Gutsy MOOC

Course: Anatomy of the Abdomen and Pelvis
School/platform: Leiden University (Netherlands)/Coursera
You will explore the 3D anatomy of the organs from a basic level, providing thorough anatomical understanding, to its advanced application in surgical procedures. This course will challenge you to discover and help you to understand the anatomy of the abdomen and pelvis in all its aspects, ranging from its embryological underpinnings, via digital microscopy to gross topography and its clinical applications.

One of the particular benefits of MOOCs is the ability to take courses from universities all over the world. I’ve taken courses at two Netherlands universities now, and I have to say, Dutch professors are awesome. That, and my enthusiasm for the subject material, might’ve had something to do with how much I enjoyed this course. It wasn’t the slickest MOOC I’ve taken, in terms of production values, but I’ll trade slick for heart and content any time, and this was loaded with both. And with guts.

I was a little uncertain at first, since we started at the “first comes the esophagus then the stomach” level. I shouldn’t have worried. The material often was presented in what I’ve come to think of as a spiral manner: the first pass includes the most general information, then successive passes go into more and more detail, meaning repetition and connection that helps everything stick. So while the abdominal muscles were mentioned in the first week, it wasn’t until Week 5 that we really dove into the details of origin, insertion, and action. Every week mentioned aspects of embryological development, tissue histology, and clinical practice, so that by the final, I was able to distinguish between a stained slide of the duodenum vs ileum, determine which embryonic features turned into which adult structures and which just melted away with growth, and could consider the path of referred pain to various sites.

The course was set up in six weeks (there is a seventh week, but it’s only to include a final exam) and, because of the new structure of the Coursera platform (sigh), all the material is released at once. The only requirement to pass the course was to score at least 80% on each weekly unit exam, and on the final. But there was a lot more than that available.

The material for each weekly unit included numerous videos: some were lectures, some cadaver and live dissections (these came with trigger warnings for the squeamish, who probably aren’t going to be taking abdominal anatomy anyway), a few were animations, stained slide presentations, and laparoscopic videos. Readings were also featured, sometimes reiterating the lecture material, sometimes supplementing it. There were numerous ungraded practice quizzes as well as “e-tivity” (extra points for that term, though I can’t decide if I love it or hate it) posting prompts such as: Find a couple of sources with information about (the allantois/tubal pregnancy/aortic aneurysms) and write a paragraph or two addressing specific questions. Though these weren’t graded, looking for information through reputable sources (NIH, peer-reviewed publications) and just looking through the answers of other students was extremely helpful; we all seemed to focus on different aspects. Because so many students seemed more well-prepared than I, after a while I got intimidated and stopped submitting my clumsy answers, but the rest of the process was still quite valuable.

Some weeks used a subset the University’s CASK system (online Clinical Anatomical Skills). This included a lot of elements, some of which I found more helpful than others. I was completely unable to figure out the “view a cross-section of the body by any two planes” feature, similar to the Sylvius 4 system from Duke’s Neuroscience. I think more detailed instructions – perhaps a mini-tutorial – might have helped, but no one else complained, so I’ll take the hit for technical mediocrity and impatience. I also found the histology section to be confusing, but I wasn’t sure what I was looking for; again, a more structured approach might have been beneficial, though I might have just flubbed through that as well. I did find the Q-and-A for some sections, like embryology, to be extremely helpful, though inguinal anatomy remained a mystery to me until I found some videos on Youtube. Which, by the way, was encouraged all along; several collections were recommended. There’s a great deal of basic medical education on Youtube, and I mean the real thing, not somebody’s high school biology project.

One of the standout moments of the course came in Week 4. Let me tell you, peritoneal development is complicated business. From about 6 to 11 weeks, an embryo’s intestines are kicked out of the body because there just isn’t enough room, and they twist and rotate in an astonishing peritoneal ballet to fit back in and get everything in the right place, all the while other things are moving around. Every time I take one of these courses, I say again I can’t believe everything works, since it requires so many things to happen just so. But the thing here was the demonstration: a few years ago Dr. Gobée (one of many instructors involved in the course) constructed a giant working model of all this for his medical students, with the stomach and liver that rotate the way they do, and an aorta and vena cava and pancreas and, especially, intestines that extend and twist and retract the way they do, and everything with a plastic peritoneum draped over it, just so we could see exactly what happens and why the peritoneum ends up where it does. It was a great model, and highly instructive. Here we are with dozens of animations of gut rotation on Youtube, and sophisticated imaging technology via CASK, but this model drew more positive comments on the discussion forums than anything else in the course. If you build it, they will come – even if it isn’t the slickest technology.

My personal funny bone was tickled by the head on the anatomical diagram shown here. Most of these diagrams were headless, since we’re more interested in the muscles and organs than the face (or the unflayed exposed parts, which I’ve censored so this blog won’t get flagged for x-rated pictures; I have enough trouble with some of the passages I quote in my literary posts), but in this case it was kind of hilarious to have some Zoolander looking back, as if to say, “Well, whaddya think?” I still don’t know if that diagram was photoshopped or if some print material includes it. Some of the module titles also made me smile. “Knowing your peritoneal relationships” isn’t networking advice, and “The Gems of the Pelvis” turned out to be the female reproductive organs.

This was the first time I’d encountered the kind of pre-testing I’ve encountered in math classes: questions on material that hasn’t been taught yet. I’m still not sure if the motivation was to encourage us to find information on our own – construct our own learning, as the phrase goes in math ed – or to prime us so that when we encountered the material, it was something we’d already thought about, as was used to very good effect in a recent calculus course (which I still haven’t talked about, I’ll get there, I promise, I’m still recovering). I was caught off guard at first, but once I realized I could look things up, I started having a lot of fun. And constructing my own learning. See, it works. However, I do think the course relied a little too much on the “go out and find some material on this” approach.

The graded exams – one per week, plus the final – were challenging in that, unlike the practice exams where the incorrect questions were marked as wrong with perhaps a hint as to the error, no feedback at all was given, only a score. Unlimited attempts were permitted, but only after 30 minutes had elapsed since the last attempt. With no indication of which question I’d gotten wrong, I only had so much patience for fumbling around trying to find it after I hit the pass mark. I should say, however, that the questions were great: a few of them were straightforward information retrieval questions, but most of them required putting together multiple kinds of information, like knowing not only what nerve system runs close to the aorta, but what the effects of damage would be. Then there was the one that required knowing 1) how the stomach absorbs medications and into what vessel; 2) where that vessel goes, and 3) picking it out on a CT slice. I wish I knew if I’d answered that one correctly, because it was Gem of Put-it-all-together Questions.

