Mao MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval Spanish Manuscripts MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DinoMOOC

Course: Dinosaur Ecosystems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questioning Reality MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Medieval Manuscript MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of my favorite discoveries:

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

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

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

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

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

The Immune System Gone Wild MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Calm and MOOC: early 2017 plan

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

~ Sylvia Plath

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

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

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

Official blurb:

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

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


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

Official blurb:

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

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

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


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

Official blurb:

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

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

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

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

Official blurb:

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

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

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

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

Official blurb:

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

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

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

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

Official blurb:

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

 

Status: Completed; see comments here.

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

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

Official blurb:

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

Status: Completed, my comments here.

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

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

Official blurb:

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

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

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

Official blurb:

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

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

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

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

Never has Yeats been more appropriate:

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

Seems like an appropriate class for right now.

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

Official blurb:

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

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

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

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

Official blurb:

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

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

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

Humblebragging: Intellectual Humility MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calicut: Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572

Calicut: Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perry Mason Goes Global: International Law MOOC

Map of course enrollment

Map of course enrollment

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

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

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

The prerequisite recommendation states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It only hurts when I LAFF: Linear Algebra MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wu-wei MOOC

Course: Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science – Part 1 and Part 2
Length: 9 weeks total
School/platform: University of British Columbia/edX
Instructors: Edward Slingerland
Quote:

Part 1 introduces the basic philosophical, religious and scientific concepts that will be drawn upon throughout the course, and then goes on to cover early Shang and Zhou religious thought, the Analects of Confucius, the Daodejing (a Daoist text attributed to Laozi), the utilitarian thinker Mozi, the newly discovered and very exciting Guodian texts, and the momentous philosophical changes that occurred in the mid Warring States period.
Part 2 builds upon Part 1 by exploring late Warring States thinkers such as the Confucian Mencius, the Daoist Zhuangzi, and the return to externalism in the form of Xunzi—who believed Mencius betrayed the original Confucian vision—and his former student Hanfeizi, a “Legalist” thinker who helped lay the foundations for the autocratic system that unified the Warring States into China’s first empire. We will conclude with some reflections on what it means to study religious thought, and the thought of other cultures, in a modern, globalized world.
Part 2 can be taken as a stand-alone course, but will be more comprehensible and rewarding with the background provided in Part 1.

Short version: Another terrific class. Considering that prior to last May, I knew virtually nothing about China, it’s kind of amazing that I’ve now taken three tours through the philosophers of the late Zhou dynasty. What’s even more amazing is that each round took a different approach in interwoven layers, so it just kept getting better.

This course specialized in not only reviewing the tenets of each philosopher examined, but in relating those tenets to contemporary research in cognitive, behavioral, and psychological neuroscience. From the overall concept of wu-wei to Confucius’ attempt to cultivate intrinsic rewards via ritual and training to Mencius’ inborn moral sprouts to Mozi’s impartial caring, some of these ideas from more than two thousand years ago can be confirmed – or contradicted – by scientific techniques and very contemporary ethical philosophy.

Most weeks featured a guest lecturer on varying topics: generally, psychology and cognitive science, but also wide-ranging topics like music, language and literature, and the neuroscience of meditation. One of the guests, by the way, was Russell Brand reading the text and discussing his thoughts on wu-wei, Daodejing, Butcher Ding, and Confucianism. You never know who you’ll run into in a mooc. (I’ll admit I’m not sure who Russell Brand is, but he seems to be famous).

The syllabus is structured after Prof. Slingerland’s 2014 book Trying Not To Try (featured on Brainpickings), a clever capsulization of wu-wei ( 無爲 ), a key concept in several of the philosophies though the path and purpose may differ. Pertinent chapters from the book were provided in PDF format. His recent TEDx talk, featuring his experience playing “MindBall” at his local science museum, gives a general overview of the topic. The other text was Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (Ivanhoe/Van Norden, 2001), a translation of the works of the philosophers studied; I managed to find a copy through my local library, but since the pertinent sections are fully quoted throughout the course, it wouldn’t have been a serious impediment if it wasn’t available.

