organized in my head for better retention; the third one was basically a fun exercise.

And yes, since there were a lot of unfamiliar names, and since this was material I want to retain long-term, I used Cerego, so I’ll be getting questions about “Handing Grettir Around” periodically over the next year (you’ll have to take the course to see why that’s such a delightfully amusing prospect). This was particularly helpful when the final exam rolled around, since I’d been seeing the material at various intervals all along.

A special treat that I almost missed entirely: As a supplement to the course material, the two instructors recorded a podcast at the end of each week. I wish one of these had been available at the beginning; where in the lectures and interview, Hjalti seemed well-meaning but stern and a bit stiff (partly due to “I must appear academic” syndrome, I’d guess, and partly due to the read-lecture-to-camera that so few profs can pull off), in the podcasts he and Beth came across as real people, and delightful, fun people at that. Because manuscripts are of particular interest to me, I found the W2 episode most helpful with course material, but later episodes were great fun, featured saga/Viking re-enactors, musicians, craftspeople, and a host of off-the-cuff topics (such as reactions when people hear Beth’s dissertation is on dairy products in Scandinavian literature. Turns out, skyr is pretty interesting, and I wish Iceland luck in promoting it as a substitute for Greek yogurt (if they can produce a fat-free, sugar-free, 80-calorie, 12-grams-of-protein, fruity version for under $1 a serving, I’m in). I discovered the podcasts a bit late, only after Week 2, and they made a huge difference in my perception of the course as a whole.

I wish there had been a “preview podcast” available from the start in the course material; I think I would have had an easier time with Week 1, a general introduction to Icelandic sagas. I found this week to be the most difficult, probably because I had no background to rely on. I briefly considered giving up at some point, but I really wanted to get to W2, which focused on manuscripts. I had more background here and was able to get a better footing. From there I was hooked, through weeks on the role of landscape in the sagas, how women were portrayed, the depictions of paganism and the Church and the importance of the conflict during conversion, and the supernatural in the sagas.

The forums were active and well-supported, with questions suggested for each week. I asked a few outside questions (some of them clearly outside the course material). When it worked, it was great: I asked about the “missing rubric” mentioned in a lecture, and Beth went out of her way to bring Robert, the resident manuscript expert, to the boards; I ended up with a lovely example. The course also had a Facebook page, but since I gave up on Facebook way way back when they decided they could manage my feed better than I could (and have no desire to start again, given the disclosures of recent weeks), I missed out on that.

I greatly enjoyed all of it. I feel like I’ve made new friends with poor, misunderstood Grettir, with the merciful Þorbjörg, the chieftain’s wife who saved him from hanging; with Flosi, who avenged the death of Hildigunnur’s husband when she whetted him with the bloody and then suffered from enormous guilt and pain; with Thorgeir, the pagan chieftain who lay under a skin blanket at Alþingi for a day and a half before agreeing to the Christianization of Iceland, then threw his pagan statues into Goðafoss, the waterfall of the gods. I loved learning about things like the Gráskinna, the “ gray skin” manuscript with the sealskin cover that, through subtle changes, makes Hallgerður more sympathetic to the reader; about the contemporary researchers like Jesse Byock, who excavated Mosfell in search of clues about Egils saga, and Emily Lethbridge whose SagaMap plots locations from the different sagas.

I’ll miss them all, and I’m glad I got to know just a little bit about Old Norse, Iceland, and their sagas. And, of course, I can revisit them any time, just by opening a window.


Course: Anatomy (4 course series)
Length: self-paced; 4-8 weeks per course, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Michigan/edX
Instructor: Kathleen Alsup, Glenn M. Fox, Kelli A. Sullivan

What You’ll Learn:
Learn the foundations of basic human anatomy for every major organ system and the relationships between systems
Understand the major functions and significance of each system, particularly from the perspective of a future healthcare worker
Learn the relevance of organ system features in wellness and pathology
Understand how to engage in the study of anatomy from a system-based approach

Short version: I love anatomy and medical stuff, so I’ll read the back of a cereal box if it has a diagram of an organ on it (which would be really weird, btw). So I jumped on this self-paced four-course series. It wasn’t my favorite medical mooc, but I finished all four sections over about six months and fleshed out (sorry!) some of the fuzzier ideas I had from previous materials by using the course as an outline and exploring materials elsewhere, rather than relying on the materials included.

I’ve taken four prior anatomy moocs – Leiden’s course on the abdomen and pelvis, Louvain’s respiration mooc, Penn’s “Out on a Limb” covering all the structures involved in the shoulder and arm, and the encyclopedic Medical Neuroscience course from Duke. This latest suite of courses from Michigan had the advantage of covering everything in four separate but related courses; it had the disadvantage of being less engaging than the other courses. As a result, I watched the videos, then went off on my own to understand the material covered, making sure I had a reliable source, and that the information was the same as given in the course. I found The Noted Anatomist and Anatomy Zone particularly useful.

It’s one of the Xseries Programs, which means that when you go to the page linked above, you’ll find a price of $179 quoted for the group of four courses. But don’t be scared (at least not yet; the time is a-comin’…). It’s true, you can pay $179 and, assuming you pass the courses, get a Certificate and whatever benefit that affords you, but you can also take the entire thing for free, as I did.

Most of the graded material was in the form of short multiple choice questions, but several units also made extensive use of labeling cadaveric dissections. I have a terrible problem “seeing” anything in cadaveric dissections. They certainly have their purpose, since diagrams make things a little too neat and orderly in the interests of clarity, and they’re essential for anyone who’s going to be doing actual dissection (medical students, future anatomists). But the images – everything desiccated and monotone yellow – are incredibly hard to decipher without a diagram, or prior knowledge, to understand what is shown. Add to that the shrinking of the images necessary for packaging in the video, and I found them pretty useless. Other options, however, are limited. “Live dissections”, filmed during surgical procedures, are very rare at this level (there were a few in the Leiden course). Anatomical artist Frank Netter has made some extraordinary diagrams that bridge that gap, but those are protected by copyright and thus might be expensive (or impossible) to include in a mooc (the Penn course managed, but that’s Penn). Fortunately, there’s a wealth of material out there, and sometimes a casual hand-drawn diagram – or a video using 3D software to recreate structures – was just what I needed to understand how things worked together.

I found the Neuro course to be my favorite of the four, probably because I really like brain stuff. I finally feel like I have some understanding of the internal capsule, and subcortical white and gray matter in general. I learned a few more acronyms (“Two zebras bit my cupcake” for the branches of the facial nerve), and did a lot of detailed work on the cranial nerves. The cranial nerve nuclei were not part of this course, but I reviewed them anyway. I still don’t quite get the hippocampus, since drawings showing the separate layers seem to be completely different from the diagram of the external structure and I don’t understand how they relate, but that’s ok, next time.

And of course, Cerego played a central role in this course, since definitions and diagrams are right in their wheelhouse. I’m going to be editing these sets for a while, since sometimes I would capture something that turned out to be less than useful later. I need to re-do the branches of the thoracic aorta, for instance; I need to approach it more systematically, starting with the main branches and adding layers, rather than just using a huge diagram containing everything but the kitchen sink. I took the more top-down approach with the abdominal aorta, and it worked out quite well. Oh, and thanks to the GI system course, I think I finally understand the portal system. For some reason, I didn’t have it together for the bone course, so I’ll have to put bones in Cerego at some future time.

I always feel bad when I’m less than enthusiastic about a mooc, because, of course, opinions are subjective; I’m sure a lot of people find this series to be exactly what they need and are thrilled with it. Smart and talented people put a lot of work into these things and I’m grateful they’re out there; I need the course structure that even the best Youtube channel doesn’t provide. I did find it a valuable outline for learning. But there must be a better way to teach anatomy – or maybe, providing an outline, and letting students create their own learning (a term I hear over and over again in the context of math classes) is the best approach. As a preparation for further anatomical study, it’s probably as good an option as anything online. And for anatomy geeks, it beats cereal boxes with pictures of organs on them by a mile.