Of course, you have to really want to know this stuff, either because you need to know it for future coursework or career, or because you just like medical stuff, which is my thing. And you have to be a little patient with a course that doesn’t fit into the cookie-cutter mold. But I’m happy to see oddball MOOCs, I’m thrilled to see teachers who put some thought into how to teach, and I greatly enjoyed this course.

Einsteinian MOOC

Course: The Einstein Revolution
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: Peter Galison, Ion Mihailescu

Participants in the course will follow seventeen lessons, each of which will present a mix of science (no prerequisites!) and the broader, relevant cultural surround. Some weeks will examine the physics concepts, while others will see excerpts of films or discuss modernist poetry that took off from relativity. Or we might be looking at the philosophical roots and philosophical consequences of Einstein’s works. At other times we will be fully engaged with historical and political questions: the building, dropping, and proliferation of nuclear weapons, for example.

Philosophy +history+ low-level science + art + biography = what could be better? I haven’t been this happy since I found that vid about Dante’s model of Paradise using four-dimensional geometry.

Galison is a Professor of History of Science and Physics (and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1997). The course is largely based on his book, Einstein’s Clocks and Poincare’s Maps, which just happen to be topics of the first few weeks.

But while there’s a lot of science, it doesn’t stop there. Yes, there’s Brownian motion and the photoelectric effect, but there’s also realism vs positivism and the Vienna Circle. The equivalence principle and Minkowski’s geometric interpretation of relativity take up considerable time, but so does the art of Hannah Hoch, along with Prof. Hillary Chute’s heartbreaking interview about Japanese manga relating to Hiroshima. You’ll meet Boltzmann, Mach, Bohr, Schrodinger and Heisenberg, but also Blau and Meitner, and you’ll find out why those last two names are not familiar – and why they should be.

I have to admit to being less than happy early on. In fact, the first couple of weeks were pretty brutal, math and science-wise. It’s not that anything was that complex; certainly no calculus or serious computation. I just found it draining, and there were details that made no sense to me (and still don’t). But then there was a stretch of history and philosophy, and some art, and I felt a lot better. The longer the course went on, the happier I was to have pushed through the rough start. Another drawback: there was no staff. Sadly, that’s not unusual, particularly since this was the second run of the course. Automoocs: push a button and they start. The cohort was quite lively nevertheless, and we managed.

Grading was structured so that it was possible to “pass” even if an area was mostly ignored. Between physics assignments, peer-assessed essays, and forum posts, there was plenty of opportunity to collect enough points even if, say, you wanted to skip a couple of essays (as the lowest two would be dropped anyway) or did poorly on some science (where the lowest two scores were dropped as well).

Scores, however, aren’t really the purpose in a course like this, at least not for me. From my point of view, it’s just a great way to see how art, philosophy, and science can interact, and to watch a fascinating era in human history develop over a half-century. It’s more of an exploration, meant perhaps to broaden rather than deepen one’s view. I found the approach to be unique and quite enjoyable, an inviting hook into further study.


I’ve been kind of messed up about moocs lately. I feel like Goldilocks: this one’s too hard, this one’s too easy. Once in a while, I find one that’s ju-u-u-ust right, but my zone of just right has narrowed and I’ve dropped more courses in the first week or two than I’ve completed. Part of that is internal to me (I have some minor chaos going on in my life right now, and I don’t handle chaos, even minor chaos, well). Part of it is that moocs are, indeed, changing, just like Facebook and Twitter changed when money became more important than “Hey, let’s put on a play in the barn and see how it goes.” I miss the Golden Days. Which were, um, like two years ago.

But: like eating bok choy, how do you know you don’t like it if you don’t try it (and, after decades of picking slimy green stuff out of my Americanized Chinese food, I didn’t realize how wonderful bok choy actually was until I was in my 50s). And of course I may hear about other tasty tidbits not on this list along the way.

At the moment, I’m in the middle of four courses that weren’t on my previous list; that’s how it’s been going lately. I’ll discuss the ones I complete when I’m done. I’m in week 8 of a 16-week edX course on The Einstein Revolution, which is a combination of physics, history, philosophy, and art; it’s often terrific, often terrifying (my full comments here). I’m also taking, as a “recreational mooc”, a series of courses on various world religions as seen through their scriptures (I gave up on this; too much “gee whiz, what do you think?” and not enough content). I’m refusing to take, but am still enrolled in, another edX course on poetry, this time the Modernist era (until I got bored with not-taking a course, go figure). And just for fun, I’m taking a gut course. Literally. Anatomy of the GI tract (full comments posted here). Ok, so it isn’t as glamorous as the brain , but the brain’s still gotta get fed.

So here’s my Spring/early Summer preliminary list of what I’ll be starting in the next few months. As mentioned above, I will probably drop many of these, and will end up taking others not on this list, so it’s more of a draft of intent. I keep hoping that documenting these intents will increase the chances that I’ll be able to work through the chaos, but right now, chaos has the upper hand. But still, what is there but to try:


IMAGE | ABILITY – Visualizing the Unimaginable
Start April 19, 2016
6 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Delft University of Technology, edX

Official blurb:

Students and professionals in science, design and technology have to develop and communicate concepts that are often difficult to comprehend for the public, their peers and even themselves. [This course] will help you enhance your communication and interpersonal skills and provide insight, tips and tricks to make such complex and seemingly unimaginable concepts and ideas imaginable.

(Status: dropped. As I’d feared, this was completely out of my wheelhouse. Not the course for someone who, like me, has no idea where to start in creating a message with art. But they’re nice people, and send cookies to the people who do know what they’re doing.)

I have a lot of unimaginable concepts. I’m not sure making them imaginable is a necessary, worthy, or prudent goal, but I’m curious as to what they’re talking about. However, since I’m not a student or professional in science, design, or technology, I expect this will turn out to be completely out of my wheelhouse. We’ll see.


Shakespeare on the Page and in Performance: Young Love and
Tragic Love
Two course series
Starts April 27, 2016
3-4 weeks, 4-5 hrs/wk each course
School/platform: Wellesley/edX

Official blurb:

Explore Shakespeare’s plays of young love, Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to learn what makes them so compelling and magical.
Explore Shakespeare’s mature plays of tragic love, Othello and King Lear, and learn what makes them so powerful and enduring.

Status: Completed, comments here.

My local library just hosted the First Folio tour for a month, so it’s been a high-Shakespeare season around here. I’m primed. Yet I’ve had trouble with Shakespeare moocs in the past; they all seem to assume more background than I have. Maybe third time’s the charm.


First Nights: Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and the Birth of Opera
Start April 28, 2016
3 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX

Official blurb:

In this music course, you will learn the basics of operatic form and analysis, the genres and styles used, and the circumstances of this opera’s first performance and subsequent history. Learners in this course need not have any prior musical experience.