The course is structured in two parts. They can be taken independently, but I’d take the final sentence in the quote above seriously. In fact, I’d consider the first part pretty foundational to the second, since a great deal of introductory work on cognitive and behavioral science takes place in the first week; of course, YMMV, but it’s great stuff – then again, I just loved the whole course and wouldn’t have wanted to miss a minute. Pssst – as a special incentive, there’s also blooper reel tucked into Part 1, the only time I’ve seen such a thing in a mooc. All of them should include one of those.

Structurally it’s your basic lecture-quiz course with excellent instructor involvement. Each week includes about 9 lecture videos, each about 10-15 minutes, but it seems like both a lot more and a lot less. A lot more, because Prof. Slingerland (who bears a strong resemblance to comedian Jon Stewart, but maybe that’s just me) talks pretty fast (there are speed controls on the videos, but while I often have used higher speeds, I find slowing things down always makes the speaker sound drugged so I just pause a lot and pre-read the lecture transcripts) and also because there’s a lot of stuff –about language, history, philosophy, contemporary neuroscience, psychological research, etc etc – and a lot less because it’s all fascinating. A couple of ungraded “test yourself” questions followed each video, with a graded quiz to finish off each week, plus a final quiz at the end of each part. The questions generally fall between information retrieval and concept application, so they keep you on your toes, but I wouldn’t say it’s hard. It is, however, a great deal of complex stuff.

Each week also featured a “Q&A” video featuring further explanation of issues raised on the discussion forums. The forums weren’t exactly rollicking, but engagement in the discussions was significant, as people posted about aspects that interested them, and others interested in the capturesame ideas joined in; staff and instructor showed up regularly. I far prefer this spontaneous system to the inane “forced post” courses, where everyone’s supposed to answer the same banal question (“What do you think about…”) and the boards end up cluttered with hundreds of single-post threads; the result is not discussion, but a whole bunch of parallel monologues. I don’t know why so many courses do that, but I’m glad this one didn’t. Each week the staff would pin a couple of threads and send an email outlining the issues, which was also a nice touch to encourage those who might not have seen the threads to jump in. It also gave the sense of a carefully tended mooc, rather than a plug-in with a start button. Treasure these while they still exist.

As you can tell from some of the images inserted, I went a little bonkers with my note taking. I’ve always been a little overly obsessed with putting everything from the moocs I take into a Word document – lecture transcripts with video images imbedded, readings, quizzes, occasional forum discussions – but here I went overboard, even for me. I put most of the quotes from the various thinkers – and there were tons of quotes – into text boxes, each with different backgrounds and fonts, depending on my impression of what might fit the philosopher best, then pasted those into my copy of the lecture transcripts. I probably added 2 hours to each week doing this kind of word processing. Hey, leave me alone, I had fun.

But wait, there’s more! Months ago, I signed up for a course titled “The Science of Religion” on spec without really paying much attention to what it included; it sounded like something I might like. Now I’ve discovered that not only is it a UBC course, but Prof. Slingerland is one of the instructors. He’s said it’s all new material, not a condensed replay of this course; I’m still not sure what it is, but I’m looking forward to it.

BioMOOC

Course: Introduction to Biology – The Secret of Life
Length: 9 weeks (self-paced)
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructors: Eric Lander
Quote:

Explore the secret of life through the basics of biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, recombinant DNA, genomics and rational medicine.
 

Short version: Fantastic course. Excellent material, engaging and varied presentation style, homework and exams that test conceptual understanding and synthesis, humor. Not much forum activity, however. Not an easy course, but do-able with effort.

It’s something of an odd administrative setup. The course is intended as preparation for a Competency Exam, available only to those who sign up for the Verified track (which costs money). I’m not sure of the details, like the exact fees or the conditions of the Exam, or the significance of it: is it recognized by MIT? beyond moocdom? In any case, that was irrelevant to my purpose, which was to understand biology.

In that, it was a great success: Dr. Lander, in addition to being one of the leading geneticists in the world, and by the way one of the founders of the Innocence Project, is an outstanding teacher. All of his lectures take place in an in-session MIT classroom, and he has a great time telling stories about yeast juice, Linus Pauling in bed with a head cold inventing protein folding (but totally missing it on DNA structure), and asking a lot of “how do you think you’d do that?” questions once we started looking at gene cloning procedures. There are several “fun” videos thrown in as well, including MIT’s own version of “Gangnam Style” (remember that?) in which Dr. Lander appears (as well as Noam Chomsky, for pete’s sake) and a much older Stanford version of protein synthesis on the football field.

