Intro to Engineering MOOC – Vaults

Course: The Art of Structural Engineering: Vaults
Length: 6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Princeton/edX
Instructor: Maria Garlock

In this engineering course you will learn how to analyze vaults (long-span roofs) from three perspectives:
Efficiency = calculations of forces/stresses
Economy = evaluation of societal context and cost
Elegance = form/appearance based on engineering principles, not decoration
We explore iconic vaults like the Pantheon, but our main focus is on contemporary vaults built after the industrial revolution. The vaults we examine are made of different materials, such as tile, reinforced concrete, steel and glass, and were created by masterful engineers/builders like Rafael Guastavino, Anton Tedesko, Pier Luigi Nervi, Eduardo Torroja, Félix Candela, and Heinz Isler.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: This was not the right class for me to take. I was curious to learn more about the technical details of vaults, having seen some wonderful examples of structures from medieval and renaissance architecture, and this was, as advertised, a very basic introduction to the engineering of vaults. However, after a brief look at the Roman Pantheon, the course focused on concrete shells of the 20th century and more modern innovations. I lost interest quickly. Then I got sick between weeks 4 and 5, which further diminished my participation. I did end up “passing” the course, so it might be worth your while even if your particular interest is only partly covered. And I did come away with a better understanding of how vaults work, though keep in mind, I started at absolute zero.

Each week consisted of three distinct sections: a lecture series covering the historical and technical development of vault engineering, generally by focusing on one engineer who introduced a specific innovation, be it reinforced concrete or hyperparabolic shapes; a mathematical section, in PDF form, covering several equations in detail, though at a fairly simple mathematical level requiring only basic algebra; and a creative section, which invites students to post pictorial examples of some facet of the week’s material. Grading is divided fairly equally among these three sections. But don’t worry: although the material, particularly the mathematical sections (none of which go beyond basic algebra), may seem intimidating, the questions are manageable. Even though I skipped everything but the lecture sequences of weeks 5 and 6, I “passed” by a comfortable margin.

The lectures were very good, with lots of illustrative exampes, interviews with a variety of engineers and scholars, and a very step-by-step explanation of the development and construction of the technique under study.

This is part of a three-course series, with other courses covering engineering concepts of bridges and tall buildings. And again let me emphasize that although this was not the best course for my particular interests, the course was well-designed, and the series seems to be ideal for someone interested in getting a basic introduction to civil engineering.

Free Will MOOC

Course: Libertarian Free Will: Neuroscientific and Philosophical Evidence
Length: 6 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: Dartmouth/edX
Instructor: Peter Tse

In this course, we will dismantle arguments against free will, both from a philosophical and neuroscientific perspective. In supporting free will, we will tour philosophy, physics and neuroscience. We will rethink the neural code and discover that evolution has discovered a middle path between determinism and chance.

Philosophy plus neuroscience: what could be better?

But let’s get rid of one potential misconception: this course has absolutely nothing to do with the political stance known as Libertarianism. Instead, it focuses on philosophical libertarianism, which is related to non-determinism and the potential of different outcomes for different choices. The second level of this is to become a different kind of chooser, a bit more sophisticated kind of free will, in which we can decide to learn a language or a musical instrument and thus open up those choices, or follow a particular way of life and make our choices there. Sound complicated? It isn’t, really, but it helps to take the first couple of weeks of the course to see the ways this works.

The material was based largely on Dr. Tse’s book The Neural Basis of Free Will and as such had a clear point of view, yet made it clear there are other points of view as well. There were a few lecture segments that seemed a bit polemical to me, but these were clearly presented as coming from a particular point of view, rather than as fact. The instructor was engaging and clear, covering basics of both philosophy and neuroscience first then moving on to more complex topics.

The first week presented an overview of determinism vs non-determinism, and the general outline of free will within that schema. Week two continued with a philosophical approach to the classifications of free will. The remaining four weeks focused more on neuroscience, and how our brains have evolved to allow consideration of choices, as well as random fluctuations that prevent determinism.

I still have some issues with this. While the “swerve” (borrowing that phrase from Steve Greenblatt’s wonderful book on Lucretius) prevents absolute determinism and adds in an element of randomness, I still don’t see that it automatically creates free will. If we are just as beholden to the swerved paths as the originals, how is that free will? But it seems to be basis, along with quantum fluctuations (spooky-action-at-a-distance is the one I have some vague, rudimentary grasp of), of free will.

In any case it was seriously interesting all the way through. If some of the material should seem overwhelming, don’t worry; the graded questions are looking for broader concepts. A set of non-graded questions follows up each lecture, with a quiz at the end of the week drawn from those same questions. There’s reallly no excuse to miss any of those questions, in other words. They account for 75% of the course grade, with discussion counting for 25%. Since the passing grade is 70%, it’s very possible to pass the course without doing the discussion. I avoided discussion deliberately, as there was a particularly argumentative student who basically disagreed with everything, and I just didn’t want to deal with it.

Even though I’m less than convinced that the questions are answered, I greatly enjoyed the course since it hit two of my primary areas of interest.

Critical thinking mooc

Course: Critical Thinking: Fundamentals of Good Reasoning
Length: 9 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Jonathan Berg

This course is an introduction to critical thinking—thinking about arguments, about reasons that might be given in support of a conclusion. The objective of the course is to improve the student’s ability in the basic skills of critical thinking….
Of course, we all know, to some extent or another, how to think critically—how to think about reasons for or against some claim. The course is built on the assumption that learning more about what exactly is involved in thinking about reasons leads us to do it better. Thus, in each topic covered, our natural logical instincts serve as a starting point, from which we develop a rigorous, theoretical understanding, which then boosts our critical thinking skills.