Status: Completed. I’m not going to post about it, since it’s structured very much like the Messiah and Beethoven courses. I’m still not a fan of the opera, but I still enjoyed the course and understand the music better, so it was a great success.
Third of five. I’m less familiar with Orfeo than I was with The Messiah or the Beethoven, but I did encounter it in the Dartmouth opera course last year, and I’m a big fan of these First Nights courses so I’m looking forward to it.


China: Civilization and Empire
5 course series
Starts May 1, 2016
5 weeks, 3 hrs/wk for each course
School/platform: Harvard/edX

Official blurb:

China: Civilization and Empire explores the development of this great civilization from the Neolithic to the last dynasty. We see the formation of political structures and social practices that have lasted into the present; we learn to appreciate artistic and literary traditions of sophistication and refinement; we inquire into its philosophical and religious legacies and their significance for our own lives; and we trace the creation of the largest economy in world history.

Status: In progress; I loved part 1, posted comments here; on to part 2 and beyond.
This is actually the first of two series (series are very popular in moocdom these days); the second covers the modern era, but I figured I’d start at the beginning. I know remarkably little about Chinese history, so I hope to learn quite a bit.


Propaganda and Ideology in everyday life
Start May 16, 2016
5 weeks, 3 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Nottingham/Futurelearn

Official blurb:

We will explore how and why words come to mean such different things, across time and space. We will look at how we come to be political, and how political ideology and propaganda pick up on the words, images and symbols we use to express our own convictions and sentiments.

Status: Dropped. I don’t know why, but I just can’t get into Futurelearn any more.
It’s been a while since I took a Futurelearn course. The class on corpus linguistics remains one of the best moocs I’ve ever taken, particularly in terms of how it handled the different levels of expertise coming in, but everything I’ve taken since then has been quite non-academic and just seemed like a mild documentary rather than a course. This is an interesting topic, particularly given the times, so I though it might be a good time to check in.


Cell Biology: Mitochondria
Starts May 25, 2016
4 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX

Official blurb:

This course is designed to explore the fundamentals of cell biology. The overarching goal is for learners to understand, from a human-centered perspective, that cells are evolving ensembles of macromolecules that in turn form complex communities in tissues, organs, and multicellular organisms. We will focus, in particular, on the mitochondrion, the organelle that powers the cell.

Status: Completed. Great course. My detailed comments posted here.

After neuroscience, this should be easy. Famous last words. Depends on how into the biochemistry we get, but it’s listed as an introductory course.


Question Everything: Scientific Thinking in Real Life
Starts July 12, 2016
8 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Queensland/edX

Official blurb:

This science course will advance your knowledge as we unpack some important scientific thinking skills using real-world examples. By completing this course, you will be better prepared to continue studying math and science at the high school level and beyond.

It seems strange to take a course to prepare me for high school, but it’s not like I’m comfortable with math and science at any level. I keep thinking I might have missed something along the way, so why not. This is the school that had the Glossary Fairy for philosophy class; not sure if the same level of kitsch will apply.

Ancient Philosophy MOOCs

Course: Ancient Philosophy: Plato & His Predecessors
and Ancient Philosophy: Aristotle and His Successors

School/Platform: Penn/Coursera
Instructors: Susan Sauvé Meyer

We begin with the Presocratic natural philosophers who were active in Ionia in the 6th century BCE and are also credited with being the first scientists. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximines made bold proposals about the ultimate constituents of reality, while Heraclitus insisted that there is an underlying order to the changing world. Parmenides of Elea formulated a powerful objection to all these proposals, while later Greek theorists (such as Anaxagoras and the atomist Democritus) attempted to answer that objection. In fifth-century Athens, Socrates insisted on the importance of the fundamental ethical question—“How shall I live?”—and his pupil, Plato, and Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, developed elaborate philosophical systems to explain the nature of reality, knowledge, and human happiness.

If you’re looking for a very straightforward introductory philosophy course, this two-course series might fit the bill. It’s a quick sampler of ancient Greek thought from Thales through the Stoics. Most of the focus is on Plato and Aristotle, since most of their material has survived over the centuries while the sometimes prolific works of other ancients comes down to us only in pieces, reports, and refutations. Since either Plato or Aristotle could fill a year’s curriculum, the material is a light gloss over some of the main features: a few dialogues, a selection from The Republic, the Four Causes, a little Logic.

It’s one of those “I’m going to read a textbook and you will answer multiple-choice questions to show you’ve paid attention” courses, with a series of lecture videos, each including one or two “are you paying attention” questions in mid-stream which repeats the sentence just said in questions form, a quiz at the end of each section (multiple attempts are permitted; there’s really no excuse for a score less than 100%, even if you don’t watch the lectures at all) and a peer-assessed essay, with a choice of prompts, at the end of each of the two separate courses. One of the prompts was quite interesting: rewrite Euthyphro (or maybe it was the Meno, I don’t remember) so that it comes out differently. I’ve always felt that Socrates gets away with murder in these dialogs, that anyone truly engaged in the conversation would not so willingly be led to the gallows of his argument. But I took the easier route and wrote a “summarize the material” essay, so shame on me.

To spice things up (well, as much as you can spice things up when you’re talking about Plato etc.) I supplemented the course with podcasts from History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, a very cool and ever-expanding site that does indeed attempt to cover philosophy without… well, you know. I also found a couple of the Yale OCW videos from their Political Philosophy course to be valuable vis-à-vis The Republic. Since the Coursera class has no academic rigor to it at all, these resources might be more useful to anyone intending to actually study philosophy, as opposed to collecting “certificates” (which seems to be the business Coursera is in now). But I found the lectures quite pleasant (I love this stuff), and as an introduction it serves the purpose – but Sophie’s World does it so much better.

Neuroscience MOOC

Image by Kevin Reginald Parks, MOOC participant, alternative medicine specialist... and artist

Image by Kevin Reginald Parks, MOOC participant, alternative medicine specialist… and artist

Course: Medical Neuroscience
School/platform: Duke/Coursera
Instructors: Leonard White, PhD

The course provides students an understanding of the essential principles of neurological function, from cellular and molecular mechanisms of neural signaling and plasticity to the organization and function of sensory and motor systems. This course emphasizes the neural and vascular anatomy of the human brain and spinal cord, providing an anatomical framework for localizing lesions within the central nervous system. It also emphasizes the neurobiological foundation for understanding cognition, mental illness and disorders of human behavior.
The overall goal is to equip students in the health professions for interpreting impairments of sensation, action and cognition that accompany neurological injury, disease or dysfunction.