Arab-Islamic History mooc

Course: Arab-Islamic History: From Tribes to Empires
Length: 9 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Miri Shefer-Mossensohn
You and I are about to embark on a journey through 1,000 years of history. This is a pre-modern case of global history, spanning three continents and the lives of millions. We’ll visit some of the sites where historical events occurred. We’ll learn about regimes; we’ll learn about people– men, women, children, who walked the streets of the Middle East. We’ll be accompanied by some of the best scholars of the pre-modern Middle East– colleagues from Tel Aviv University and from other institutions here in Israel, the US, and the UK. You’ll have ample opportunities to enter the historian’s lab and have hands-on experience in playing the historical detective yourself by reading excerpts from historical works and looking at paintings, artifacts, and buildings. These will allow us to piece together a picture of the past– the stories of individuals, their lifestyles, their common perceptions, their customs, and allow us, eventually, to explain the profound changes in political organization, in social interaction, and in religious affiliation.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve taken several courses touching briefly on the history of various pieces of the medieval Muslim empire. This one was a lot more focused and a bit more extensive, and I finally feel like I’m beginning to get it. I still have trouble keeping all the threads straight, since a lot was going on in a lot of places – the Arabian peninsula, the Levant, Iran, central Asia, north Africa, Iberia – among a lot of people – Arabs, Samanids, Buyhids, Fatimids, Andalusians, Seljuks, Berbers, Mamluks, Sassanids, Persians, Mongols – and much of it overlaps as groups assimilate, migrate, conquer, or get conquered. But I feel like I’ve made a solid start, and since I created a Cerego set for the course, I’ll be reminded of all of it from time to time and will retain at least the basics of who, what, when, where, why.

The course begins with five weeks of history, starting from Mohammed and moving to the entry of the Ottomans. Yes, there were leaders and battles and invasions, but there were also little family dramas that played out in political reality, along with dramas of how that political power was legitimized and exercised across an empire consisting of many different groups, and the ways in which the empire maintained unity. Then we looked at cultural aspects: how people lived, religious details, the Translation Project, and the flourishing of arts and sciences in the Middle East, while keeping in mind the interplay between history and culture.

Each week featured a variety of learning media: Video lectures, of course, but also written documents, punctuated by beautiful manuscript illustrations (and available as PDFs for those, like me, who want to copy everything so we can refer to it forever), and interviews with a variety of academic specialists. All of these were followed by brief, ungraded knowledge checks which are useful for highlighting central points. A graded quiz finished off each week.

I was impressed by the final exam, which was weighted at 60% of the final grade. Most of it was information retrieval, but the context of the questions made it a bit more of a challenge than just a rephrase of the material, and several questions required combining individual facts. I even discovered two errors in my Cerego cards thanks to the final – which makes me worry: how many more errors lurk unfound?

A unique feature of the course was the ungraded Historian’s Lab. Each week, a source document (in translation) or artifact was provided, along with some questions relating to the week’s topic for forum discussion. I was a bit lost here, and very intimidated by the evident expertise, so I didn’t add anything but gained some insight from comments of other students, sometimes confirming and often expanding my initial impressions. It’s a handy way to provide an extra challenge in the course, since most moocs have students at every level from absolute novices to accomplished scholars.

I of course was drawn to the manuscripts and descriptions of the different scripts used over the centuries, though this was a very small part of the course. I smiled throughout at the pseudo-animation of various manuscript illustrations, sometimes a collage of separate images, with slight movements and sound effects running over the lecture. Because I follow several medievalists on Twitter, I sometimes see images from Arabic, Persian, or Turkish manuscripts; a week ago Emily Steiner (@PiersAtPenn) tweeted images from the Book of Kings, which we just covered this week. Combine that with Peter Adamson (@HistPhilosophy, of HoPWaG fame) being in a non-Western philosophy phase at the moment and retweeting a photo of a contemporary statue of Avicenna from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, just yesterday, and I’m really glad I took this course. In fact, I’m ready for more!

Shakespeare Matters MOOC

Course: Shakespeare Matters

Length: 5 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Adelaide/edX
Instructor: Dr. Lucy Potter et al

In this introductory course, you will learn how Shakespeare uses emotion in his plays, how his characters experience and manipulate emotions, and how the emotional resonance of the plays makes them powerfully relevant to the modern world.
As you follow and engage with the emotional journeys of characters in tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy, and history; you will discover patterns of plot, action, and speech that will help you appreciate, understand, and discuss Shakespeare’s plays.
Each week of the course will focus on a different emotion. You’ll cover the range of emotions found in Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, The Winter’s Tale, and King Henry V.
This course includes interactive activities, and interviews with a range of people engaged creatively and professionally with Shakespeare’s plays. You’ll be encouraged to interpret Shakespeare in your own way – to find ‘your Shakespeare.’

Short version: As I read the description above, I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed working it, and by how much I learned. Five plays in five weeks sounds crazy, but it turns out it can be done quite nicely, and this course shows how.

I knew it was a one-play-a-week course, and, at 2-3 hours a week, I figured things would be pretty sparse. While it wasn’t as detailed as the Wellesley courses from last year, which went page-by-page through four plays, it turns out the close focus on two speeches per play served as a very nice platform for covering a wide range of poetic and dramatic devices. I’m also historically somewhat suspicious of phrases like “find your own meaning” as it typically indicates there’s no content, but there was plenty of content here; yet there was ample room for bringing in personal associations and impressions. I participated more in the forums than I have in any course for quite some time, and found that quite rewarding, as there was both staff and student interaction.

The basic plot of each play was outlined at the beginning of the week; reading or watching each play was not required (or even encouraged beyond the obvious value). Because the focus was on emotion, other faculty was drawn in, including Matt Dry of the Psychology department who explained the physical, cognitive, and behavioral interactions of emotions, and Brid Phillips from the Center of Excellence for the History of Emotions who studies the emotional context in older literature, including Shakepeare. But literary structure was on the menu as well. The course compared various forms of speech in the plays (prose, blank verse, poetry) and how each differed in style as well as detail.

The material included a variety of forms: lectures, interviews, and readings. Graded assignments were equally diverse: brief quizzes, discussion questions for the Forums, and a final self-graded Assignment inviting a personal interpretation of one of the speeches. I generally dislike what I refer to as forced-posting; counting discussion forum posts as graded items on questions with narrow focus. Here, for some reason, it worked very well for me. I think that’s partly because I found I could respond to the questions posed without even trying; they were questions I wanted to answer (in most cases; I did skip a few). It might also be because the response from staff was very prompt and encouraging, and other students also interacted, all of which made me feel like I’d made a contribution. It helped that I’d studied the first few plays in other courses so was more comfortable with the material, but maybe it was just my mood at the time. In any case, I greatly enjoyed that aspect of the course.

My favorite week was The Winter’s Tale, a play I haven’t encountered before; the themes of repentance and forgiveness always work for me. I was also greatly surprised at how much I enjoyed the week devoted to Henry V; I’ve always avoided the history plays, but they managed to find a couple of speeches that might turn out to be ways in for me. And it helps that it’s one of the plays featured in a Star Trek: TNG episode. Throughout the course, I should say, I was the “bearer of low culture”, bringing in television, songs, and movies. It’s a role I greatly enjoyed, and no one seemed to mind – but then, in a course where the lead instructor shows off her Shakespeare Rubber Duckie (to quack, or not to quack) and Lady Hamlet Guest Soap (out, damned spot) how could they mind?.

I highly recommend it for those who haven’t read much Shakespeare or haven’t really found it that enjoyable; the narrow focus on specific scenes and emotions, rather than an onslaught of information about every aspect of the plays, might be the way in for you. And for those who’ve been around the plays a bit more, you might find some interesting tidbits as well; if nothing else, you have a chance to strut your stuff.