I’ve taken, what, four or five introductory logic courses now; each one is a little different. Some are more comprehensive, some focus on different things. This one kept things at the simplest level and featured lots of very clear explanations and examples, plus three different modes of grading. As a first course in logic, I think it might work quite well. And then, it included my favorite: truth trees! Some of the other topics included Venn and Euler diagrams, types of deductive argument structures and fallacies, and inductive arguments. Most of the emphasis is on recognizing these elements in actual, if simple, arguments.

Each week consisted of two or three individual lessons, generally about 10 – 15 minutes of video each. Graded material came in three flavors:

  • A short set of questions with unlimited attempts at each question followed each video (25%);
  • Three overall quizzes, one every three weeks (and I found these surprisingly difficult, since I frequently misinterpreted statements), with one attempt per question (these are timed, but the two-hour time limit was more than ample)(45%);
  • Three submission exercises in finding an argument “in the wild” pertaining to the covered topics were required (30%). This wasn’t really peer-assessed, since full credit was given merely for submission and evaluation of other students’ work, with student evaluations not factored into the grade. The hardest part was finding an argument that could be fairly easily broken down into premises and conclusions; except for the last week, where I’d seen something on Twitter that immediately screamed “Argument by analogy with faulty property inference”.

Since two of these elements can be aced with minimal effort, a passing grade is almost a given.

The last week was devoted to production of an argument, with steps for design. The structure was useful, but there’s no way to practice. This is the Achilles’ heel of many humanities moocs: once they gave up on real peer-assessment, there’s really no way to create an assignment for this. The discussion forums would be an option, but, somewhat surprisingly, there was little activity, beyond the initial meet-and-greet, even though the instructor provided feedback for questions.

I thought it was a very good, if very basic, introductory course. The Duke reasoning course on Coursera gets into some of the more complicated and hard-to-parse examples so might make a good follow-up. Microsoft’s logic and computational thinking course covers much the same ground, then gets a bit more into scientific applications. I still miss the now-disappeared Australian course, my personal favorite logic course which included wonderful topic areas I’ve never seen anywhere else: language, mathematics, and computational logic. The Stanford course on Coursera is tailored to computer science; better minds than mine have hated it as much as I did. But for anyone looking for a place to start, this introductory mooc would fit the bill. And trust me: the more you go over it, the easier it gets.

Hope through Existentialism mooc

Course: HOPE: Human Odyssey to Political Existentialism
Length: 10 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Princeton/edX
Instructor: Uriel Abulof

Human Odyssey to Political Existentialism (HOPE) is a journey into the human condition and its politics, turning to existentialism for guidance. The course explores, on both individual and political levels, the following themes: Human / nature, identity & authenticity, freedom, reflection, happiness, death & dread, meaning, morality & ethics, truth & trust, God & religion, alienation & love, and finally – hope.”

HOPE is a richly interdisciplinary course: anchored in political science and philosophy, it also draws on history, sociology, psychology, and economy – synthesizing theoretical insights with empirical findings; both vintage and novel. HOPE shows that science and art can create a wonderful synergy when studying – indeed foregrounding – our humanity.

When I signed up for this course, I figured it would be one of the “light” philosophy moocs: less about reading Sartre, and more about “how do you feel about X”. That’s ok, that can be useful. Then, a few weeks before the start date, Princeton sent out a unique preview video that made me – can I say it? – hopeful that the course might be quite interesting.

There wasn’t any reading Sartre, it’s true, and rather than reading chapters of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, there were nutshell versions of pertinent ideas. But a great deal of work went into putting together a course that showed applications and consequences of those ideas in the form of film, literature, and music. And, yes, discussion questions.

Each of eight content weeks (plus an introductory week) focused on a topic – say, identity, or freedom, or happiness. Material included a warm-up exercise, perhaps a poll on what quality makes humans different from animals, or a discussion question like “Is a happy virtual reality better than a miserable reality?” Lecture videos tended to run longer than the canonical 6-minutes, but usually included film clips and/or music videos pertinent to the topic. Clips varied from 1984 to more obscure European films; the music videos were mostly alternative/progressive rock: Pink Floyd, REM, Radiohead. This sounds minor, but trust me, while permission is almost always granted for this sort of thing, the process – even if it’s just putting up a credits list of public domain items – still requires significant work. A lot of care went into this course.

Specific discussion questions followed each video – and, by the way, this is the only course I’ve taken that has figured out how to solve the problem of “what part of ‘Reply, don’t start a new thread’ do you not understand”. Unfortunately, it was difficult to follow up, since only direct replies were notified, but that’s true no matter what. Brief multiple choice quizzes with several attempts were also included, as well as a “Gallery Assignment” – basically a discussion question plus art, which ended up offsite on a Princeton board. Grading was a complicated mixture of these elements, but basically required self-reported participation in discussions and the Gallery as well as quiz scores to earn a passing grade.

I was psyched at the beginning, but I have to admit, I got a little tired of it as time went on; I more or less skipped the last two weeks. That isn’t the fault of the course, which is imaginative and carefully designed and executed. I just have a preference for the dry, straight lectures and reading assignments so many people take courses like this to avoid. I knew what it was going in, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to try something a little different. And for those who would rather bypass the dry lectures and voluminous reading, it offers an experiential way to encounter some of the basic ideas of existentialism.

Neuro in three acts: Fundamentals of Neuroscience MOOC series

Course: Fundamentals of Neuroscience (three course series)
Length: 5, 6, and 8 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: David Cox

Based on the introductory neurobiology courses taught at Harvard College, Fundamentals of Neuroscience is a three-part series that explores the structure and function of the entire nervous system — from the microscopic inner workings of a single nerve cell to the staggering complexity of the brain.
You’ll study the electrical properties of individual neurons, examine how neurons pass signals to one another, and how complex dynamics result from just a few neurons. You’ll explore sensation, perception, and the physiology of functional regions of the brain.
Through fun animations, documentaries, and interactive virtual labs discover what makes the brain tick and how we perceive the world around us.