[addendum: Coursera has converted this course to their new platform; content may have changed, and the experience may be very different]

This was another of the three “killer moocs” I took concurrently – but I’m very glad I took the chance, in spite of the workload, and the warnings that this was intended for graduate medical professionals with solid grounding in biology, chemistry, and anatomy. I loved this course, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s willing devote serious time and effort to covering a huge array of information about the nervous system. The materials were well-organized and clear, and included a variety of styles: text, video, animations, diagrams, anatomical photographs and specimens. Staff, both Duke staff and volunteer CTAs, were extremely involved and generous with their time and talents: one CTA created a fantastic website of study materials, and Dr. White held three live hang-outs during the twelve week session. And, by the way, fellow students (who range from practicing health science professionals to medical students to the curious, like me) were helpful, encouraging, and all-around delightful.

The course will migrate to the new Coursera platform in April or May, where it will be offered again on a more “on demand” schedule. I am (somewhat famously) not a fan of the new platform, so although staff has assured us changes will be minimal, I’m glad I got to take the last “session-based” run of the course. And yet, because it is such a great course, and because it involves a massive amount of fascinating material, I might just show up in that new session, just for fun.

What’s involved? Twelve intense weeks of detailed neurological anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry. Material was divided into six two-week units, each with its own quiz. There was also a series of short “functional anatomy” quizzes (identify locations on a cross-section with either a named structure, or a function), plus a comprehensive final. All of these exams were timed, but generously so; multiple attempts were allowed, but not only would you not know which questions you got wrong, you also got mostly different questions each time. Two peer-assessed assignments were also included, though they together only counted for 10% of the total grade. They were, however, extremely helpful in developing an understanding of the material covered.

Although no book was required, the course followed the extraordinary and comprehensive textbook used for the in-person course, available through Sinauer Publishers, whose site includes a variety of free animations and other materials. The text was edited by, among others, Dr. White and Dr. Purves, whose “Visual Perception” mooc I took a year ago. Many illustrations from this book neuro brain views jpegwere included in the videos, and I found them both aesthetically pleasing (come on, you know how many books have boring or just plain ugly illustrations) and very intuitive. Also in the videos were screen shots from the “interactive atlas” of neuroanatomy known as Sylvius 4, allowing us to see internal structures via stained cross-sections, arranged anatomically.

Anatomy was the first unit covered, and included both illustrative diagrams and detailed lab examinations of the surface and various cut views of a human brain. What are the different kinds of cells in the nervous system? What are the boundaries of the lobes? What are the important areas? What’s inside? Where are the cranial nerves? What about the spinal cord? What’s the blood supply to the brain? And what about the ventricles, the cerebrospinal fluid, how does that work? And by the way: depending on how it’s sliced (or isn’t), sometimes the nervous system looks like a butterfly, sometimes like an angry falcon, sometimes like a grinning skull, and sometimes like a prehistoric fertility icon. And that’s just for starters.

The first peer assessed assignment was connected with this unit: draw a picture of the brain, showing a specific level of detail. We were encouraged to be creative and use what was at hand – “draw in the dirt at your feet with a stick, if you wish” – and the assignment generated some of the most creative work I’ve seen in a mooc: not only beautifully drawn standard diagrams, but brains made from pills, from crumpled up trash bags, from flower petals, from pushpins on a bulletin board, from vegetables, brains drawn on the beach, on snow, and, my favorite, cats-on-the-brain, shown here (submitted by Romanian veterinary student – and talented artist – Iulia Cimpoieș).

The second two-week unit was all about neural signaling. This was the hardest part for me, since I have only the most elementary grasp of chemistry. I’m completely fascinated, when looking at the multitudinous and complicated steps involved in passing a signal along an axon, and then passing it across a synapse to another cell – which neurotransmitter, which receptor, which ion – that we’re able to do anything at all, let alone study how those things happen. Life really is a miracle. I’d like to be able to understand these processes better. Fortunately for me, a general understanding of the major classes of neurotransmitters and types of receptors was sufficient to cover the subsequent material.

The next two units were central: sensory and motor pathways, and recognizing how an interruption in the flow of information would affect various kinds of perception or function. This is what’s crucial to the medical professionals, the physical therapists, the physiatrists, the nurses, and to the primary care practitioners. What does it mean if someone has a slowly-reacting pupil on one side? If someone has weakness in one leg, but can’t feel touch on the other, where is the most likely site of the problem? What does it mean if they can feel touch but not pain? if they can’t tap their fingers to their thumb in succession? and one of the most interesting tidbits: the difference between the emotional smile, and the forced smile. Different pathways are involved. We also learned more than you’d ever want to know about urination. Again, I’m amazed anyone can pee, given all that has to happen. And by the way, maybe I’m highly suggestible, but there’s something about listening to someone talk about peeing, even when phrased as muscle contractions, nerve inputs, and signals to sphincters, that made me want to pee over and over. These pathways were the focus of the second peer-assessed assignment, also a drawing task. I found this to be extremely helpful. I probably should’ve done more drawing, until I could keep all the pathways straight.

Then we looked at the development of the nervous system over the lifespan, including embryonic development, recovery from damage, and the aging process. Here’s where I discovered a neurotransmitter called Sonic Hedgehog and its two protein helper pals, Patched and Smoothened. It’s also where I discovered the “pinwheel” organization of visual cortex neurons favoring various orientations, and how those pinwheels, as yet inexplicably, seem to have a density of π across species. Makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck, doesn’t it?

The final unit covered aspects of cognition, memory, and sleep. I discovered that, just like there’s nothing like a lecture on peeing that makes you need to pee, there’s also nothing like someone talking about different kinds of sleep, different wavelengths involved, different purposes and effects, that makes me want to take a nap.

The “killer” aspect wasn’t in the difficulty of the material; nothing was that confusing. Everything was very well explained in multiple forms, there were plenty of materials available, and the assignments were beautifully designed to aid in learning what was most important. What made it difficult was simply the volume of material: nearly a dozen different neural pathways, scores of anatomical locations with varied functions, and a vocabulary full of words like “dorsomedial” as opposed to “anterolateral”, all of which are crucial to identifying what’s happening. I was lucky I had a good deal of the vocabulary going in, but I still didn’t have fluency in many instances, so I had to keep thinking, Where is dorsolateral? before I could move on. It’s just a lot to keep straight.

But it’s doable. I know, because I did it. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on the nervous system, and I had to check my notes frequently on all the tests, but I think I passed (the grading system is complex – 40% for quizzes, 25% for the final, etc – so I won’t be sure until grades are released). What I’d like to do is be able to pass without notes. Then again, I’m not a medical student or a health practitioner; this is all just out of curiousity – for fun. And it was. But hard work, definitely. I put a lot of time into this – and loved every minute.