Viral MOOC

Course: Viruses & How to Beat Them: Cells, Immunity, Vaccines
Length: 8 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Jonathan Gershoni

Have you ever wondered what viruses actually are?
Have you been curious about the ways they invade our bodies, attack our cells and make us sick? Come and learn what viruses are made of and understand the mechanisms of how they hijack and take over our cells.
There is no need for a background in science – just bring your curious mind!

Short version: Well-done introductory course beginning with a broad overview of biology basics, then focusing on pathogens and the immune system, particularly as it interacts with viruses. Great visuals, interesting but plain-language interviews with some serious heavy-hitters (like Nobel laureates David Baltimore and Bruce Beutler, and Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the HIV virus), and a friendly style make this particularly accessible and, yes, fun.

This is another of those courses that just popped into my inbox out of the blue a few days before it opened. I was debating whether I wanted to re-start MIT’s 728 series on DNA, so I thought this might help make up my mind (it did: I just don’t want to work as hard as 728 demands, right now). It served as a nice refresher of the basics, from chemistry to cell bio to DNA to immunology, ending with a rational look at vaccines (spoiler alert: scientists are for them). It wasn’t quite as virus-specific as I’d expected, but, first, as an introductory course, some preliminary material was necessary, and second, seating the virology in a network of other concepts makes sense.

Each week included lecture videos with ungraded “test yourself” questions, and a lab demonstration or interview on a pertinent topic. A summary lecture, complete with concept map (which I greatly appreciated) finished off the week’s material. A live Q&A session, inviting student questions through the forum and participation through a software portal, took place around week 4. Since participation required downloading something, I didn’t attend, and no video has yet been released for us slowpokes so I have no idea how it was, but the question thread was booming so I’m hopeful.

Graded material included weekly quizzes, a midterm, and a final, with the final heavily weighted. At first I thought of the questions as standard information retrieval, but there are definite shades of meaning in there that require some interpretation and extrapolation. Every once in a while, a congratulatory GIF would pop up when a question was answered correctly; this generally scared the bejesus out of me, showing once again that I really need to calm down.

This is the 3rd of 4 courses I’ve taken in the past couple of months from IsraelX, a group of several schools; that’s kind of a brilliant idea, I’m surprised other countries haven’t done this. I’ve enjoyed each of the courses I’ve taken, and found them very helpful to understanding the various fields (which range from design theory to bio to religion to history). Although most of the rest of their 11 courses on the schedule are outside my areas of interest, I’m hopeful I’ll be learning more from them soon.

Intro to Kabbalah MOOC

Course: Introduction to Kabbalah
Length: 5 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Boaz Huss, Yoed Kadary

This course will introduce you to the major ideas and practices of the Kabbalah from an academic point of view.
The course will examine basic Kabbalistic themes such as the theory of the Sefirot, ecstatic and prophetic Kabbalistic techniques, reincarnation, demonology, and practical Kabbalah. It will introduce major Kabbalistic works and movements, including the Sefer ha-Zohar, Lurianic Kabbalah, Hasidism, and the contemporary revival of popular Kabbalah….
The aim of this course is to introduce students with no background in Kabbalah or Jewish thought to the major ideas and practices of the Kabbalah in their historical and cultural settings. The ideas are presented in an accessible manner without jeopardizing the course’s academic rigor.

I skipped my usual preview-of-coming-attractions post this quarter, partly because a lot of classes seem to pop up all of a sudden without a long lead time. Like this one: I found out about it via an edX email days before the course started. It was a subject that interested me, so sure, I’ll play.

I’ve been aware of Kabbalah for decades, both from its mention in popular books and movies to reading a bit more about it in general-readership books on Judaism, like The Jewish Book of Why, but I never knew any of the details, or why some Jews studied it and others didn’t. Then the Beautiful People (aka Madonna) started doing Kabbalah and felt kind of pissed off, that it was being turned into something more like Scientology than something a yeshiva bocher might want to learn when he finished the Talmud. Turns out there are different kinds of Kabbalah, and some have little or nothing to do with Judaism – or religion, or philosophy – at all.

The first few weeks of the course covered the basic components of Kabbalah: the structure of the divine, how the Sefirot came into being, and how all the parts of the divine structure interacted with other parts and with humanity. This was kept academic, as promised; there were mentions of specific practices that could be involved, but they were only general descriptions. Then we moved into a more historical survey of the different schools of Kabbalah that sprang up in the late medieval period, the Renaissance, and in the modern period, as well as contemporary approaches to Kabbalah which move away from contemplation of the nature of the divine into more of a focus on self-help.

The basic theology of it all is fascinating, as was the history of the development of different Kabbalistic practices under different leaders in different times. A fair amount of the terminology was in Hebrew (in Roman orthography; no, we didn’t have to learn to read Hebrew, that would’ve been insane). It took some time and some effort, but now terms like Sefirot, Zohar, zimzum, and En-Sof kind of roll right off my tongue. Cerego was again very helpful.

Each week included a set of lecture videos, each one followed by a short quiz, and a Reading exercise in which a passage studied in the lecture was presented with multiple choice questions. A truly comprehensive final exam finished out the course, another reason I was glad I’d used Cerego, as I was still getting relevant material daily. The first six lessons were released two per week, which was a pretty brisk pace, but the remainder over Christmas holidays released once per week which was a lot more relaxed.

I greatly enjoyed the course, and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning something about the underpinnings of Kabbalah, rather than a specific practice; even at the basic levels, it’s a fascinating subject. As a neophyte I found it well-designed for beginners, with enough repetition and visual reinforcement to help with learning the necessary terms and concepts.

Design MOOC

Course: Design Theory
Length: 6 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edx
Instructor: Various

The first of its kind, this course is a pioneering exploration of theories of design theory. Much of the way we interact as a society springs from design and is influenced by it.
The course offers an in‐depth exposition of prime concepts in contemporary design theory. It looks to ask and answer questions such as: What is design? How is design related to the histories of culture, economics, and the arts? What is the role of design? What is the responsibility of the designer? What is creativity and how its use in design propels the development industry and technology? How is design related to contemporary markets and industries?

I have a notoriously hard time with courses that focus on creating visual presentations, either artistic or informational. So I approached this with some trepidation. But with a couple of exceptions, this isn’t a design course; it’s a philosophy course. In fact, the final wrap-up video used Paola Antonelli’s term “interior philosophers.” That’s fine by me.

The first lecture of each week tended to be very abstract and theoretical. As in:

However, formalism classifies design as primarily an aesthetic phenomenon. It considers design as part of the aesthetics domain of reality, which accordingly should be analyzed as such. The Design Object, according to formalist philosophy of design, is mainly an aesthetic object, whose essence is an aesthetic form. Its essence is its composition and appearance, the rightness of its structure, and the way its elements are combined and related to each other. In that respect, formalism is a materialist classification of design.

~~ Lecture, Week 1

Even though philosophy is, theoretically, my comfort zone, this required some parsing. As the week moved on and more concrete examples came into play, the first lecture of the week would become more relevant. I was often surprised – pleasantly! – at the directions some of the initial lectures took. Though I might not have been sure at a few points along the road, in the end I enjoyed this course. And I think I learned something – even though art, like math, often seems like something I just never quite understand.

Some highlights:

• An interview with Professor Yarom Vardimon on his earliest artistic influences, and his work on such projects as the 50th anniversary of Yad Vashem (how do you design a celebration that the word “anniversary” implies, with the events commemorated?) and a children’s hospital: colorful lights, toy shapes lining the corridors with names of donors, a bright and open entrance. Always present in his approach was his own experience.


• Design as a way of reinforcing, or challenging, social norms and expectations. This ranged from toys (which can restrict play to what is expected by the designer, and is reflected in the parent’s choice of the toy, or can allow creativity to use the toy in unexpected ways) to water bottles, which we evaluated on various criteria (turns out, I was on board with masculine and feminine, but I seem to have no idea what erotic, expensive, cheap, or comfortable look like).