I’ve been taking this three-part series for so long, I don’t even remember when it started – oh, there it is, September 4, Part 1, The Electrical Properties of the Neuron. Then, in mid-October, Part 2, Neurons and Networks started, while Part 3, the examination of the broadest system, The Brain, began on Dec. 5. It’s all self-paced; in general, I finished each segment early, since I’ve been doing introductory neuro over and over for a while now. What can I say, I like brain stuff. I still have about a week to go before I finish up Part 3, but I wanted to get my postings done before the end of the year to clear the decks for Pushcart on January 1.

IIRC, I started this course several years ago when I was still fairly new to moocs; I quickly dropped it, since it was loaded with off-site content, much of which I had a lot of trouble working (I’m not sure if it was the system, or me, that was faulty). Things went much better this time around, perhaps due to streamlined and imported bells and whistles, perhaps due to me being better prepared.

I get the sense the developers of the course were really most interested in the first segment on electrical properties of the neuron –potentials, resistance, and the effects of electrolytes – since that’s where most of the fancy stuff was found: graphics to adjust levels of electrolytes across membranes with adjustable resistance, etc. I found some of it rather difficult to follow, and the material on length constant and time constant was far too brief. It’s possible I struggled because I was less interested in this particular area. Most neuroresearch, of course, measures electrical activity, so it’s appropriate that it’s emphasized.

In this segment there was even an optional do-it-yourself lab for “Recording and stimulating a nerve.” Materials required included a spiker box, stimulation cable, computer and smartphone, and a cockroach. Yeah, I think I’ll pass on that one.

The second course in the series moved up a level to interneuron communication via neurotransmitters and modulators, synapses, and excitation/inhibition patterns. Included were several interesting “Extras”, interviews with researchers looking at such topics as optogenetics – using a light-activated channel from algae to stimulate and record neuronal activity – and connectomics, a technique to understand the informational organization of the nervous system.

Part Three was more about structure and pathways in the brain: sensory and motor pathways, as well as the connections between areas that record memories and produce emotional responses. Some of the information – the structure of the lateral geniculate nucleus along the visual pathway, for instance – was extremely detailed and very helpful, while some – the sensory pathways – seemed more of an overview.

Each week’s material consisted of a number of short video lectures with two or three graded Practice Problems following, plus a final exam at the end of each course. Multiple attempts are given for each question in both cases; most of the questions are information-retrieval, the exception being the first course where a fair amount of applying various equations is required.

A great deal of material is covered, and it can be overwhelming for those who haven’t encountered these elements before, but that’s what learning is for. Fun fact: the only neurons that seem to be able to reproduce are located in the olfactory region (smelling) and the hippocampus (memory). No one’s exactly sure what this means yet; it’s possible the memory cells, most replicated in infants, actually destroy memory by “writing over” existing patterns. But why those cells? Why not spinal cord neurons, which might allow function to be regained after devastating injury? The answer will probably be found in evolutionary function; I have no idea what it might be, but I’ll bet it’ll be fascinating.

I find it all fascinating, that what we think and feel and do all boils down to electrical impulses carried by tiny wires. In many cases, particularly in the third course, the consequences of things going awry, despite all the redundancies and plasticity, are covered briefly. Given how complicated the neural system is, it’s kind of amazing things don’t go wrong more often. Yet here we are, still. At least for now.

19th Century European Opera MOOC: Prof. Kelly does it again

Course: 19th-Century Opera: Meyerbeer, Wagner, & Verdi
Length: 6 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard, edX
Instructor: Thomas Forrest Kelly

Travel through central Europe in the 1800s to experience the premieres of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and Verdi’s Otello…. You’ll learn about the musical details of each opera and the cultural influence of the works by understanding the circumstances of its composition, premiere performance, and its legacy and significance today.
What you’ll learn:
▪ The technologies behind 1830s French opera performances
▪ The relationships among major players in the premiere of Les Huguenots
▪ How Romanticism differed from the optimism of the Enlightenment
▪ The different singing styles in French Grand Opera
▪ Innovations in staging between the three periods of opera.
▪ How Wagner represented characters and situations with musical themes
▪ How Wagner’s approach to opera influenced Verdi’s Otello
▪ How Act I of Otello looked and sounded at the premiere

At the start of this course, I had absolutely no knowledge of Meyerbeer, an active dislike of Wagner, and a great fondness for Verdi, recently stoked by Stephen Greenblatt’s mooc on Othello. I came away at the end of the course with a better understanding of all three. And, as in all his moocs, Prof. Kelly made the journey entertaining.

As I’ve said of these courses before (I’ve taken all seven, though I haven’t blogged each one), they’re only partly about the music. Kelly creates a comfortable gestalt of history, biography, technology, and music, including interviews with directors and recording historians, to present the works in a context of time and space. For instance, I didn’t know that Meyerbeer and the Grand Opera of the French 19th century expanded the technology of stagecraft; that Wagner built the Bayreuth theatre specifically for his Ring cycle, and had some unusual ideas about its presentation (lack of boxes for royalty and the upper crust, save a box for the Prince who helped fund the work, for one; a prohibition on applause between acts, for another); or that Verdi incorporated several of Wagner’s musical techniques into his Otello while still keeping his own signature approach.

Each lecture video is followed by a short set of questions. For this entry in the series, I didn’t even do my usual note-taking, but answered the questions while the videos were playing. The only tricky part were the musical recognition questions, few in number: which motif is this, what instrument is playing, that sort of thing. I also didn’t participate in discussion, but the forums were active with others who did.