I’ve been reading general-readership medical nonfiction all my life. It started in the 60s when I was a fifth grader devouring anything readable, including my family’s issue of Reader’s Digest: William Nolen’s description of his surgical training, the “I am Joe’s [organ of the month – they started with the famous ones like heart and stomach then moved on to lungs and kidneys, eventually arriving at the pancreas, IIRC], jeremiads about what were then called venereal diseases, phrased in such oblique terms that it years before I realized syphilis had anything to do with sex. I have shelves of these books: tours through medical school and residency, as well as patient accounts of struggles with cancer and heart disease. Some are fictionalized. Some are hilarious (House of God and Calling Dr. Horowitz. Some made me angry. All were fascinating. Of course, the writings of neurologist Oliver Sacks stand at the pinnacle.

But they aren’t textbooks. Sure, I learned a few of the obscene mnemonics, but I never learned the bones or nerves that went with them. I know them now. I learned the bones of the wrist corresponding to “Scared lovers try positions that they can’t handle” in the Upper Limb course last year, and now, thanks to Neuroscience, I know all about the cranial nerves memorialized in “Oh oh oh to touch and feel a girl’s vagina, ah, heaven”. The mnemonics have been cleaned up (in the case of the cranial nerves, necessarily so, since the acoustic nerve is really the vestibulochochlear nerve, and the accessory nerve is better referred to as the spinal accessory nerve.

Of course, now that the internet is here, anatomy and medicine isn’t the mystery it was in the 60s. Anyone with a cell phone can find materials for pretty much any medical topic, from simplest explanations to actual course materials. But I still do far better in a course, where material is structured and presented, rather than just groping my way through Youtube and pdfs. I’m incredibly grateful that this course is available to anyone who wants to take it – even me.

Conscious MOOC

Course: The Conscious Mind – A Philosophical Road Trip
School/platform: Trinity College/edX
Instructors: Dan Lloyd

You will explore your own mind and the minds of others in a new way, using a philosophical approach known as phenomenology. You’ll encounter some of the main ideas of the phenomenological tradition, through short readings by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Their ideas are provocative and will animate the online and offline conversation as we proceed. But the main approach of the course will be experiential and experimental. You’ll learn phenomenology by doing it and journeying among the structures and elements of your own conscious experience.

And now for the other side of the coin. Where Minds & Machines was rigorous and technical, this was more of a thought-fest. There’s room for both approaches in MOOCdom, and I got some interesting tidbits out of this.

Again, I can’t really describe what the course was “about” other than the description above. One of the stated goals was to introduce students to reading “difficult” writing, and short readings included Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (neither of whom I’d ever read before), Sartre, Heidegger, and De Beauvoir. I’m not sure the course did much to promote attaining this goal, since by week 3, quiz questions were along the lines of “Who is the author of this quote” rather than anything requiring understanding.

In any case, the focus was on experiencing phenomenology, rather than reading about it. The introduction to Heidegger, for example, involved tools to notice how readiness-to-hand can become obtrusiveness when the tools don’t work, and “Hey, Jude” demonstrated Husserl’s notion of the three divisions of time. One video of a small group discussion looked at “otherness”, privilege and target identities, a particularly pertinent topic that was pretty tepid in realization (one person’s “otherness” was wearing glasses, for pete’s sake; how privileged do you have to be to consider that a targeted trait?). The intent was there, though the execution left something to be desired.

The final project – a fancy word for a short essay to be peer-assessed – was for me the most interesting part of the course, and I quite enjoyed working on it. We were to choose from a selection of brief videos, and explain how one embodied a concept from the course, and another referenced a specific quote in one of the readings. I had a lot of fun with this; length was unrestricted, and the instructions permitted bringing in any material from outside the course, as long as the required course material was included, so I ended up referencing a recent Veritasium video among other things (and it wasn’t nearly as long as I’d expected, given my tendency to verbosity). Peer assessments are always risky, from a “grades” standpoint, but this one went well.

The discussion boards were a major disappointment. I wish instructors would realize that no matter how well-intentioned they are when they require people to post responses to a question or idea, what they will get is a stream of single-post threads, some of which will have replies on the order of “I agree” (which also satisfies the posting requirement). A couple of us tried to have a conversation, and while there was some activity, I think we were on different wavelengths, because it never took off. At least we tried, though.

This was, I think, intended as not the classroom-equivalent that Minds & Machines was, nor even the multiple-tracks-pick-your-level that Critical Thinking was (all three claimed to consider themselves introductory philosophy courses). It was instead more the very-light-introduction-with-lots-of-stoned-bullshitting-late-into-the-night sort of course. As I’ve said, some MOOCs work for some people but not others. This didn’t quite work for me. I’m not sure why; it’s like a joke that falls flat, or a weekend trip that just isn’t fun for no identifiable reason. Part of it, I believe, was the posting requirement above. Why nothing materialized outside of that, however, I don’t really understand. Maybe it’s that each concept was posted as standalone, without anything to contrast it with; the Objections approach used in Minds & Machines really forced us to understand the implications of a theory.

But that’s just my opinion; I’m sure lots of students found it a great, gentle introduction to some of the more ephemeral issues of philosophy. It might be fun to take with a group, to stir more productive discussions including some objections. I was happy with what I got out of it proportional to the time I spent on it; I enjoyed both encountering two new thinkers, and I had a good time writing the essay, so I’m glad I took it.


Course: Minds & Machines
School/Platform: MIT/edX
Instructors: Alex Byrne

What is the relationship between the mind and the body? Can computers think? Do we perceive reality as it is? Can there be a science of consciousness?
This course explores these questions and others. It is a thorough, rigorous introduction to contemporary philosophy of mind.
According to many scientists and philosophers, explaining the nature of consciousness is the deepest intellectual challenge of all. If you find consciousness at all puzzling, this is a great place to start learning more.
What you’ll learn:
-The basics of argumentation
-Some central arguments for and against the view that a sufficiently powerful computer can think (AI)
-The main theories of mental states and their relations to physical states
-Some central arguments for and against the view that the world is not as we perceive it to be
-What the “hard problem of consciousness” is

This was one of three “killer MOOCs” I had the bad timing to take concurrently, and thus one-third of the reason I had to forego Pushcart for a few weeks. While I very much enjoyed and got a lot out of some aspects of this course, I was less enthusiastic about other aspects. The main problem was that I didn’t approach it correctly, and that’s my bad. I may take it again, do it right next time, and I think I’ll get a lot more out of it. Because although I did manage to “pass”, a great deal of it went by me, and I fear I won’t retain much. Still, it was perspective-shifting and horizon-expanding, and so the time and effort are well worth it.