In addition to the lectures, a variety of Deep Dives and Lab videos offered by a variety of MIT students and staff explained important concepts and procedures in great detail. A problem set, intended as formative assessment (meaning the purpose is more about learning to apply concepts, not judging progress) finished off each week, with an additional Exam (generally the same types of questions as on the Problem Sets) every three or four weeks. Right/wrong answers are indicated, and you can keep track of your scores to see how you’re doing, but the only “grade” is for the Competency Exam, if that option is selected, at the conclusion of the course.

The content of the course revolves around a “coat of arms” joining biochemistry, genetics, and proteins, with genomics taking the long view. The material is something of a narrative roughly following the chronological history of biology. As a result, there’s always a sense of “you won’t believe what happened next.”

Weeks 1 through 4 started with basic biochemistry (there’s very little cell biology, however, which was a bit disappointing), then moved on to the discovery of enzymes, proteins, and amino acids, basic genetics and heredity. I did this section about a year ago but it was worth doing it again. Very little prior knowledge is assumed; some chemistry is probably helpful, but my chem is very low-level and it wasn’t a problem for me. The problem sets were terrific: maneuverable protein images, protein design apps, questions on biochemical pathways that really tested my ability to read and understand the chart.

Weeks 5, 6, and 7 moved into a detailed look at DNA: replication, transcription, translation, mutations, and the process of cloning DNA (which is nothing like cloning sheep or people). I loved this unit. The exercises were particularly helpful: “edit a gene” software, “make a plasmid” questions, very practically-oriented problems requiring application of concepts, with virtually no information-retrieval questions.

I bailed out in week 8 because I had other courses starting, and since I wasn’t going to take the Competency Exam, it didn’t matter. That’s something of a cop-out; mostly I’m just not that interested in genomic research, which is kind of sad since 1) it’s really what biology is about these days, and 2) it’s Dr. Lander’s specialty. But I got more than enough out of the course to have made it very worthwhile, and I can always go back and pick up the final portion when I’ve got less on my plate.

On the down side, there was very little interaction or support on the forums. Early on, some technical issues were addressed, but questions about content often went unanswered. I’m not sure if that’s because they’re focusing on the verified track (which, in their Philosophy moocs at least, MIT has segregated from audit track posts – two-tier education, coming to a mooc near you) or if it was just a quiet bunch.

I can’t speak to the Competency Exam track, but if your goal is to better understand the areas of biology mentioned above, this is a great course for it (you’ll need to go elsewhere for cell biology; Harvard’s mitochondria course might be a good place to start). I’d say in terms of learning, it’s one of the best courses I’ve taken. It also happens to be fun. What more could you ask for?

The MOOC’s a harsh mistress: Fall 2016

I am not a summer person: as humidity and heat rise, my tolerance for the slightest inconvenience falls. After spending most of my childhood in Florida, I started moving north at age 18. I’m almost out of room (but not quite) and out of time (not yet) simultaneously. In any case, I always look forward to fall, that time when evenings chill and hiatuses end as society reboots itself – and new moocs start.

So again it’s time to semi-define something of a plan for the next few months in moocland. As always, some of these may not last: a couple are look-sees, and a third I’m dubious about already though technically it hasn’t even started yet. And, of course, something irresistible may cross my path.

For the first time in three years, I have no Coursera courses scheduled. That doesn’t mean I won’t try something, or that there’s nothing at all of any worth there; it’s just that between the isolation factor that seems part and parcel of the new platform and rolling enrollment scheduling, and the more generalized McMOOC phenomenon, it’s now a source for filler. This makes me sadder than you can imagine. I can only hope I tire of moocs before edX turns into a pumpkin.


Introduction to Biology
Start August 1, 2016 12 weeks, 7-14 hrs/wk
Instructor: Eric Lander
School/platform: MIT/edX

Official blurb:

Explore the secret of life through the basics of biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, recombinant DNA, genomics and rational medicine.

>Status: Completed; excellent course, detailed comments here.