• Design not only communicates from designer to user, but from user to society. Eyeglasses have become fashionable, conveying less of “something’s wrong with his eyes” to “wow, she must be smart” or “those glasses are awesome”; why not other assistive devices? Why can’t walkers and wheelchairs come in colors, to make them look like fun gizmos instead of something old people use? Prosthetic leg coverings are available in superhero styles; eye patches can be decorated.


• Harvard mathematician George David Birkhoff came up with ways to quantify aesthetics, both visual and linguistic. I have a lot of knee-jerk issues with this, but it’s an intriguing idea. For all our protestations that aesthetics is separate from rationality, it might not be quite so cut-and-dried (no, do NOT tell me about the golden mean and the Parthenon, I’ve been successfully inoculated against that by the best mathematicians around).


• Philosopher Walter Benjamin. What made this a highlight of the course was the purely coincidental and near-simultaneous appearance of a short story I was reading from the Pushcart Prize volume that rather overtly used Walter Benjamin’s aesthetic theories (and Hegel’s, though he didn’t show up in the course). There’s a reason I keep taking these courses. When I run across simulacra and grey-eyed goddesses in short stories, I have some idea what to make of them.

In addition to lecture videos, the course used a variety of participatory materials. Each week, a poll question started things off, a sort of priming mechanism that touched upon some aspect of the concepts to be covered. Short quizzes followed lecture sequences. Activities like the water bottle evaluation, and associated discussion questions, also contributed grades. The final week included a quiz that turned out to be a comprehensive final exam; I was a bit taken by surprise since it was embedded in the week 6 material (it was labeled “Final Exam” so I need to pay better attention). It was somewhat more difficult than the shorter weekly quizzes sometimes requiring making fine distinctions between elements of a theory, but once my pulse rate went down I found it to be an excellent summary of the material.

For me, the course was a great success. I was worried that, because I’m not in the field of design and am hampered by my art-blindness, I wasn’t “getting it”, but the final video, a casual discussion amongst three of the instructors, reassured me:

You know what I would like? That people who were finishing this class, this course, that maybe they go outside now to the world and start looking at those signs, and cars, and buildings, and spaces, and suddenly start thinking about what meaning they have in their lives, and how they are interacting with all these environments in a very interesting way, in a very intense way, something that maybe was a natural thing, transparent almost. It suddenly becomes more visible.
And more reliable. So also understanding that the objects that we use are not separate from us, and the technologies that we use are not separate from the way that we think of ourselves. And they actually in many ways construct our psychology and our self-perception as human beings, as we saw, and as individuals. So it’s extremely important that we understand what actually constructs our identity, if we are to preserve any type of agency, in a world that is technologically enhanced.

Turns out, I got it just fine. In fact, this extends my prior interest in advertising imagery to pretty much everything constructed by people: why was it made the way it was made? What is it trying to tell me? Do I have to listen? Do I want to? I can’t tell if I don’t hear it in the first place, and this course is an excellent way to start hearing what objects are saying.

Global History of Architecture mooc

Course: A Global History of Architecture
Length: 12 weeks, 8 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Mark Jarzombek

How do we understand architecture? One way of answering this question is by looking through the lens of history, beginning with First Societies and extending to the 16th century. This course in architectural history is not intended as a linear narrative, but rather aims to provide a more global view, by focusing on different architectural “moments”….
…Why study the history of architecture? Architecture stages cultural dramas. Buildings, in that sense, are active, designed to do something. Different buildings activate their surroundings in different ways. We go to history to see how these experiments were done.

To call this course “The History of Architecture” does it a disservice, since it’s a history of so much more – of cultures, religions, trade and commerce, and, as we go from the first indications of human modifications of the environment, from the 70,000-year-old ochre and beads of Blombos Cave in South Africa, to the pre-Holocene peoples of Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Rim, through the Bronze and Iron ages to Classical civilizations, across the innovations of Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern peoples reaching the European Gothic and Renaissance periods via trade, to the exploitation of New World peoples by Old World commerce, the history of our brilliance, our goodness, our stupidity and cruelty, our human-ness. It’s really quite amazing, how much is packed into these twelve weeks.

I’ll admit, I was a bit confused at first – I never expected lemurs to lead off an architecture course – and I wondered if it had simply been mistitled, and should be Archeology or Anthropology. But that was ok, too, it was interesting whatever it was, and eventually I caught on to the point: our skyscrapers, our political systems, our religious belief and the way we furnish our houses, all that proceeded from that paleolithic cave. Somewhere in the last four weeks, the quote above about cultural dramas and activating surroundings appeared, and I fully realized the value of this approach. I do think an introductory video would be a big help, however.

I’m beginning to understand that the term “architecture” encompasses more than buildings. The arrangement of places for various activities – sleeping, eating, burials, ceremonies – was prevalent in some of the early discussions of First Societies, the earliest examples of people living in groups, today exemplified by the !Kung (or San: yes, like the guy from The Gods Must Be Crazy). Yet many of their customs are still with us: eating together, forming circles, rituals for coming of age and hunting (or, as we’d put it, going to work). Prof. Jarzombek is a specialist in First Societies, so we spent a fair amount of time with the Gravettians and the Magdalenians, noting the differences between the two.

I’ve taken world history courses that didn’t cover history as well as this course, in terms of the big picture. Where were the most active population centers, and why? What beliefs, available materials, and situational needs motivated the culture and thus the architectures? Climate changes and environmental upheaval such as earthquakes changed trade routes, motivated invasions and migrations, and offered or shut down trade. It was all fascinating, one long story of people moving around, adapting to new conditions. Yet some major world history events were ignored: The Crusades, for example, are not mentioned. Sometimes the timeline got a little blurred, since there was necessarily some back-and-forth as the focus switched geographical areas (and I assume there’s a “Part 2” course that picks up where we left off, but that hasn’t made it to moocland yet). I felt like I understood the general flow of human history much better by the end of this course, and once I got used to the presentation style (it took a couple of weeks), I had a great time.

And then of course there were buildings, plenty of buildings. Stonehenge, pyramids, Angkor Wat, the basilica of St. Peter, the Hagia Sofia and Dome of the Rock were all featured, but there was a great deal besides: the coastal villages of the Haida, the Maasai in Kenya and the Hammer in Ethiopia, Maltese cave temples, the roof-accessible houses of the early city at Çatal Hüyük (now Turkey), the city of Cahokia – the Native American metropolis that was larger than the London of its time, and remained the largest city in what is now the US until Philadelphia of the early 19th century – steppes, caves, shores, mountains, forests… well,I could go on, but you get the idea. From the adjoining square houses of Turkey, accessible only from the roof, to the amazing rock-cut temples in India, the beautiful mosques with fantastic arches and domes to Hindu and Buddhist shrines and Greek temples and Christian basilicas and Gothic cathedrals to Versailles, it was just amazing to see what people come up with no matter what their level of technology.

The final lecture was a fascinating look at buildings over time, a subject mentioned several times during the course but really brought to fruition at the end. Some buildings, like Greek and Roman temples, weren’t meant to be expanded; new buildings were added later on. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were happy to expand the temple at Karnak over the years, and the same happened with Christian churches and Muslim mosques. Buildings that were originally pagan temples became churches, mosques, synagogues as populations changed. Then we looked at issues of restoration and preservation. Interesting questions about authenticity came up. And then there’s the amazing approach of Jorge Otero-Pailos, who, among other things, removes layers of dirt from buildings using a special rubber compound, then displays those layers in sequence, in a kind of archaeology of soot. Without the course preceding this lecture, would it have affected me so deeply? I suspect not.