What I liked was the general subject matter. These are fascinating topics: can computers think? What is it that we see when we see blue? Do we exist apart from our bodies – that is, how much of my physical body can you remove, and still leave “me” intact? There were fascinating thought experiments: if it were possible to create an atom-for-atom duplicate of a person, would that person have the same thoughts as the original? If your nerves are reporting pain, and you aren’t feeling pain, is there pain? Can we ever understand what it’s like to be a bat? These are the sorts of questions some people tend to sneer at as being high-falutin’ nonsense since nothing is ever answered but only raises more questions, but all of those questions go to the heart of reality, of humanity: what constitutes “me”? What seems simple and straightforward becomes a little fuzzier when all the implications are included. And although these topics can seem diverse, they all relate to each other.

Yet, for all the high-falutin’ nonsense, it was a rigorous course. It wasn’t a sit-around-the-dorm-getting-stoned-and-bullshitting-into-the-night sort of thing (though I wouldn’t know, having never been a residential student); the course consisted of looking at structured arguments for each –ism, and then looking at the objections raised to different parts of those arguments. This is what I wished I’d outlined from the beginning.

My favorite moment of the course came from the TA, Damien Rochford. He was the TA in the earlier course on Paradox & Infinity; I felt sorry for him, one person to cover the myriad of questions raised both on material and on process. In a discussion of whether, in a world where blue swans are possible, if the proposition that there could have been blue swans was possible (hey, it’s fun, lighten up), Damien came up with what is at this time my favorite philosophical statement: “It is a matter of some dispute whether, whenever something is possibly possible, it is possible. My view is that it is not.” I don’t understand why Republicans hate philosophy, do you? Bertrand Russell even said outright: “The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty.”

And that’s a good thing, because I’m still uncertain about much that transpired. The course was subdivided into 5 units: Minds and Computers; Dualism to Functionalism; Minds and Brains; Perception; and Consciousness. Most units lasted two weeks and included a series of lecture videos filmed in the actual classroom, broken up into very short segments (3 to 6 minutes) often followed by an ungraded question or two. Some lectures covered a paper. Some lectures covered a topic. Some brought in basics of argument. I had a hard time figuring out just what I should be focusing on. Part of that may be time limitations, which is something I need to keep in mind (less is indeed more). But part of it is that I didn’t realize from the beginning what the course was, at its heart, about.

This became evident with the first graded assignments. Having read the papers, paid attention to the videos, taken notes, considered what I thought were the important points, and done fine with the ungraded questions, the first Argument Analysis took me by surprise. I “passed” it, but missing one question out of five took its toll. I always thought I was fairly adept at the basics of logical argument. Not so much, it seems: the second argument analysis was disastrous – yet it covered a topic I thought I’d understood fairly well.

Then there were the exams. On the midterm, I was doing very poorly on a series of True/False questions, so I stopped for the evening and picked it up the next day. Things went far better. I’m not sure if I was more rested or focused or whatever, or if the questions were in fact easier. The final section was a series of questions on a previously unread paper, and to my surprise, I did very well at picking out the arguments and objections. I began to wonder if listening to the lectures (which often included somewhat tortuous syntax, repetition of the trivial and non-explanation of the significant) was a mistake. I do think, however, that the paper in question was far easier to follow than the primary papers in the syllabus, with a lot more “guide words”, and the questions asked were both simpler and included significant hints, so that probably explains it. The final exam, it seemed to me, had a number of “easy” questions strewn throughout, designed to give a break to those of us who got something out of the material, though perhaps not the level of an MIT student. And then it had… other questions.

I wish I’d approached the course entirely different, that I had gone through the papers and outlined the argument that was being made, or the objections that were being raised to an earlier argument, as a primary means of study, then outlined the “ism of the week” with reference to those arguments. I think this would’ve helped keep me on track. Unfortunately, I didn’t think of it until week 9 or 10 of 12.

And yes, there’s that: this was a long course, stretching over a full MIT semester. For some reason, I thought it was much shorter, and I kept thinking the course was almost over. When I finally figured out, in mid-January, that it actually ran into March, I got pretty discouraged, since I felt I wasn’t really getting all I could out of it. I wonder if the in-person class was as worn-out as I was by the end, since it seemed the students moved farther and farther back in the rows of seats, possibly because the numbers were shrinking. Then again, these are MIT students. Maybe they don’t need silly thing like lectures to ace their courses.

But now that I have a better idea of what the topic is, I just might run through it again some time. Because it really is fascinating material.

Ode to Joy MOOC

Course: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the 19th Century Orchestra
School/Platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: Thomas Forrest Kelly

Harvard’s Thomas Forrest Kelly guides learners through all four movements of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, highlighting aspects of symphonic form, describing Beethoven’s composition process, the rehearsals and premiere performance, and the work’s continued relevance today.
You will learn the basics of musical form and analysis, the genres and styles used and the circumstances of this symphony’s first performance and subsequent history. Learners in this course need not have any prior musical experience.

Harvard music professor Thomas Forrest Kelly’s bookFirst Nights: Five Musical Premiers“, serves as a syllabus for his MOOC series. This is the second one I’ve taken, and it was just as enjoyable – and informative – as the first one on Handel’s Messiah (which I enthused about at length here).

These are gentle musical courses; at no point is it necessary to read music. There is some listening involved, recognizing themes or instruments. Mostly, it’s a detailed look at how the music is constructed to a specific purpose, in this case, to convey Beethoven’s frequent theme of light overcoming darkness.

Historical content is also included. True to the “First Night” title, each work’s premiere is covered: what the issues were, what it would’ve been like, the norms of the time. There’s a little biographical information as well. But the focus is on the music; in this case, on finding out why it’s considered a monumental work, what makes it different from other symphonies at the time, and the technical factors involved in creating the imagery and emotion that’s packed into the work. I actually thought they did a much more comprehensive job of this with the Handel, but that may be because the Beethoven encompasses a huge range of poetic, musical, social, psychological, and political elements; it’s a course designed for musical neophytes to complete in 5 weeks, so there is a limit to how much detail, of both breadth and depth, can be included.

I never took a single note during the Handel session; I’d intended it as a “recreational mooc.” I was going to pay more attention here, download the transcripts and significant screen shots, my usual approach with academic material. But I found that got in the way of the joy, and I wanted this to be about joy, not about work or achievement. I still did very well, score-wise; it’s a gut course, but a really good one. I love these courses. If Kelly’s book is followed, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring will be future courses. I’m somewhat familiar with Orfeo thanks to the Dartmouth opera course; it’s not my favorite music, but thanks to Prof. Steve Swayne, I understand why it’s of interest, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Prof. Kelly has to say. I’m looking forward to understanding more about Stravinsky and Berlioz as well; they’ve always been on the periphery of my musical tastes, but if anyone can ignite my interest and generate appreciation, Kelly can.