I started this from the archived course several months ago, but lost steam after the first unit on biochemistry; I just wasn’t that interested in going through genetics again. I loved the section I did – Eric Lander is not only a celebrated geneticist but a terrific teacher – so when I saw it had opened up again live, I thought I’d give it another try.


LAFF: Linear Algebra – Foundations to Frontiers

Start August 3, 2016 (official start, August 24) 15 weeks, 8 hrs/wk
Instructor: Maggie Myers, Robert van de Geijn
School/platform: UTAustinX/edX

Official blurb:

In this course, you will learn all the standard topics that are taught in typical undergraduate linear algebra courses all over the world, but using our unique method, you’ll also get more!

>Status: Almost; dropped in Week 8. See complete notes here.

I’m in the early-open period, intended for those who want a “quick review” before Fall semester bricks-and-mortar classes start. I need a lot more than a quick review, but the extra 3 weeks may come in handy. So far, it reminds me very much of Stanford’s Logic course (which left me in the dust after a few weeks): it sounds like a textbook being read Here’s a theorem. Oh look, here’s another. I’m taking them at their word that it’s ok to skip the programming material, but I’m probably over my head anyway. It’s going very, very slowly so far. But it’s a niche I’m particularly interested in learning, so we’ll see how far I can get, even if I can’t finish on time.


Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness
Start August 29, 2016 12 weeks, 5 hrs/wk
Instructor: Caspar Hare, Ryan Doody
School/platform: MIT/edX

Official blurb:

This philosophy course has two goals. The first goal is to introduce you to the things that philosophers think about…. The second goal is to get you thinking philosophically yourself.

Status: Completed; good intro course.  See complete notes here

.

I’ve very much enjoyed the two other MIT philosophy courses I’ve taken. They’re not easy, but they’re worth the work, so I’m hopeful about this.


Jazz: The Music, The Stories, The Players
Start September 6, 2016 6 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
Instructor: Monk Rowe
School/platform: Hamilton College/edX
Official blurb:

This music course addresses jazz from a listener’s perspective, but calls on professional jazz musicians to help us engage with this often mysterious aural experience.

Status: dropped. I liked it fine, great entry-level explanations; I just had too much stuff going on that I liked better. Maybe another time.

I don’t expect to last long in this one, but I’m curious and hoping it’ll surprise me. Jazz is a massive category like “classical music” – it can be anything, and I’ve never been able to figure out what kinds I like. That’s more or less my goal here.


Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science – Part 1
Start September 6, 2016 5 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
Instructor: Edward Slingerland
School/platform: University of British Columbia/edX

Official blurb:

An introduction to early Chinese thought, exploring connections with Western philosophy, spirituality, mindfulness, modern science and everyday life.

Status: Excellent course, detailed comments here.

Given my recent dive into ancient China, of course this caught my eye. I’m a little concerned about this cluster of early September courses, and given how much I enjoyed the Hong Kong Uni and ChinaX courses, they’ve got some big shoes to fill, but I’m looking forward to getting another perspective on the Hundred Schools of Thought period. This is Part 1, with Part 2 to follow in October.


The Science of Learning–What Every Teacher Should Know
Start November 16, 2016 (changed from Nov. 2 which was changed from Sept. 14… I’ve got a bad feeling about this) 4 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
Instructor: Pearl Rock Kane, Kevin Mattingly
School/platform: Columbia Teachers College/edX
Official blurb:

An introductory teaching course for K-12 teachers about the science of learning and how to use current research to improve classroom outcomes.

Status: Completed (sort of); No write-up. Since I’m not a teacher, I just skimmed the course for methods I could use for myself. I discovered several that I’ve already incorporated (spaced practice, interleaving) and of course the ever-popular growth mindset (which I finally realized isn’t purporting “anyone can learn anything” is true, but instead is saying “those who believe this perform better because they keep working”).

Since I’m not a teacher, it’s kind of silly for me to enroll; I’ve done this before, and always end up feeling out of place and drop out. But I like to hear what people are saying about the process of learning, so let’s see.