I again recommend this course to anyone with even a little interest in the material; it has a way of grabbing your imagination as things go on. I tend to have a preference for more academic moocs, but for these, I make an exception: they’re wonderful little stories, and, for those who are motivated to take it all more seriously, additional resources are available.

Three years ago the first of Thomas Forrest Kelly’s music moocs popped up out of nowhere, delighting me with a charming, informative look at Handel’s Messiah. And now, the series, based on Kelly’s two “First Nights” books, wraps up with a look at three nineteenth-century operas from three European settings. I can only hope he brings some of his other books to moocdom.

Even More Probably (Purdue, Part 2) mooc

Course: Probability: Distribution Models & Continuous Random Variables
Length: 6 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk (ha!)
School/platform: Purdue/edX
Instructor: Mark D. Ward

In this statistics and data analysis course, you will learn about continuous random variables and some of the most frequently used probability distribution models including, exponential distribution, Gamma distribution, Beta distribution, and most importantly, normal distribution.
You will learn how these distributions can be connected with the Normal distribution by Central limit theorem (CLT). We will discuss Markov and Chebyshev inequalities, order statistics, moment generating functions and transformation of random variables.

The same comments I made about Part 1 of this course – the part covering basic probability concepts and discrete models – hold for this one: it’s a great course in so many ways, but it’s missing some kind of connective tissue. And the support – that is, forum assistance – is sketchy at best.

I have to smile when I see the expected workload for six weeks is 4 to 6 hours a week. Yet, I can see how that might be true for those who can listen to something like this…

Okay, the first one I’ll tell you about is the Weak Law of Large Numbers: it says that what we should do is fix an epsilon – it’s positive, it’s usually small, maybe you use epsilon as 1/1000 or 1/10000. And consider an infinite sequence of random variables, say X1, X2, X3, etc., that are independent. So then the probability that the average of the first n random variables is more than epsilon away from the mean of the random variables converges to 0 as n goes to infinity.

… and grasp it without parsing over it and remembering the (ε, δ)definition of limits and how it isn’t really that complicated, it’s just really nasty to put into words. Or mathematical notation, for that matter. If you can read Math, you’ll do fine. For the rest of us, it’s gonna take a lot longer, and involve a lot more sweat. But it can be done: In eight 12- to 14-hour weeks, I managed to come out of this with a decent grade, though I have to say, I strongly suspect the deck was stacked to puff up grades. I’m not fooling myself: I have a long way to go before I “understand” this stuff.

Included was what I’m discovering is the standard probability curriculum: various continuous probability distributions complete with PDFs, CDFs, expected values, variance, sums, and conditionals, Markov and Chebychev inequalities, covariance, moment generating functions, and transformations. Again, as with Part 1, each set of lectures is followed by three or four sets of ungraded practice questions in PDF form, and that’s where the real learning takes place. Weekly graded quizzes follow; these are well-designed with both basic-concept questions (“find the expected value of this PDF”) and more complicated problems. There are also several “gimmes” along the way – seriously, “Your answer should be 3”, why is this even a question? And “your answer to d should be the same as your answer to b” gives you two chances to come up with the goods – hence my impression that there’s some padding going on.

The prerequisites recommend three semesters of Calculus (“including double integers”, which presumably should be “double integrals”) and sure enough, many of the problems require integration, a few need differentiation, and infinite series pop up every once in a while. While I can differentiate reasonably well, integration has always been a problem. I found this course helped my precarious understanding of integrals a lot, particularly with things like integrating xy with respect to y, exponentials, u-substitution, and integration by parts (the whole calculate-this thing). For the bulk of the work, I relied on Wolfram Alpha and Symbolab, because I’m picking my battles. So sue me. For my purposes, it worked ok, and even was helpful. I wouldn’t recommend trying this without some prior exposure to calculus, however.

Another way I used this course, besides the obvious learning about probability, was to improve my ability to “read’ math. I’m by nature a reader, but when it comes to math, I look at page of notation which presumably contain their own explanations, and my eyes just glaze over. It’s why moocs are so much more useful to me than textbooks. Here, where each lecture includes a PDF handout which is often the entire lecture, I went through the handouts first, literally copying them into my notes document, and tried to understand what was going on. Then I’d listen to the lectures, which meant two passes over the material. I still struggle with reading math, but it’s a start.

The lectures mentioned a few times “If you have any questions, come and see me” which means this was intended for a flipped classroom, not solo study. That can work really well, but the support wasn’t really there; the discussion forums were empty. I asked three questions, got two answers five days later, and they assumed I was asking different questions. So it was just as lonely as Part 1, which I took in archived form. I’m still shocked that the forums are (after I deleted my posts) empty; isn’t anyone taking this course, or does everyone but me just understand this stuff?

In spite of all my complaints, I still thought this was a great two-part course, just what I needed to provide enough background so I could go back to Harvard’s Introduction to Probability course that I had to put on hold [addendum:yeah, after taking another look, I’ve put this on permanent hold, aka dropped it, not gonna happen, just way way too mathy] when it became evident that I wasn’t getting it (and, by the way, with the exception of a few lead-in videos covering a broad overview of topics, is entirely in written form – hence my need to improve my ability to read math). That’s the benefit of moocs: you can keep taking stuff over and over without fighting with the Enrollment Office or with the bursar. Taking stuff from different profs also offers the benefit of realizing that one person’s “find the density of X” is another’s “find the PDF of X”. It’s an approach I find helpful: the first time through, I get some idea of the lay of the land, and by the second (or maybe the third, or fourth, whatever it takes) time, I’m ready to actually start learning.

There’s a whole other course coming up in May. Maybe then I’ll be able to say I get it. Probably not. But maybe.