I’ll be back…

I just realized I haven’t even thought about blogging for a week. My Pushcart is getting dusty…

No, I haven’t lost interest or given up, but I’m paying the price for the candy-store mentality I have when it comes to MOOCs. You know what I mean: “Ooh, that looks good, I think I’ll try it!” Do that six or eight times, and then someone else says, “Hey, did you see this?” and before you know it, you’re moocing 24/7.

I’m particularly overwhelmed with three highly intense courses, two of which should be clearing in three weeks, but then there are the three courses starting next week… so, UNCLE! I can do all the things I want to do, I just can’t do them all at once.

I will be back, probably in mid-March, and pick up where I left off.

Happy New MOOCs 2016

These lists scare me. It doesn’t look like that much, less than prior lists in fact, but considering two courses started in the Fall are still ongoing (including calculus, which eats up every minute I can feed it and still leaves me banging my head against the screen), and that irresistible courses crop up unexpectedly all the time, it’s a daunting schedule. But I expect I’ll drop some of these; after 3 years, I still can’t tell from the descriptions whether or not a course is for me, unless I start it, so I start them all, so as not to miss anything.

The 2016 plan, winter quarter:


General Chemistry: Concept Development and Application
Start: On demand
Instructor: John Hutchinson
School/platform: Rice University via Coursera

Official blurb:

This course will cover the topics of a full year, two semester General Chemistry course. We will use a free on-line textbook, Concept Development Studies in Chemistry, available via Rice’s Connexions project.
The fundamental concepts in the course will be introduced via the Concept Development Approach developed at Rice University. In this approach, we will develop the concepts you need to know from experimental observations and scientific reasoning rather than simply telling you the concepts and then asking you to simply memorize or apply them.

Status: Dropped after 1 week: disliked the approach.
Sounds like IBL for chemistry – cool! Maybe, we’ll see. One of the benefits of MOOCs is that you can take courses over and over again. I haven’t taken this course before, but I took two chem courses earlier this year and still didn’t feel as though I had a real sense of how chemistry works. I’m an old fart, after all, so not everything sticks the first time around, or even the second. So, here’s another shot at chemistry, let’s see if repetition is the key to success. The trouble is, it’s a self-paced course, and I have yet to finish a self-paced course, no matter how good the course is. Some of my Rogue MOOCer friends are taking this, too, so maybe we’ll keep each other moving forward.


Medical Neuroscience
Start January 4, 2016
12 weeks, 16-20 hrs/wk
Instructor: Leonard E. White, Ph.D.
School/platform: Duke University via Coursera

Official blurb:

Medical Neuroscience explores the organization and physiology of the human central nervous system. This course is designed for first-year students in graduate-level health professions programs. It builds upon knowledge acquired in prior studies of cellular and molecular biology, general physiology, and human anatomy.

Status: Completed; comments can be found here.
I like brain stuff. From the description, I have a feeling this is too technical for me, but I’ve taken several courses on brain function, and there’s plenty of bio info all over. There’s a “prereq check” quiz kicking things off, so that’ll help me figure out just what I’m in for. I’ll give it a shot, but I won’t feel bad if it’s over my head.


Ancient Philosophy: Plato & His Predecessors
Start: January ?? 2016
Instructor: Susan Sauvé Meyer
School/platform: University of Pennsylvania via Coursera

Official blurb:

What is philosophy? How does it differ from science, religion, and other modes of human discourse? This course traces the origins of philosophy in the Western tradition in the thinkers of Ancient Greece….Part I will cover Plato and his predecessors.

Status: Completed, comments posted here.
So, well, you know, philosophy… I keep taking courses on Plato, and it seems to me every one of them has a very different viewpoint. That’s a good thing, by the way. Start date seems a little vague, and there’s no indication of how many weeks, so I get the feeling this is still under construction. It’s one of those “rolling enrollment” things, I think; a compromise between scheduled courses (which Coursera abandoned insisting everyone prefers on-demand), and on-demand, which has been a complete bust. I used to have an attitude towards edX. Now I have an attitude towards Coursera. Anyway, I’ll do it for Plato. There is a Part 2 featuring Aristotle, but let’s see how this goes first.


Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the 19th Century Orchestra
Start January 21, 2016
3 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk (self-paced)
Instructor: Thomas Forest Kelly
School/platform: Harvard via edX

Official blurb:

Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th Symphony premiered in Vienna in 1824, and continues to be one of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire. The monumental symphony’s size and complexity stretches traditional instrumental forms to the breaking point, and its famous choral finale changed our view of orchestral music forever…
You will learn the basics of musical form and analysis, the genres and styles used and the circumstances of this symphony’s first performance and subsequent history. Learners in this course need not have any prior musical experience.

Status: Completed, comments can be found here.
Another installment in the First Nights series of non-rigorous musical exploration, from the people who brought you the Messiah MOOC. I need to keep my expectations in line: coincidences of timing and surprise made the Messiah course a special event, and this may not have the same emotional impact (then again, Beethoven, hello?), but I’m looking forward to it all the same.


Fun with Prime Numbers: The Mysterious World of Mathematics
Start January 21, 2016
4 weeks, 1 hrs/wk
Instructor: Tetsushi Ito
School/platform: Kyoto University via edX

Official blurb:

In this math course, you will learn the definition and basic properties of prime numbers, and how they obey mysterious laws. Some prime numbers were discovered several hundred years ago whereas others have only been proven recently. Even today, many mathematicians are trying to discover new laws of prime numbers.

Status: Dropped at the beginning of week 3. This was probably the worst MOOC I’ve taken.
I have no idea what this is – what kind of a math course can be done in one hour a week? – but my policy is to take every math course I see, so I signed up. It might be fun, who knows. It’s certainly going to be different.


The Conscious Mind – A Philosophical Road Trip
Start February 2, 2016
4 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
Instructor: Dan Lloyd
School/platform: Trinity College via edX

Official blurb:

In ordinary life we barely notice the operations of our own minds. In The Conscious Mind – A Philosophical Road Trip, we will illuminate what we take for granted in perception, action, and interaction with others. We’ll explore this mindful awareness through demonstrations, illusions, brainteasers, thought experiments, riddles and jokes, all designed to shake you loose from your ordinary assumptions about the way consciousness works.


Status: Completed, comments posted here.
Hey, it’s a philosophy course. I take philosophy courses. And consciousness is cool, mostly because no one knows just what it is. The description sounds somewhere between religion and psychology, and the teaser video is unusually creative for a teaser video, so sure, I’ll see what’s up.