I’m pretty sure this was a pre-existing OCW recycled as a mooc. Sometimes this repackaging works, sometimes it doesn’t; here, I think it did, although I have to admit the content had far more to do with my enthusiasm than the presentation. The ‘live” in-class lecture approach is a bit less polished than a multiple-take video, but I still prefer it, as read-to-camera so often comes off as stilted and nervous. The professor’s enthusiasm and off-the-cuff commentary more than made up for image quality and occasionally confusing syntax.

I did have a hard time finding a good image of the professor for this post. I always try to find a snip that is representative of the course, visually interesting on its own, and reasonably flattering. In this case, where most of the videos were shot in the dark with the prof wandering in and out of projector light, I had to make some compromises, but I don’t think that sort of thing weighs heavily on anyone’s decision to take the course or not.

The lectures were basically slide shows accompanied by narratives about a period, or descriptions of the architecture under consideration.The visuals were sometimes hard to see, but most of them are available online elsewhere, with the exception of maps drawn on Google Earth scenes, which were… pretty messy, to be honest, and not intuitive. But I understand his point about maps showing current nation boundaries being useless in this context; his maps did contain useful information about migration patterns and available resources. They’re worth getting used to.

Each week includes two lectures, both about 90 minutes. They estimate 8 hours a week is required for the course; that sounds reasonable to me, though it took me longer because of the way I do things (and I’m slow). A free online textbook was provided; it’s huge, and I found it difficult to use, but I’m not that comfy with online books; someone more used to Kindles and such might find it much easier. A print version is available; it’s pricey, but if I were a freshman humanities student, I’d invest in it. For that matter, if I could find a used copy for $15, I’d buy it.

Grading was based on “homework” – a few multiple-choice questions following most of the lectures – and on four exams given at regular intervals. The homework doesn’t count for much; the exams are weighted far more heavily; view the homework as practice for the exams, and as extra credit. The exam questions are half multiple choice, half labeling or identifying; no surprises, all information retrieval, though once in a while a topic not explicitly covered in the lectures (but presumably in the text) will show up.

I found Cerego invaluable here; there was just too much stuff to remember it all without constant reinforcement. While it’s time-consuming to enter important points from each lecture into a quiz set, it serves as studying, and it was very much worth it when the exams rolled around. And it’s still nice to see the early material cropping up, reminding me of the rest of the lecture around key points. Makes me smile.

The discussion boards were very active with “official” threads for topics Staff set up; I didn’t participate so I can’t speak to the quality of discussions or staff presence. I personally dislike overdirected commentary, but it does provide structure, so it’s really a matter of preference.

I’d highly recommend the course for its broad approach and fascinating content, with the caveat that the presentation isn’t as “slick” as some courses made for moocs. I’m more than willing to make that tradeoff. I feel like I know the world better as a result of this course, and that’s as good as education gets.

The Greek Hero in 24 Hours mooc

Course: The Ancient Greek Hero

Length: 15 weeks, 5-8 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Gregory Nagy & his Board of Readers

Explore what it means to be human today by studying what it meant to be a hero in ancient Greek times.
In this introduction to ancient Greek culture and literature, learners will experience, in English translation, some of the most beautiful works of ancient Greek literature and song-making spanning over a thousand years from the 8th century BCE through the 3rd century CE: the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey; tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; songs of Sappho and Pindar; dialogues of Plato, and On Heroes by Philostratus….
No previous knowledge of Greek history, literature, or language is required. This is a project for students of any age, culture, and geographic location, and its profoundly humanistic message can be easily received without previous acquaintance with Western Classical literature.

Short version: An outstanding class, focusing on thematic elements of Greek literature, particularly by use of detailed examination of language. It’s a massive class in length, depth, and complexity, but it’s one of those “if you get half of it, you’ve accomplished a lot” things.

The course was set up as a series of “hours”; in most weeks, two of these hours were covered. The presentations varied: often, Prof. Nagy would discuss some element with a student, postdoc, or fellow professor, each of whom might have different specialities. In the early weeks, outside materials were covered frequently: films (several Blade Runner clips in particular– “Like tears in rain. Time to die” – were discussed in detail), ballet, songs and rituals from a variety of cultures – Maori, Slavic, Korean, Ethiopian – and more contemporary literature, showing how elements of Greek song culture persists today.

Each hour focused on eight to fifteen core passages, often from several works, using one or two Greek words as a basis for the thematic topic: kleos, akhos/penthos, therapon, sema, psūkhē, dikē, and so on. These words and the intricacies of their meanings in different contexts and eras formed a backbone around which the discussion grew. From there things mushroomed into a huge treasure chest of philosophy, history, artistic interpretation, linguistics, and literary theory. It’s quite an experience, but one I find hard to describe from outside the course.

For example, in the early weeks we covered Achilles’ decision-making process on whether to return to Greece or continue fighting. His mother told him if he left, he would live a long, safe, unheralded life, but if he stayed, he would die but would receive glory (kleos) forever – which has special resonance since we’re reading these words written a few thousand years ago, recited hundreds of years before that. Then, in one of the last hours, we see Plato rewrite Achilles so his decision is not based on a desire for fame but on justice. Is this legal? What does it mean, to edit the story this way?

The materials insist the class is suitable, even intended, for those without any prior exposure to ancient Greek literature. It’s absurd for me to second-guess these guys – the course has been part of the Harvard curriculum for decades (one of my mooc buddies took it when she was an undergrad there), it was one of the earliest moocs on edX, and hell, even Oprah took it, or at least took parts of it, since she mentioned it in the 2013 commencement speech she delivered at Harvard – but I wouldn’t have wanted it to have been my first classics course. The focus is not on plot or traditional interpretation – you’re expected to read the works and get that on your own – but on how heroic elements are conveyed and how these run through different genres and ages of literature.

While there’s a wealth of material on all of the covered works (I found The Rugged Pyrrhus to be useful for brief traditional summaries, while Overly Sarcastic Productions is the Mad Magazine of hilarious classics/history interpretation) I’m not sure I could’ve done all the work required if I hadn’t already taken coursework on these plays and poems. Actually, I am sure: I’d never read the entire Iliad as a single work before (and still haven’t read the Catalog of Ships or the details of most of the battles, though a lot of that was covered in the class) and it was an intense four weeks; sustaining that for 14 weeks would’ve been absurd. But, everyone’s different.

Graded material was minimal: a few multiple choice questions and a set of text-interpretation questions at the end of each hour. The questions were surprisingly difficult, with subtle shades of meaning or levels of detail frequently distinguishing one answer from another. Or maybe I’m just stupid; although I “passed”, I did fairly poorly on the graded material, and often felt perplexed as to why. But since my purpose has nothing to do with grades, I did the best I could to understand what was being asked, versus what I thought was required.

Also part of the grading was the discussion forum. I really hate forced discussions, so I skipped this entirely. For this class, discussion was held on an outside site which required separate login permission. At the time I started, I was kind of annoyed by this, as well as by the requirement to post; I’ve signed up for these in other courses, and it annoys me to have so many logins and hand out my email to so many systems I’m only going to use once (and makes me a little nervous in this time of electronic insecurity). So I didn’t request a login/password. I came to regret that about halfway through since I found I had questions and observations I would have liked to have shared. Every week a status email would introduce the new material and give a link for obtaining the necessary permissions, so I could have changed my mind at any point, but I didn’t.

I used Cerego as a study aid, creating a “memory set” for the course, and I’m quite glad I did. It was useful during the course itself, to keep track of words and concepts and characters (who was Eëtion again, what does lugros mean?) since there was so much to remember, but it’s also nice to have it as a reminder afterwards, to retain more than I otherwise would have. And it’s fun to be reminded of things down the road, when the timed recall goes to weeks and then months.

A free textbook is part of the course; this can be downloaded as a PDF or purchased as an e-book, or just read online. It includes significant introductory details on the video material; I found that I had a much better grasp of things when I spent the time to go through the text before the videos, than when I skipped it for lack of time. Many of the quiz questions I found puzzling were, in fact, in this introductory material, though it took an embarrassingly long time to realize that: details of motivations and deeper levels of interpretation. It’s fascinating reading.