Othello’s Story: Shakespeare MOOC

Course: Othello’s Story
Length: 3 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: HarvardX/edX
Instructor: Stephen Greenblatt

We’ll look at the ways in which Shakespeare’s characters tell stories within the play––about themselves, to themselves, and to each other. We’ll consider, too, how actors, directors, composers, and other artists tell stories through Othello in performance. By focusing on storytelling, we can see how the play grapples with larger issues including power, identity, and the boundary between fact and fiction.

This is one of three moocs (the others are Hamlet’s Ghost, and Shylock’s Bond) taught by Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespeare and early modern specialist I first encountered through his captivating book on medieval humanism The Swerve. If you’re unfamiliar with the play and want a straightforward interpretive approach, the Wellesley or Adelaide moocs might be a better option, but for those who are familiar with the play, this course offers some highly interesting explorations of different adaptations.

The first week is a general introduction to Shakespeare’s life and times, a unit that’s included in all three moocs. We then move on to look at how Othello uses language to define himself, and at the boundary between truth and lies, including the question of whether fiction is itself a lie. Included is an examination of some of the black actors who have played Othello: to wit, Ira Aldridge, who toured Europe in a highly successful production in the 1850s (yes, during the age of slavery in the US), and, in the 1930s, Paul Robeson, who toured England and the US. It’s worth noting that Robeson sometimes had trouble finding lodging while on tour in the US, and the company refused to play in segregated venues.

In the final two weeks we turned to the examination of different retellings of the play, both in opera and in contemporary theater. Both Rossini and Verdi wrote operatic versions of the play in the 19th century, making changes in action and motivation for dramatic and practical purposes. And then there’s Othello in the Seraglio, a 21st century reworking of the play by an American musician of Turkish/Cypriot ancestry, set in Cyprus and fusing jazz, music from the Ottoman empire, and European classical music of the same era. An extended interview with the composer is a highlight of the course.

The final week focused on an extended interview with playwright/director/actor Keith Hamilton Cobb, whose American Moor is not a setting of the play but an “exploration of the American black male through the metaphor of Shakespeare’s Othello”, as he puts it. It’s a one-man dramatization of an audition, by a black actor, for the role of Othello; at one point, he sits on the stage and tells us, “That’s how it begins: a little white man, asking me if I have any questions about how I, a large black man, enacting the role of a large black man in a Shakespeare play about a large black man that has been for the last 50 years the province of large black men; no, I ain’t got no questions. But you should.”

Everyone comes to a class like this with different goals, but for me, the last two weeks were extraordinary, and worth taking the course in themselves.

Graded material for each week consists of a short set of multiple-choice questions, participation in several discussion forum topics, and an assignment question to be posted to the forums. The second and third of these aren’t graded, except for completion, which is self-reported. I took the course as a recreational mooc, so I did only the multiple choice; these make up about half the score, so some written work is necessary to earn a passing grade. Whether you wish to cheat or not is between you and your conscience.

Othello might be my favorite Shakespeare play, at least my favorite of the tragedies. It’s also perennially contemporary. This course may not give a scene-by-scene description of the action, but it shows how it has been transported across times and cultures, while still retaining its original core.

Book of Kells MOOC

Course: The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

Length: 4 weeks, 4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Trinity College Dublin/Futurelearn
Instructor: Rachel Moss, Fáinche Ryan

The Book of Kells manuscript, housed at Trinity College Dublin is world-famous – it attracts almost one million visitors a year. But what can this book tell us about Irish history? And what significance is the manuscript in today’s world?
On this course you will use the Book of Kells as a window through which to explore the landscape, history, faith, theology, and politics of early medieval Ireland. You will also consider how the manuscript was made, its extended biography and how it has affected different areas of the contemporary world.

About a year ago, I wished there could be a mooc focusing in detail on an individual manuscript, its history, text, and images. And guess what popped up last week! This was a lot of fun.

Week 1 was a general introduction to the Book of Kells, which until embarrassingly recently I thought was something like The Book of Runes, with kells as a form of ancient alphabet. No, no, no: the book is a four-volume compendium of the Gospels, and Kells is the town of the monastery where the book was probably partly written, then was housed (and stolen! but recovered) for centuries. Written about 800 CE (a 1200 year old book!), it has a complex history, and in the 17th century was given to the Trinity College library where it is on exhibit to the public. It’s become a prominent symbol of Ireland and an example of the earliest Irish art.

Week 2 covered aspects of manuscript creation. This was more superficial than I’d hoped, but that’s probably because I’ve taken a couple of fairly detailed courses including things like vellum production and scripting. The material pointed out the use of orpiment, a highly toxic yellow pigment used instead of gold leaf; the effect, at least in digitalized images, is remarkably similar. For someone not that familiar with, or interested in, manuscript production, this might be just the right depth.

The third week was where I focused my attention: the religious significance of the images. I was aware that fish were long associated with Christianity (though I’d never seen them used as abbreviation bars before), and three dots for the Trinity made sense (how they ended up as pawn shop markers I don’t know), but other things were brand new to me. I seem to have a lot of trouble “seeing” chalices, though the vines are usually pretty evident, and I’m still not sure which blobs are peacocks and which are just blobs. The illustrations are gorgeous; there’s a reason, besides age, that this is one of the most famous manuscripts in Europe.

Week 4 looked at how the book became a symbol of Irish culture, from the knot imagery to its incorporation into literature – everything from James Joyce to Guardians of the Galaxy. More about its display was explained, including the Turning of the Page every eight weeks or so: each of the four volumes is kept in a glass case to protect it from the elements, but different pages are displayed throughout the year. And of course the pages have been digitized and can be viewed online for those of us not planning to visit Ireland in the near future.