Masterpieces of World Literature
Start September 22, 2016
12 weeks, 5-7 hrs/wk
Instructor: David Damrosch, Martin Puchner
School/platform: Harvard/edX

Official blurb:

Focusing particularly on works of literature that take the experience of the wider world as their theme, this course will explore the varied artistic modes in which great writers have situated themselves in the world, helping us to understand the deep roots of today’s intertwined global cultures.

Status: Completed as “recreational mooc”. Good course, fairly light approach considering the depth and breadth of materials included, but worthwhile. Full comments posted here.

The syllabus lists some huge and/or complicated works, some of which I’ve read (the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Borges, Lahiri) and some I haven’t even heard of (Orhan Pamuk, Lu Xun). When I took Fiction of Relationships, I spent four months pre-reading and just barely finished in time; I just heard about this course a week ago, so while I can get a few things read, some of it’s just not going to get done. I feel bad about that, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. I’m still looking forward to finding out about different points of view.


International Law
Start September 22, 2016 8 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
Instructor: Pierre d’Argent
School/platform: Universite Catholique de Louvain/edX
Official blurb:

[I]f you want to understand what is international law, what role it plays in the world of today, how it can be used or if you want to be able to discern legal arguments within the flow of international news and reports, this course is for you.

>Status: Completed. Great course, see complete notes here.

I nearly bypassed this based purely because of the stuffy image chosen as the course logo. However, the teaser video included some goofy line drawings and overall seemed a lot less stuffy. I don’t know if I want to understand international law or not, but I’m curious. I’m also feeling quite positively towards Louvain, based on my experience with their respiration course, so I’d like to take a look.

Wish me luck!

Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi et al: Ancient Chinese Thought MOOC

Course: Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought
Length: 8 weeks
School/platform: University of Hong Kong/edX
Instructors: Chad Hansen
Quote:

We make ethical or behaviour guiding right / wrong judgments all the time but have you ever wondered where Ethics comes from, what it is about and why it is important? This course provides an introduction to traditional Chinese ethical thought and focuses on the pervasive contrast in the way Chinese and Westerners think about ethical guidance or guidance concerning what is right and what is wrong, good or bad.

While I’ve greatly enjoyed many of the moocs I’ve taken over the past three years (I’ve lost count, about 70, I think), I can count on the fingers of one hand the ones that have shifted a paradigm or had a lasting impact on life-as-lived. This is one of those few.

By a happy coincidence of timing, I’d just finished the first module of Harvard’s 10-part ChinaX series covering the Period of the Warring States and the Hundred Schools of Thought. Not only did that give me at least a vague familiarity with the names, but it let me situate the philosophers in a particular time and give me something of a foundation: an understanding of the Sage Kings that had gone before, of the transition from Shang to Zhou and the legitimacy of tianming, of the chaos of the time and the period that followed. None of this background was in any way required to understand the material itself, but it did prepare the field for sowing, so it’s an approach I recommend to those as completely unfamiliar with ancient China as I was.

The course is based on Prof. Hansen’s book, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. We opened with an overview of philosophical approaches and fields, showing where the ancient Chinese thinkers fit compared to Western philosophers. I found this very helpful as a way to keep my conceptual bearings (and picked up a few tidbits about Western philosophy in the process). It’s always a good idea to network new ideas to old ones.

The next seven weeks each featured a school of thought: Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Shen Dao/Laozi, and Zhuangzi, who took up two weeks. Xunzi took up most of the final week, which, though unavoidable (the history of philosophy is what it is), was perhaps the only complaint I have about the course: it ended on a real downer, particularly at this moment of time when an authoritarian anti-intellectualism seems to be sweeping the world, not to mention the US. The last couple of lectures offered a review that somewhat recaptured the feeling of the rest of the material, but I also went back to listen to some of the Zhuangzi lectures so I could personally end there, feeling enriched instead of scolded and scared.

Lecture courses can be tedious – so many wonderful professors turn into soulless automatons when plopped in front of a camera to read a script – but Prof. Hansen’s able to pull it off extremely well, and this was far superior to most “talking head” courses. During the course they released a “the making of” video which shows the kind of thought and care that went into presenting lectures. They weren’t happy with the first few attempts, so they kept changing the format until they found one that worked. As a result, the lectures seem more like story-telling, with little “cliffhangers” at the end of each one that keep the momentum going, even create a degree of suspense that’s atypical for a history of philosophy course. Part of it is Prof. Hansen’s relaxed and engaged delivery, which is probably helped by the presence of students in the room so he’s not talking direct to camera (which can kill even the most animated speaker). Little animations with sound effects add a sprinkle of fun, with the overall result being lectures that are a delight as well as clear and instructive, with enough foreshadowing, repetition, and summary to help retention of the ideas.