Our project is about heroes— not the way we may understand them when we first hear the word, but the way the ancient Greeks understood them in the context of ancient Greek civilization. I’m arguing that if you understand what the ancient Greek hero is, you simultaneously will understand far better what ancient Greek civilization is….
And I guarantee you, if you get through especially the Iliad and the Odyssey and the seven tragedies and the two dialogues of Plato, you will really feel the way Herodotus says you should feel: that you’ve had a civilizing experience.
…we’re trying to do it all at once in translation, with key words embedded in the translation so that you don’t get tempted to read into the text. You keep reading out of the text, because these key words are some of the basic words of Greek civilization. I can go away saying that you, if you participated in this, you are civilized by the standards of ancient Greek civilization. We are essentially making an attempt to engage with all of Greek civilization, even if we start with specific things that we hope will inspire people to go even further.

~ Prof. Gregory Nagy

I think of this course as “Modpo for classics” – a kind of “spend as much time as you have” thing, where you can probably zip through it and get the basics (the key points are repeated many times), or you can spend all your free time exploring depths and asides. And, it’s apparently a course a lot of people take more than once, just to get more out of it.

I knew about this a couple of years ago, but I didn’t want to bother with the Iliad; to me, it was all about battles and war. I’m very glad that I now understand it’s about far more than that.

How Oxford MOOCs (charmingly, I must say) – From Poverty to Prosperity: Understanding Economic Development

Course: From Poverty to Prosperity: Understanding Economic Development
Length: 6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Oxford/edX
Instructor: Sir Paul Collier

How can poor societies become prosperous and overcome obstacles to do so?… By enrolling you will have the opportunity not only to interact with the course materials but also to participate in a live Q&A session with Professor Collier.
This course will discuss and examine the following topics:

• The role of government and the key political, social and economic processes that affect development;
• Why societies need polities that are both centralised and inclusive, and the process by which these polities develop;
• The social factors that are necessary for development, including the importance of identities, norms, and narratives;
• The impact of economic processes on development, including discussion about how government policies can either promote or inhibit the exploitation of scale and specialisation;
• The external conditions for development, including trade flows, capital flows, labour flows and international rules for governance.

Short version: A completely charming, highly informative course for those not terribly familiar with global economics. And, trust me, “charming” is the last word I’d ever expect to use about economics.

When I saw Oxford was now on edX, I was seriously psyched. I’ve become rather used to taking courses from Harvard and MIT at this point (and Stanford and Duke and Penn and…) but wow, Oxford? THE Oxford? I was very curious to see what they’d come up with. But… did it have to be economics?

For me, economics is one step below project management on the scale of things I never want to think about. I signed up anyway, figuring I’d take a peek and unenroll. I guess I was expecting something out of Shadowlands: dark, musty rooms with overstuffed chairs, stuffy dudes running around in weird cloaks, and boring ugly words like “marginal utility” and “commodities”, formulae and graphs. Instead, I found wonderful stories about incompetent but strong farmers bullying competent but weak farmers into submission and doing business with the apple orchards in the next valley and what happened in England when the Romans pulled out in 410 CE and all about the Dutch flooding the fields to hold off the Hapsburgs …. So I hung around.

The first three weeks continued in storytelling vein, with occasional mentions of scary words in a nonintrusive way, like “in other words, we need a market” or “the technical word for this is decentralization”. The real world was always part of the moral of the story, and I found it fascinating to hear why 20th century Tanzania developed much more peacefully than Kenya in spite of having the same mix of tribal cultures thrown together by European-drawn boundaries (that third week on narratives and identities, and their effect on national policy and democracy, also struck a lot closer to home; frankly, it scared what was left of the hell out of me because it put a vocabulary and a dismal prediction to what I see snowballing every day). Things got a bit more nitty-gritty in weeks four and five, but by then I really wanted to find out how Buttonopolis (aka Qiaotou, China, where 2/3 of the world’s buttons are made) came about, or how the tiny island nation of Mauritius developed its economy via serendipitous garment manufacturing.

Each week included video lectures, delivered to an unseen/unheard class (maybe; it might have just been production crew or even an empty room, but it was convincing and served the purpose) rather than read-to-camera, a technique more mooc teams should consider. Early on, some ungraded “Think!” activities were included, such as: Which Risk of Protest graph do you think applies to a democracy, and which to an autocracy? What would you advise the Head Thug to do when the farmers see another bigger stronger thug coming over the hill? (My one problem with the course was a visceral reaction to the repeated use of the word “thug”, since it’s becoming a racial epithet in America.) A short multiple choice quiz closed out each week, along with a discussion prompt. During the course, students submitted questions which were answered in a Week 5 Youtube Q&A session featuring Prof. Collier and mooc team leader Rafat Ali Al-Akhali. Week 6 was set aside for the final peer-assessed assignment applying concepts from the course to a country of our choice.

Each of the three graded components – quizzes, discussion, final essay – weighed fairly evenly in the final grade, and skipping any one would have made a passing grade impossible (or at least, very difficult). At first I was going to skip the discussion element, maybe even the final essay, out of a combination of intimidation and respect for the other students who came from all over and were, from what I could see, earnestly focused on learning something that would contribute to meaningful change for their countries and the world. But the course was engaging and motivating enough to convince me to give it a shot. I’m not particularly proud of the quality of my comments or essay, but I came quite a ways from less-than-zero.

Oxford has done a terrific job here making the material accessible and intriguing for beginners (and econophobes). And it turns out, the course material fits into their motivation for making the course: Week 4 lists “an informed citizenry” as one of the key elements to changing a society, and the final lecture underlined the mission:

How can that knowledge be applied? What can you do with it? And I think there are two aspects to that.
One is, how can you, as an individual, put that knowledge to use in the life that you lead, the career that you forge? …
But then there’s a larger role, which is that, you are a citizen in your own society and you’re a citizen in the world. And there are these two struggles. The struggle to set domestic policies that are more conducive to the escape from poverty, and the struggle to set international policies so they are more conducive to the escape from poverty. You, as a citizen, can play your part in that and I hope you will.

Sir Paul Collier

We’re trying over here, Professor, really we are, many of us. But some of our leaders seem determined to send us all back to the darkest parts of the Dark Ages, and too often they’ve rigged the game in their favor.

I can highly recommend this course for anyone who’s interested in getting an intro to economics, or is just curious about how the world works, in terms of haves and have-nots and why that’s the case. There’s nothing quantitative in it at all; there are a few graphs, but they’re about visualizing concepts, not learning formulas. And, as shown above, it includes its own motivation.

The best part of all these moocs – this one, the International Law series, the ChinaX series, al of them taken with people from everywhere – is that I’m beginning to know a little about the world beyond my window. I’ve discovered the best way to learn about the world is to learn about the world, not wring my hands and whine about being stupid. I can do a quiz game to find Bahrain on a map or memorize the capital of Azerbaijan – and all that is very helpful – but it’s another thing entirely to find out why Zambia sends some of its exports through Mozambique and some through South Africa. And, in the process, learning more about being an informed and effective citizen right here at home.

From WTF Is This to Hey,This is Kind of Fun: Causal Diagram MOOC

Course: Causal Diagrams: Draw Your Assumptions Before Your Conclusions
Length: 9 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Miguel Hernán
The first part of this course is comprised of five lessons that introduce the theory of causal diagrams and describe its applications to causal inference. The fifth lesson provides a simple graphical description of the bias of conventional statistical methods for confounding adjustment in the presence of time-varying covariates. The second part of the course presents a series of case studies that highlight the practical applications of causal diagrams to real-world questions from the health and social sciences.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I signed up for this course. The subtitle – “Draw your assumptions before your conclusions” – sounded something like one of those decision-making questionnaires from self-help books, but it was taught by a Harvard epidemiologist so that didn’t seem right. Something about graphic design? Project management? Yes, I knew it had something to do with statistics and data science. Yes, I’m allergic to statistics, which always turns into something awful like summing squares or coaxing spreadsheets to sum squares. I’ve thus far avoided data science, an even worse mess because it’s usually under the auspices of computer science people, and you know how they can be (yes, I’m kidding – back in the Days of the Mainframe, I was what in the business world passed for tech support, which meant we called IBM if a reboot didn’t fix the problem).