I haven’t used Futurelearn in quite some time, but this I just couldn’t pass up. They have chosen a different way to encourage the purchase of certificates ($74 for this particular course); free course materials are only available for the length of the course, and while there were quizzes for each week’s material, there is no grading. I treated this as a recreational mooc, as opposed to an academic one. I was most interested in book construction, which was covered less thoroughly than other courses I’ve taken, and iconography, which was marvelous and memorable; I also pasted lost of images into my notes for future reference.

I’m so glad I stumbled across this course; I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Irish history, religious imagery, or manuscripts in general.

Operamooc: First Nights of the 18th Century – Handel and Mozart

Course: 18th-Century Opera: Handel & Mozart
Length: 5 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: HarvardX/edX
Instructor: Thomas Forrest Kelly

In this breathtaking course, you’ll get to know the music of two beautiful operas — both in their spellbinding artistry and colorful histories.
First, you’ll travel to London in 1724, where George Frederic Handel premiered his most famous opera, Giulio Cesare. Meet the performers and experience what it was like to attend the first production, all while gaining an appreciation for the typical characteristics of Italian opera represented in this popular Baroque opera seria.
Then fast-forward 63 years to the Estates Theatre in Prague for the premiere of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s enduring classic, Don Giovanni. Learn about the challenges Mozart faced during the rehearsal process and the revolutionary relationship he created between music and drama in this opera.

I’m not sure what it is about Prof. Kelly’s lecture style that makes his courses so much fun, but this is the sixth one I’ve taken and they’re all delightful. Here he focuses on 18th century opera through two very different approaches: the recitative/aria model used by Handel and others early in the period, and the more melodic and dramatic style that emerged later with Mozart, culminating in Don Giovanni.

No music background is required or expected. That isn’t to say that musicology is overlooked. We find out about key changes that came to characterize the classical period, the different structural parts of the music (ritornello, cavatina), and, most importantly, the ways the structure and sound of the music contribute to the emotional and dramatic whole of the piece (the discussion of “La Ci Darem La Mano” is not to be missed!). But everything is explained for those with little or no background in music or opera.

Overall the course is probably best described as music appreciation: a conversational approach to the music’s history, the stage presentation, the conventions of singing and stage performance at the time, explanations of why the opera was written to begin with, and details of the opening night performances. Much of it is told in an anecdotal manner rather than the typical lecture style. A few questions, mostly multiple choice (but a couple aiming for listening skills) follow each video. For me, it was a recreational mooc, a wonderful way to wind down for an hour or so at the end of the day.

Although I was primarily interested in classical singing – choral, art songs, madrigals – I hated opera until my late 20s, when I found ways to understand one work, then another and another. I still wouldn’t call myself an opera buff; I love a group of a half-dozen or so, and like some arias from another dozen, but you’d have to chain me to my seat to get me to sit through Fidelio again (the first time I saw it at least I was at Tanglewood, which is beautiful no matter what’s playing). The truism that understanding changes attitudes is a truism for a reason: it’s true. And if Prof. Kelly ever explains Wagner, well, I just might surprise myself by liking that, too. And oh, by the way – there’s a 19th century session in the works. I can’t wait!

Probably (Purdue part 1) MOOC

Course: Probability: Basic Concepts & Discrete Random Variables
Length: 6 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk (New session starts Oct. 13, 2018)
School/platform: Purdue/edX
Instructor: Mark Ward

In this course, we will first introduce basic probability concepts and rules, including Bayes theorem, probability mass functions and CDFs, joint distributions and expected values.
Then we will discuss a few important probability distribution models with discrete random variables, including Bernoulli and Binomial distributions, Geometric distribution, Negative Binomial distribution, Poisson distribution, Hypergeometric distribution and discrete uniform distribution.

I grew to love this course, and I feel like it greatly helped my understanding of probability, but when I sat down and put all my thoughts together, I remembered being less enthusiastic at the start. So now I have to wonder: do I have a highly positive view of the class because it’s really good, or because I did well? And did I do well because it was a great course, or because, after running at this stuff multiple times, I was finally ready to learn some of it? I don’t know, but this was the right course for me at the right time and I’m very pleased – and ready to tackle part 2, which is the highest endorsement anyone can give.

This is part 1 of a 2-part series, and covered general probability techniques and discrete models; continuous models and the fancy stuff like Markov chains are covered in Part 2. I took it in archived form, meaning the forums weren’t active. I’m happy to discover that both parts will be re-starting on Oct. 13; I’m registered for both. For me, math is a process, with lots of loops and restarts.

By way of brief recap, since in math classes, background is everything: I ended up in this course after I tried the Harvard follow-up to the very introductory mooc Fat Chance, but it was too “mathy” for me; the focus was on proving theorems with little guidance on what to do with them. This was more my speed, an in-between step, since explanation shared the stage with deriving and proving theorems.

The course is structured so that all the lectures are presented for the week, at which point I would feel generally confused. I felt like I was missing an overview, a sense of where we were going, the connective tissue of narrative. But I have learned patience, and it paid off: the lectures were followed by three problem sets of non-graded practice questions, complete with answers and varying degrees of detailed explanation. This is where the course really worked well for me: doing these questions – or in many cases, not doing them because I didn’t know what to do at first – and reviewing the given solutions made sense of the lectures. I do wish there had been a few “basic nuts and bolts” questions after each video, but that’s me.

Because it took me a while to catch on to the rhythm of the course, I think I still have more to learn from the first weeks in particular, which is why I signed up again. It will also be helpful to have forums for questions (I still don’t think I fully understand how to calculate variance, particularly using the “diagonal” approach shown in the video), though I found I could get most of my questions answered through old forum posts.