Each week included an introduction, about 10 lectures (roughly 10 minute each), handouts for each lecture for those who would rather read than listen, and links to ctext files for pertinent text excerpts. I was a little confused about those links for a while, but I finally got the hang of it. Lecture captioning is available in English and Chinese, by the way; while the course occasionally explains characters for various concepts, no knowledge of Chinese is needed (a good thing, since I have none). A non-graded “knowledge check” of one or two questions followed each lecture, with a graded quiz, about 10 questions, at the end of each week. Two peer-assessed essays, 300 to 500 words, were required, each comparing two philosophers on some topic.

Staff was very involved in the course throughout. Prof. Hansen and an excellent TA responded to most student posts in some way, often extending into new directions and giving additional insights; as a result, the boards were active and thought-provoking. Each week featured Prof. Hansen in an impromptu “roundup” video addressing some of the more popular topics from the forums. As moocs aim more for scalability and automation, these are features that will be lost, and they’re the features that differentiate a meh mooc – youtube plus some quiz questions – from an educational experience that will be remembered and will entice students to learn more.

Those of us who know little or nothing about China, or Chinese thought, probably know the words Confucius and Dao, but chances are we don’t really have any idea what is packed into those names. I’d always assumed Confucius was the epitome of Eastern wisdom; imagine my surprise to find that I don’t particularly agree with much of his point of view. Dao is one of those massive topics, like math or history or Liberty or Shakespeare, that tends to get shoehorned into a pithy definition that doesn’t begin to cover it all. I’m going to need to read poet Afaa Michael Weaver’s work with new eyes now; he explicitly mentions Zhuangzi in his interviews, and now that I have some idea of what that references, I’d like to reconnect to that.

For me the central moment came during lecture 6 with the “fish in water” description of how we relate to Daos: I flashed on DFW’s “This is Water” graduation speech (immortalized in brilliant video form which may or may not be on youtube at this moment). I was stunned to find DFW in Zhuangzi (or is it Zhuangzi in DFW?). The technique I call “finding my compassion” versus compassion fatigue when yet another panhandler asks for spare change? My impatience with the maintenance guy who doesn’t believe it’s necessary to find the source of a leak but just to cover up the water damage? Those are choices between daos, and often we don’t realize we’re making a choice.

This course taught me about Mozi and logic and natural philosophy, yes, but it also taught me to look for the choices I make without realizing I’m choosing – because chances are, if I were aware I was choosing, I’d choose differently. I highly recommend the experience.

Belgian Breathing MOOC

Course: Respiration in the Human Body
Length: 7 weeks (self-paced)
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium)/edX
Instructors:
Quote:

How do we breathe? What is the purpose of our lungs? What is the link between oxygen and life ? These questions open a vast field of discovery to help us understand respiration. This course is for anyone who wants to understand human respiratory physiology, the operation of respiration and the lungs.
…During the course experts will discuss specific and practical topics such as how to comprehend oxygenation of a patient, why and when to administer oxygen, and what hyperventilation means.
This course will also discuss in depth human anatomy, physical volumes and pressures of gasses, blood, oxygen, CO₂, lungs, tissues, smoking and chronic bronchitis.

No, the Belgians don’t breathe any differently than the rest of the world. But they sometimes do make MOOCs partly in French, like this one.

There is an all-French version of this course. I’m not sure why they decided to rework it for speakers of English – the videos are in French, but the captions, transcripts, and all text materials (including very helpful formatted handouts with embedded images) are in English – but I’m very glad they did, since I just love medical stuff. There were a few weird translation moments, and it did take a slight extra effort to coordinate words and images, but it worked fine.