But the teaser video sounded interesting, and the medical foundation greatly appealed to me. I figured I’d give it a week. I ended up completing the course. Even got a passing grade – and a good passing grade, at that. But I’m not getting carried away: most of the graded questions allowed multiple attempts.

I found it to be an exceptionally well-done course: organized, clear, nicely delivered, and progressing from very basic concepts to more complicated material little by little. Keep in mind, I’m an absolute newbie to all of this; someone who’s done some work in data science, or has a wider view of how this fits into the whole subject of data science, might feel differently. More than anything else, this all reminded me of tracing logic trees in that UMelbourne Logic course I liked so much (which, sadly, never made the jump to Coursera’s new and “improved” – ahem – platform).

Little things meant a lot. Like large, clear, high-contrast graphics. Granted, the salient images were mostly just letters, numbers, and arrows, but I appreciated the legibility that hand-drawn diagrams on a board (or fancy but hard-to-read and harder-to-screenclip renditions) sometimes lack. The lectures were repetitive enough to build up some kind of vocabulary. The step-by-step approach was perfect for me; again, someone with a stronger background in the field might have found this a bit annoying, but that’s what fast-forward is for. I was also delighted to see an explanation for Simpson’s Paradox that actually made sense to me, an explanation that didn’t involve batting averages or student test scores but related to a research case; it tied together causation and weighted averaging for me in a way I hadn’t seen before. Interestingly, a couple of days after I encountered that lecture, MinutePhysics released a video about Simpson that so closely mirrored the lecture, I had to wonder if Henry Reich was enrolled in the mooc.

Each module began with a case study: the effect of estrogen on uterine cancer, folic acid and birth defects, etc. Somewhere in there was a problem, usually a contradiction between studies using different statistical methods, or a result that didn’t make sense (could cigarette smoking prevent dementia in older people? No, of course not, but what does it mean when the numbers say that?). This would lead into a discussion of the module topic – confounding, or selection bias, or measurement bias – and about 45 minutes of video, divided into short segments, to explain how the problem arose and how it could be fixed. A final recap of the case, showing how the module topic played into the real-life research and how causal diagrams resolved the problem, ended the week.

Graded material included short quizzes after most video segments, and a weekly quiz. The final exam was a series of four case studies (only two were required) discussed at length via interview with different investigators, and questions relating to the issues raised by those studies. This was great in a couple of ways. It’s always nice to see how someone else talks about a subject, since everyone uses slightly different language and sees different things as central. It also presented questions on new issues without the same degree of shepherding and hand-holding. I found the first one quite manageable, the second one a bit trickier, and the third one very difficult. At this writing, I haven’t looked at the fourth one yet.

If I may digress (and it’s my blog, who’s gonna stop me?), I created a kind of study guide on Cerego for this course. While it’s clearly best for pure fact memorization, I’m finding that just figuring out the key points and the best Cerego format for them is a form of studying; then the spaced-recall feature worked quite well to keep reminding me about d-separation rules and different structures as I moved through the weeks. I’m still new to creating my own sets and am pretty clumsy at it, but I was impressed with how well it worked here with incorporating – not just remembering – things like a conditioned collider opens a path but a conditioned non-collider blocks it.

To be honest, I was kind of Done by the time I got to the cases in Week 5. Remember, I’m a tourist in these parts, and while it was a very nice place to visit, I’m not sure I’d want to live there. And I have other things starting, so I needed to clear the boards. But I’m very glad I wandered in. I have no idea how the course would work for typical data science students, and I wouldn’t imagine anyone else would be particularly interested. But for me, always looking for a way in to the math I can’t seem to understand, it was another huge success.

Words Spun Out of Images: Visual/literary Japanese Art mooc

Course: Words Spun Out of Images: Visual and Literary Culture in Nineteenth Century Japan
Length: 4 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Tokyo/Coursera
Instructor: Robert Campbell
In their ambition to capture “real life,” Japanese painters, poets, novelists and photographers of the nineteenth century collaborated in ways seldom explored by their European contemporaries. This course offers learners the chance to encounter and appreciate behavior, moral standards and some of the material conditions surrounding Japanese artists in the nineteenth century, in order to renew our assumptions about what artistic “realism” is and what it meant.

I looked at this as an opportunity to increase my embarrassingly undeveloped knowledge about Japanese history, culture, and literature. In that, it was a success. The course was more about visual than literary art, but one of the points made over and over was that the Japanese make less of a distinction between the two, including words on works of visual art and drawing from stories.

Each module included a particular category of art/literati – Samurai, women, photographs – and consisted of a catalog of various works and themes with brief insights into the history and culture of the time. I wish I’d had more background in Japanese history; many of the stories told were lovely, but I have the feeling I was looking at sheet music and had no idea how the sonata would sound when played. The Samurai
pieces reflected on everything from aesthetic to political values; in the section on “Beauties”, a sort of catch-all for images of women, we started with geishas and moved on to what young women should be studying, and even a woman who appears in the middle of a ghost story. The photographs were likewise varied, from an anonymous young man with several children who turn out to be students, to picture postcards of young women sent to soldiers during the Russo-Japanese war, something I conceptualized as the Japanese version of Betty Grable and pin-up girls sent to American troops a few decades later.

Some of my favorite pieces were the Samurai, imprisoned and scheduled for execution as a dissident, who left inscribed copies of his portrait to nine of his students; an early 20th-century photograph of a woman, by then a well-known educator, dressed as a Samurai and recalling the fall of her family home many years earlier; and the above mentioned “ghost story” where a woman appears because the story about her is so beautiful.

Again, I may be missing some of the context, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and this was a nice place to start.

The Twelve Weeks of Differentiation MOOC

Course: Calculus 1A: Differentiation
Length: 13 weeks,6-10 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: David Jerison, Jen French, Stephen Wang

How does the final velocity on a zip line change when the starting point is raised or lowered by a matter of centimeters? What is the accuracy of a GPS position measurement? How fast should an airplane travel to minimize fuel consumption? The answers to all of these questions involve the derivative.

I’ve taken three different calculus moocs in the past few years, and they’re all terrific in their own way. This was my second time through this one; I didn’t pass last time so I wanted to try again.

What I particularly like about the MIT courses is how they set up each topic with a series of lead-in questions. By the time you get to the actual instruction video, you’ve already seen a lot of what goes into the process, so it’s a natural extension of what they keep calling “intuition”. I’m not sure I’d call it that; I don’t think I have that much intuition about math, certainly not about calculus. There’s probably a sophisticated pedagogical term for this. Whatever it is, it helps. And yes, I managed a solid passing score this time.

It also helps that the two most frequently heard (if rarely seen) instructors, Jen and Steve, have a speaking style I like: calm, just the right speed, and with enough personality to forestall the “audio textbook” aura so many moocs have. I got to know Jen a little on the forums last time, and was very impressed with her patience and willingness to help us through questions. This time, the forums were primarily handled by a different instructor, Hanson, who was equally great to work with. Good people + good material = great class (some math is easy).

Though it’s 12 weeks long, this is only the first part of a series of three moocs designed to prep high schoolers for the AP Calculus exam. Integration starts in November, and Series/Sequences in the Spring.

The course starts with Week 0, a sort of optional orientation/prep week. No grades are recorded. There’s a set of prereq exams to gauge readiness, and a unit on limits for anyone who wants to get back into gear, as well as the opportunity for new users to get used to the platform.