Each week ended with a graded set of 11 or 12 questions. These varied in complexity, which is always helpful. For the most part they shadowed the practice questions, though some would venture into unexplored territory or require some extra consideration of just what manipulation was necessary. Most of the questions required calculation; a few were multiple choice. Grading was generous: three attempts were possible for each question (although the syllabus claimed they were single-attempt; maybe they are single-attempt in live sessions, with more leeway in archive. Or maybe they changed their minds. Or maybe it’s a mistake).

And again, these questions is where the lectures came together for me. I wish there had been another round somewhere along the line, since often I didn’t figure out how something worked until the last question, but there were no further questions on that aspect to make sure I knew what I was doing.

I found one outside source to be an enormous help: the Youtube channel run by jbstatistics (aka Jeremy Balka, assistant prof of Math at Guelph University). These videos are extremely clear, step-by-step explanations of basic topics in Discrete (and continuous) probability without a lot of technical verbiage.

I’m really glad I found this course, and I’m hoping to be able to tackle Part 2 on continuous models, which is where I completely fell apart in the Harvard series. It might not be the course for everyone; for someone at my level, a good deal of frustration tolerance is required, but a little patience went a long way and in the end, the result was very much worth it.

Beyond Medical Histories: Insight from Patient Stories mooc

Course: Beyond Medical Histories: Gaining Insight from Patient Stories
Length: 3 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Brown/edX
Instructor: Jay Baruch, MD

Physicians and healthcare providers are – fundamentally – professional story-listeners, story-shapers, and story-responders. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; people have always related to each other and the world through the telling, listening, and interpreting of stories.

Expertise with stories is a low-tech skill that’s fundamental to connection, communication, curiosity, and problem-solving. It’s a clinical ability with multiple potential benefits, ranging from making us more mindful of our thinking to improving patient engagement. Aptitude with stories can both expand our tolerance for uncertainty and reduce risk.
We’ll focus on stories – challenging stories, in particular. We’ll discuss why healthcare providers must think more creatively, even in a field that prides itself on its grounding in scientific evidence.

Any course that starts with an Amy Hempel story has real promise.

I love medical stuff, and obviously I like stories, so this sounded like a win-win: using techniques from storytelling to better understand a patiet’s presentation. It’s primarily intended for medical practitioners, particularly those in training, but everyone was explicitly welcomed.

It’s a short course, three weeks (there is a Week 0, for purposes of getting used to the edX platform, but there’s no content). There’s very little solid content; it’s mostly open response to acted-out scenarios and discussions of the issues raised. Ostensibly the weeks had different foci, but I found it all to boil down to: keep an eye on your assumptions, notice when you’re being triggered by a difficult patient, and think about what isn’t being said as well as what is being said. The instructors were mostly emergency room physicians, a setting that often requires action when there isn’t a lot of time to gather a great deal of data.

Grading is purely self-reported: did you submit an answer to a survey question? Did you post on this topic? My main struggle with the course was remembering to click the checkboxes, since I normally don’t scroll down that far.

The acted-out scenarios in W1 and 2 were dramatic as conflicts arose between patients and staff, patients and their families, families and staff. I very much liked the Week 3 exercise, in which an abstract painting was the focus: what story do you see in the painting? Look at the negative space (I had trouble with this; I didn’t see any negative space). Map one of the patient scenarios to the painting in a way that makes sense to you.

My own assumptions, and background, got in the way at times. I have a rather uncomfortable relationship with healthcare for a lot of reasons. I was hoping to find some way to become more effective at conveying my concerns, but the course focused exclusively on the other side of the picture, on receiving a story.

My main thought was: I wonder how possible any of this approach is in the current healthcare system, which focuses on efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Insurance companies and accountants have reduced primary care physicians to something like data entry clerks, and socioeconomic factors more than medical factors impact patient decisions.

I would look at this more as an in-service training unit rather than a course. Still, it was interesting, and worth the time required.

LitCrit: Yale OCW

Course: Introduction to Theory of Literature
Length: 26 50-minute lectures
School/platform: Yale (OCW)
Instructor: Paul H. Fry

This is a survey of the main trends in twentieth-century literary theory. Lectures will provide background for the readings and explicate them where appropriate, while attempting to develop a coherent overall context that incorporates philosophical and social perspectives on the recurrent questions: what is literature, how is it produced, how can it be understood, and what is its purpose?

So here I was, at the end of my reading list and the extra reading list I patched on at the end, and I still had a few weeks to go until BASS 2018 dropped. Inspired by the Milton OCW I’d just finished, I thought it might be fun to play around with literary theory for a while. And it was – this is a really nice set of lectures.

I took a class similar to this one in college, but of course that was a very long time ago. I tracked down the textbook through my library, a thousand-page-in-tiny-print-on-onionskin compilation of Profound Thoughts from creation to last week (I had a book very much like this in college, too). Alas, I confess, I did very little of the reading. I’m not 20 years old any more (not that I was 20 years old in college, either; it took me a while to get there), after all.

The sequence was mostly chronological, apart from a little overview at the beginning. I liked the explicit labelling of the various phases, from language-based theories of New Criticism, Russian formalism, and the truly scary triplets Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Derrida (I toyed with linguistics in college), to psychologically-based theories including Freud and Lacan, to cultural systems of post-modernism and the identity-based critics of the contemporary Academie.

I also very much liked the clever twist of including Tony the Tow Truck as the exemplar text evaluated across the systems. If you’re wondering how you missed this work of literary genius, well, it’s probably because you don’t have little kids. Tony the Tow Truck is a picture book for toddlers, clocking in at about 188 words total. In keeping with Russian formalism, Prof. Fry parsed it linguistically (the repeated “t” sounds common in folklore), psychologically (the narcissism of the repeated “I” sentences and the return to an earlier, safer state), socially (the snooty cars that won’t help Tony, and the friend that will), and in terms of identity and community (relationships). It’s kind of amazing. I wrote papers like this. I always thought it was sophistry.