Respiration is, alas, about half math and physics. It was kept very simple in this class, with basic explanations of pressure, diffusion, and maybe four basic formulas, none of which involved anything more complicated than multiplication and addition. Things still got kind of complicated, because there’s a difference between the pressure of oxygen in the blood, and the content, and then there’s always figuring out which of several values is altered when altitude is increased, when submersion is involved, or when simultaneous conditions, like asthma or anemia, are present. Then there’s some extra challenge when occasional European conventions, like using commas instead of decimal points, show up.

The course is self-paced, so all five modules were released at the start. The first two cover the basics of plain vanilla respiration, while later modules add in things like altitude shifts, effects of pulmonary diseases, pregnancy and fetal respiration, and pollution. Each section of a module (usually four sections) include a single video, which is mostly lecture with a few health-worker interviews sprinkled in. The lectures were clear and very well-presented; the interviews, not so much. Several of us took exception with the first lecture which proclaims life is not possible without oxygen; there is a sense in which that’s true (human life as we know it, say), but there’s also a sense in which it’s nonsense, since life existed on earth before there was oxygen. In fact, life created oxygen. But that’s a quibble.

Each section also contains several graded “homework” questions. Most are multiple choice, but there’s usually at least one “post your answer” question per section: pick a location at altitude and show what it does to arterial oxygen content, or describe some pollutant and its effects on the body. These are honor-graded, as in, did you do it, check yes or no. The midterm and final, each worth 20% of the final “grade”, are peer-assessed and in similar vein (oops, Freudian pun) to the “post your answer” questions. Passing is set at 50%, “excellent” at 70%. I’m not sure why they have such low expectations. My final hasn’t been assessed yet (I’m not optimistic, since I misunderstood a couple of the questions) but I’m already over the “excellent” mark.

Staff coverage of the discussion boards was very limited. In the first week, a technical issue was quickly resolved, but content questions were largely unanswered or involved long delays (two weeks). This may be due to summer vacations, or to the general trend of moocs as standalone and unsupported (a trend that dismays me greatly). It felt to me that there was generally less student participation than I’ve seen in other medically-oriented courses. Typically, a couple of students will have advanced training in technical areas and will be able to offer help, but that didn’t seem to happen here. It could be the time of year, or it could be the language issue. It could be the constant stream of forced posting that always dilutes actual communication, though someone in moocland thinks it’s a great component.

I wouldn’t say it’s an easy course, particularly for those of us who are permanently mathematically confused. But it’s very do-able. It’s also not the slickest mooc on the block, but I’ve seen some very slick moocs that were crap. It works; with a little bit of accommodation it gets the job done. While it might be too much trouble for someone with casual interest in respiration, I’d recommend it for someone who wants a basic understanding of what actually happens when we breathe.

Medieval Islamic MOOC

Course: The Legacy of Islamic Civilization
Length of course: 4 weeks
School/platform: Biblioteca Alexandria / edX
Instructors: Shereen El Kabbani, Sarah Nagaty
Quote:

How would you like to know about the Muslim civilization, its valuable contributions, and its role in the revival of the Greek Classics?
This is not a course about Islam or the Islamic civilization, it is a course that is intended to give a brief overview and a basic introduction to the achievements of Muslim civilization in the fields of physics, biology, mathematics and astronomy in a concise manner. Although it starts by giving a brief introduction to the emergence of Islam, its main focus is on the contributions of Muslim scientists and philosophers to world history and culture.
The course is a foundational step for those who wish to further read about, or study, the contributions of Muslims in the diverse areas of knowledge.

When I took Duke’s neuroscience mooc The Brain and Space, I was introduced to Ibn al-Haytham (aka Alhazen) via his reversal of Plato’s extramission theory of vision to intromission. In several math courses, I’ve heard about Al-Khwarizmi and his mathematical system of “restoration” (al-jabr) that became algebra. The palace of Alhambra in Spain makes regular appearances on Jeopardy!, and if you’ve redecorated your kitchen in the past couple of decades, you might have used Spanish tilework without realizing the glazing techniques and artistic styles were developed and perfected during the Islamic rule of Spain. We’ve all heard of Marco Polo, but Ibn Battuta travelled from Morocco to the Middle East to India and China and also wrote about his journeys.