The four content units are released every three weeks, a nice compromise between self-paced and scheduled; a missed week isn’t a catastrophe (and every deadline ended up extended anyway). Lots of questions and practice exercises are scattered in with the videos, and each unit has a final quiz with a part A – “nuts and bolts”, they call it – and part B, more application oriented. The timed final exam had a 48 hour window, which is a lot less stressful than requiring it all be done in one sitting. Each of these elements has a different impact on the ultimate grade.

The material consists of introductory intuition questions, videos by Jen and Steve, and occasional in-class lectures by Dr. Jerison. He’s a lot less warm and fuzzy about it all, but I’ve come to appreciate his style. After he goes through a step, he’ll pause, move to the side, and look around the room at the in-class students. I’m not sure if he’s checking for blank WTF faces, or just to see if most of them are done writing things down (or, for that matter, just catching his breath and finding his place in his notes), but it makes a nice rhythm that helps me to keep up. In terms of filming, I greatly appreciate that he gets out of the way of the board, allowing the live camera holder to adjust angles and zoom to incorporate everything. These are silly little logistical details that have nothing to do with math, but make it so much easier to follow.

I found the course far easier this second time around. I really don’t know if that’s because it was modified, or if something sank in over the past two years. I haven’t been working on calculus at all (though I do some math every day and have taken several math moocs and science moocs involving significant math, including just a whiff of calculus) , so I’m not sure what that would’ve been. One thing I’m pretty sure they added this time are “Recitation videos” explaining individual problems in great detail. These are part of the older OCW series; I found them extremely helpful, particularly those by Christine Breiner. They’re all available on Youtube or through the OCW site.

Though I’m feeling pretty good about doing so well, I realize that by this time I should be able to do this stuff in my sleep. The next course on integration will be a real challenge, since I’ve never been that comfortable with it and it was extremely difficult last time. IIRC, It’s also a lot less hand-holdy, with a lot more reliance on the in-class lectures by Dr. Jerison. But’s what’s next, so I’d best get to it. I did some review before this section, using Khan to refresh my memory on certain points; that’s probably more important for the integration course, so I should get started. I should. I should.

Biochem MOOC

Course: Principles of Biochemistry
Length: 15 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Alain Viel, Rachelle Gaudet

Principles of Biochemistry integrates an introduction to the structure of macromolecules and a biochemical approach to cellular function. Topics addressing protein function will include enzyme kinetics, the characterization of major metabolic pathways and their interconnection into tightly regulated networks, and the manipulation of enzymes and pathways with mutations or drugs. An exploration of simple cells (red blood cells) to more complex tissues (muscle and liver) will be used as a framework to discuss the progression in metabolic complexity. Learners will also develop problem solving and analytical skills that are more generally applicable to the life sciences.

If I seem to have been quiet lately, it’s partly because I’ve been taking this course. It’s massive. Not just the amount of content, but the detail involved. While it wasn’t particularly creative or engaging (with a couple of notable exceptions), it was exactly the material I wanted (and needed) to cover, so I’m delighted I enrolled.

It’s listed as an intermediate course, and recommends college-level biology and chemistry, including organic chemistry. So here I go setting the record for courses taken requiring orgo without ever having taken it other than what’s on YouTube (and let me say again, Leah4Sci and The Organic Chemistry Tutor have some great vids that have been very helpful in filling in some gaps; but would someone please do a full-on OC mooc?). But while there wasn’t anything I’d never heard of before, I suspect someone with a stronger chemistry background might have an easier time of it. After all, I still have to stop and think every time someone says “carboxyl group.” And don’t even talk to me about nitrogen.

Much of the content is in the form of metabolic pathways: glycolysis, for example, or the synthesis of fatty acid chains, along with regulatory mechanism and interrelations. It’s like one giant Butterfly Effect: one thing gets a little out of whack, and all kinds of things happen as the body tries to maintain homeostasis. Molecular energetics, protein structure, enzymatic mechanisms, it’s a broad spectrum of topics alongside the metabolic pathways. Clinical applications look at diabetes, gout, and a few other metabolic diseases, as well as a unit on the use of PET scans in tracking in vivo pathways.

It was a pretty grueling course, partly because so much of it went like this:

One of the subunit of the activated small G protein will in turn activate a membrane-bound enzyme called an adenylyl cyclase, which catalyzes the conversion of ATP into cyclic AMP. The concentration of cyclic AMP rises and cyclic AMP interact with the protein Kinase called protein Kinase-A, or PKA. This Kinase will become activated and then will phosphorylate PFK-2 on the Kinase domain.
The phosphorylation of PFK-2 will result in the inhibition of the Kinase domain and the activation of the Phosphatase domain. Therefore, PFK-2 will catalyze the conversion of Fructose 2,6-bisphosphate back into Fructose-6-phosphate. The concentration of Fructose 2,6-bisphosphate in the cell decreases, and PFK-1 activity will decrease as well.

While all that actually makes sense when you break it down (if you can remember what PFK and AMP are, since you’ve encountered a dozen new enzymes in two days), it’s kind of insane on the first six or twelve takes.

The lectures tend to have a question-and-answer structure, although the answers are so extensive, it’s often hard to remember there was a question, let alone what it was. “Why does HSP70 production increase with heat stress?” “How does the potential cell membrane bend to form a sphere?” Sometimes these questions are asked by the lecturer, sometimes by an off-camera TA. One of those TAs did a very kinetic presentation on glycolysis, sliding bits of paper around to describe the various steps. A couple of brief video clips from other providers added to the presentation on diabetes. And the PET scan section was presented by a different professor entirely. So there was some variety in the presentation.

The course wasn’t all multisyllabic strings of chemicals. For instance, fun fact: in the 40s when biochemists were first trying to figure out protein folding, one of the proteins they used was RNAse A, also known as bovine pancreatic ribonuclease. The Armour meat packing company – maker of Hot Dogs, Armour Hot Dogs, What Kind of Kids Love Armour Hot Dogs – just happened to have purified a kilogram of this stuff, so gave it out to scientists to study, which helped a great deal. Don’t think to hard about why a hot dog company was purifying bovine enzymes in the 40s. You don’t want to go there.

Graded material included a few questions after each video, plus a unit quiz at the end of one to three sections. Most of the questions were information-retrieval multiple choice, with two or three chances at each, meaning my grade far exceeds my grasp. But that’s ok, I’m not relying on this as a true measure of understanding. That’s why I’m going through it all again, just to get it to sink in a little better.

One of the great ancillary benefits that had nothing to do with the course itself was my dive into Cerego. I’ve been a fan of the spaced-repetition flashcard site (for lack of a better term) for a while now, finding all kinds of interesting things in their Public Library, both pertaining to moocs I’m taking, and just other stuff like countries and capitals and brain anatomy. But they suddenly discontinued access to the Public Library; if I wanted to use a memory set for glycolysis, was going to have to make one myself. I’ve tried to do this before, but was never happy with the results and was fine with what someone else had to say about chemical groups or DNA replication. But now I have my own set for biochemistry! I’m like a kindergartener who just brought home her first finger painting.

Optional ungraded assignments using PyMol were also included. Because this required downloading software, and I’d just replaced my old computer (it kept threatening to set itself on fire), I didn’t want to fool around with extra stuff. The assignments look interesting; now that I feel more relaxed about both my computer, and my time, I think I’ll take a crack at it as I go through the material again (adding more Cerego modules every day…).

I was very pleased with this course. I suspect its value depends on the background and motivations of the student: it might not be the best place to start for someone with only mild curiosity about biochemistry and metabolism (another Harvard mooc, “Cell Biology: Mitochondria” is a lot gentler, and far more visually appealing), but even those with a weaker background, like me, can find this beneficial if enough effort and outside remedial work is mixed in.