It wasn’t my goal to come away with working knowledge of all the schools and theories; I just don’t have that kind of brain power any more. But I run into these things from time to time, and it’s nice to have it all in one place, where I can refer to it from time to time. I really like these lectures; they come with nicely edited transcripts. Of course, there are no tests or quizzes, and it’s purely a solo effort with no other students. I’ve tried to get others interested, but no one wants to play.

As luck would have it, right after I started, a bunch of moocs opened up, and I ended up with more books to read (I’m on a math kick at the moment). I’m glad I managed to keep going with this; it might even turn out to be useful in some way on future readings, now that I’ve been reminded of certain salient points of literary criticism.

Paradise Lost and other things Milton: MOOC & OCW

“Paradise Lost”, bas relief (ca.1330, predating the poem) by Lorenzo Maitani, Cathedral of Orvieto, Siena

Course: John Milton: Paradise Lost
Length: 4 weeks, 2-8 hrs/wk
School/platform: Dartmouth/edX
Instructor: Thomas H. Luxon

….[L]earners will use the Milton Reading Room’s online resources and links to contribute to an ever-growing body of scholarship….
The annotations and glosses to Paradise Lost in the Reading Room not only help readers make their way through a notoriously difficult poem, they also provide links to the classical, biblical, religious, and historical works to which the poem so frequently refers. This makes informed engagement with Milton’s epic poem more possible than it ever has been.

Course: Milton
Length: 24 50-minute lectures
School/platform: Yale OCW
Instructor: John Rogers

This class is a study of Milton’s poetry, with attention paid to his literary sources, his contemporaries, his controversial prose, and his decisive influence on the course of English poetry. Throughout the course, Professor Rogers explores the advantages and limitations of a diverse range of interpretive techniques and theoretical concerns in Milton scholarship and criticism. Lectures include close readings of lyric and epic poetry, prose, and letters; biographical inquiries; examinations of historical and political contexts; and engagement with critical debates.

Back in February, I read a poem in Pushcart that heavily referenced Paradise Lost. I wrote something like “I wish there was a mooc on this poem, because I can’t read it alone.” And look what happened: Dartmouth must’ve heard me. And Yale must’ve known years ago.

The Dartmouth mooc was postponed from earlier this summer, and then got off to a rocky start when it opened with no content. Some of us started chatting on the message boards – several of us used various contact modalities to alert edX, and the course staff, of the problem – and one of the things that caught my attention was the Yale OCW. I should’ve realized it was there; I’ve gone through several of their OCWs on literature and philosophy. But there’s nothing but video lectures for OCWs, so I hoped the mooc would offer more.

As it turned out, the mooc was a broad overview of the major themes and techniques, consisting of a total of about 2 hours of videos in 15-minute stints. The additional work included annotating the poem for specific features (highlight indications it is an Epic, that Satan is a hero in the opening books, etc). This required using an annotation package that afforded the opportunity to see others’ annotations. I hate this sort of thing, so I skipped it. The other coursework was mandatory discussion posts, which I also skipped.

Since “check the box to get credit for having done the assignment” was the only means for grading, I could have, if I were a cheater, gotten an A. But I’m not a cheater, so I finished the course with a grade of… 0. Still, the lectures were worth listening to, as a way of orienting myself to the poem.

Then I headed for Yale.

Everything in an OCW depends on the lecturer; some people will find one person great, others will find the same prof boring or hard to listen to or whatever. I was very pleased with this. It was far more in-depth, as of course it would be, since there were 24 lectures each about 50 minutes. Transcripts were available for all lectures as well.

The course covered more than PL, which is one reason there was so much more material. Milton’s major writings were included, showing his development over time and his artistic and political leanings. The course emphasized how his biography was evident in his work, from his attitudes towards marriage and the Church to his political beliefs. Spoiler alert: dude was a bit of a radical. In fact, an extreme radical, since he called for beheading King Charles I, which eventually happened in the English Civil War. And, oh yeah, he had daddy issues, one of the recurrent phrases in Overly Sarcastic Production’s very sarcastic (and irreverent, and hilarious, but not inaccurate) video interpretation of the poem.

While the Dartmouth course was general and presented a standard Academy view of the poem, the Yale course offered a more detailed look, indicating where consensus existed and where various scholars, including the professor, had differing views.

I confess that while I read/listened to the shorter poems and PL, I did not read Paradise Regained or Samson Agonistes other than the sections quoted in the lectures. And obviously, I didn’t do any written coursework. A copy of the midterm and final were provided; they consisted of short quotes for identification and explanation of significance. A set of paper topics was also available, interesting to see, and do some brief consideration of a few of them.

I’m very glad to have had some guidance with this poem. I tried to tackle it back in February, but I found it nearly incomprehensible, even more so than the English translation of Dante I worked on a few years ago. Some things, I just need more help with, and I’m grateful these courses are available.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Physiology MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demons and angels and gods, oh my! mooc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fat Chance: Counting & Probability mooc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in that vein, the best part is: there’s more! In July, yet another HarvardX course, Intro to Probability, will begin, and the teaser video looks like a lot of fun (I’m a sucker for any math course that includes good animation). It doesn’t look like it was intended to be a Part II to this course, so I’m not sure how much is overlap and how much is new material, but I’m betting it’s going to be worth it either way. [Addendum: The “Look! Animations!” teaser was bait-and-switch; this was seriously mathy stuff, theorems and proofs and now go figure out what to do with them. I got through the first two weeks just fine, but really, seriously crashed and burned on week 3; week 4 only got worse, so I went looking for a different sequel, and found Purdue’s course; it’s archived, so there’s no support, but it’s working out a little better]

Human Rights Philosophy and Theory mooc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anatomy, the Yale way (mooc)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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