Considering the breadth of these accomplishments, I was very happy to see a course that covered the medieval contributions of the Islamic empire to us all. Unfortunately, there’s only so much a four-week course can cover, and this turned out to be more surface-level than the materials I’d already encountered. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad course; it means it’s a survey course.

I got quite a lot out of the first week, which described the growth of the medieval Islamic empire in a more structured way than I’d previously seen. This was quite helpful, seeing it in “chunks” instead of by this ruler or that country. But I’m afraid the rest of it turned into a list: this guy wrote that book, that guy did astronomy and math, here’s where they set up a translation institute and over there’s the library. The section that worked best for me was the one I knew the least about: architecture.

I think the take-home there is: if you need a survey-level course, this could work quite nicely, but if you’re looking for something more in-depth to add to a basic understanding of the contributions of Islamic scholars of the medieval period, either prepare to use the course as a scaffold for your own explorations, or pursue another avenue.

Big History MOOC

Course: Big History: Connecting Knowledge
School/platform: Macquarie University (Coursera)
Instructors: David Christian, David Baker
Quote:

We currently face unprecedented challenges on a global scale. These problems do not neatly fall into disciplines. They are complicated, complex, and connected. Join us on this epic journey of 13.8 billion years starting at the Big Bang and travelling through time all the way to the future. Discover the connections in our world, the power of collective learning, how our universe and our world has evolved from incredible simplicity to ever-increasing complexity.

Thirteen billion years in six weeks. Now that’s what I call a survey course.

I suspect this course is intended for high schoolers, maybe college freshmen, since the University offers a unique scholarship opportunity for those who complete the Verified version of this MOOC. I’m not too sure of the details – if they’re talking about one course, about a specific program, or how many students they accept this way – but it’s an interesting approach.

bh cosmoThe course is built around their “Big History” concept of using both scientific and historical research methods to create a modern cross-cultural origin story for all humans (which is a hard sell to those who are perfectly happy with their own cultural origin stories, thank you very much) via the use of nine Thresholds such as the beginning of the universe, the formation of stars, the appearance of life on earth, the evolution of humans, and the modern era. The course defines these thresholds by four criteria: increase in complexity, the “Goldilocks” conditions that were necessary for them to happen, the changes in energy flows, and the emergence of something new, be it a universe, life on earth, or the use of fossil fuels.

The first week was a detailed explanation of this process, including a little epistemology via the introduction of a four-pronged “claim tester” – intuition, evidence, logic, and authority – to evaluate how we decide what to believe. Lots of rubrics in use here, which may be why it took all of the first week to explain them all. The rest of the course proceeded chronologically. Weeks 2 and 3 were primarily science: (cosmology, evolution), the fourth and fifth week began with archaeology and turned into history, and the last week speculated about the future. The idea wasn’t to understand any of these individual topics in detail, but to look at the transitions between the thresholds and the overall path.

As a supplement to the course videos, lead professor David Baker wrote up a set of scripts for the Green brothers’ Crash Course series on Youtube; this is available to anyone. Each week also included a timeline and glossary, and in most cases, optional articles on relevant topics. A multiple-choice quiz ends every week (unlimited attempts are allowed, though only three tries can occur in any 8-hour period) and a peer-assessment essay, graded almost entirely by completion rather than content, is required at the end of the course.

I signed up for this course because one of my mooc buddies (hi, Richard) mentioned he was taking it. To be fair, he also warned me he’d dropped it once before because it contained insufficient detail, but he’s got more science knowledge than I do so I figured I’d give it a shot. I was disappointed by the absence of detail on any individual topic, and there wasn’t any real investigation of how history and science often interact, with one sometimes impeding, sometimes enhancing, the other. I did, however, very much like an article on critical thinking from Week 1, and during the cosmology section, I did some poking around to find more detailed information and discovered something called Planck’s length which I’m quite taken with. You can get something out of anything if you put some effort into it.

I think the course is probably of far more interest to someone with limited academic experience beyond high school, or perhaps someone who wants a gentle return to academics after a hiatus. The overview approach might also make a good prelude to some of the more detailed courses like Origins, Cal Tech’s Solar System Astronomy, or UVA’s The Modern World (now available in two parts), or for that matter, any of the earth science, astronomy, or history courses floating around on various mooc platforms.