The American Renaissance: Classic Literature of the 19th Century
Start February 16, 2016
7 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
Instructor: Donald E. Pease, James E. Dobson
School/platform: Dartmouth via edX

Official blurb:

Join a hybrid community of learners, both online and in residence at Dartmouth College, as we discover how to discern the historical turning points involved in the production and transmission of American Renaissance writings. We will conceptualize the role historical and affective turning points continue to play in the selection, interpretation and valuation of these writings.

Status: Dropped. Too much self-importance and self-congratulations. A course that takes itself way too seriously.
I was quite impressed by Dartmouth’s cooperation between instructor and EdTech team in the Opera course I just finished; so many courses now seem to be run by edtech departments, with instructors relegated to the role of on-air talent, but they seem to have a more synergistic approach. Of course, every MOOC is different, so there are no guarantees, but hello, literature, yeah, count me in. I’m further impressed: on December 20, they launched a website and Twitter account for the course, including a list of all readings to be covered (which are substantial, so the advance notice is appreciated). The teaser video’s trumpeting of Dartmouth’s role in this literature is a little over the top (we get it: Dartmouth is a venerable institution with an illustrious past, can we move on now?), but it’s just a teaser video.


College Algebra and Problem Solving
Start April 18, 2016
8 weeks, 18 hrs/wk
Instructor: Adrian Sannier, Sue McClure
School/platform: Arizona State University via edX

Official blurb:

In this college level Algebra course, you will learn to apply algebraic reasoning to solve problems effectively. You’ll develop skills in linear and quadratic functions, general polynomial functions, rational functions, and exponential and logarithmic functions. You will also study systems of linear equations. This course will emphasize problem-solving techniques, specifically by means of discussing concepts in each of these topics.

Status: Completed, comments can be found here.

I just finished the ASU history course, and frankly, that leaves me very skeptical about this course. But, it’s a math course, and see above re I take math courses. I’m hoping the promised problem solving techniques will be prominent.


Exploring Light
Start March 24, 2016
4 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
Instructor: Paul Doherty, Eric Muller, Zeke Kossover
School/platform: Exploratorium (San Francisco science museum)

Official blurb:

This is an Exploratorium Teacher Institute professional development course open to any science teacher (particularly middle or high school level) and light enthusiast. Participants will engage in hands-on STEM activities that allow them to directly experience natural phenomena and gain an understanding of how the Exploratorium helps people learn.
NOTE: Because this is a hands-on workshop, you will need to buy or find materials for this course. All of the materials required are inexpensive and should be easy to obtain. We’ll send out a complete list with recommended sources before the course begins.

Status: Dropped quickly. Teachers looking for classroom activities might love it, but it wasn’t going to do me much good.
This is the first time I’ve heard of the Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum in San Francisco. I’ve taken several courses from the Manchester Museum in England, though they’re part of a university; apparently the Exploratorium is standalone. The course is intended for teachers, so I’m aware it’s going to have a very different focus, but the hands-on aspect appeals to me; it all depends on how much trouble and expense is involved in finding the materials.


Explorations in Confucian Philosophy
Start April 25, 2016
6 weeks, 4-5 hrs/wk
Instructor: Alan K. L. Chan
School/platform: Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, via Coursera

Official blurb:

Explore the world of Confucianism, its foundational teachings, the ways in which it continues to shape Chinese culture and society, and how it may respond to today’s global challenges.

Status: Course postponed “until further notice”.
For all the philosophy courses I’ve taken, I know virtually nothing about Asian philosophies in general, nor Confucianism in particular. What better reason to take a course?

Thinking MOOC

Course: Philosophy and Critical Thinking META101x: Thinking about thinking
School: University of Queensland via edX
Instructors: Deborah Brown, Peter Ellerton, et al

We’ll begin by developing some of the intellectual tools we need to analyse the big issues in philosophy – understanding the nature and structure of arguments. We’ll learn what makes an argument compelling, and how we can evaluate arguments to see if they are put together in a convincing way. We will develop this skill all through the course, by applying it across a range of philosophical topics with increasing sophistication. In each module we will be analysing and evaluating arguments.

The Fallacy Referee, the Glossary Fairy, the philosophical Grotesques, illustrations filmed in coffee shops, high school classrooms, duck ponds… Once again, as with the Duke “Think Again” course on argument, I could tell the people making this course had a lot of fun with it. I’m all about goofy, but it wasn’t quite my style of goofy. That’s ok, I’m sure a lot of people thought it was great. I have to give them credit for creative and well-executed graphic and camera work, as well as for enthusiasm.

The course was made up of four week-long modules, each with a series of lectures, conversations (“Philosophers Talk” featuring faculty discussing pertinent topics), readings (“Let’s Philosophize”), discussion topics for the forum (with significant staff support), and ungraded questions and exercises. Grades were based on four exams, one per module. The introductory material indicated three possible tracks to accommodate different goals or different prior coursework. What’s odd is that I couldn’t figure out what went with what track. That’s ok, all MOOCs are pretty much choose-your-adventure.

Some of the lectures and readings seemed a bit vague and cryptic, with more jargon – the endless parade of “isms” – than explanation or framework for understanding. Possibly, these were for “serious” philosophy students and were simply over my head (I’ve been perplexed by underdeterminism before), but I would’ve liked a bit more explanation.

The course has been Archived, which means you can enroll and take the material at your own pace, though there won’t be any grades or discussion forums. It’s not a bad course, just not my cup of tea. If it’d been an 8 week course, I probably would’ve dropped by week 3. But the 4 weeks were worthwhile. There’s a great deal of philosophical info in there. And they really went to a great deal of effort to create the course; dozens of people were involved, from the philosophers discussing their work to TAs enacting little illustrative dramas (in addition to the unseen editors and edtechs). In fact, I’m a bit surprised they’re archiving it after one run, considering how much went into it, and how many discussion questions show up; I’m going to guess it’s some kind of supplement to the in-person philosophy curriculum.

I have a hard time summing up what was covered without listing individual topics: argument structure, validity and soundness, fallacies, philosophy of science, dualism, idealism, realism, this–ism that–ism, analogies, causation… and dozens more. I would imagine to a philosopher, these fit together in a category that covers all these things, but to me it seemed almost like a random collection of philosophical topics about thinking.

Anatomical MOOC: The shoulder bone’s connected to what again?

Course: Going Out on a Limb: Anatomy of the Upper Limb
School: Penn via edX
Instructors: Dr. James S. White
Anatomy lab isn’t just for first year medical students anymore. With this online anatomy course, anyone can learn about the upper limb, without the cadaver.
…We’ll start with basic human anatomical terminology and apply that knowledge to examining the bones of the upper limb and how they articulate at joints. You will also learn about the muscles that produce movement at those joints in addition to the innervation and blood supply of the upper limb.

You’d think anatomy would be incredibly boring: “The finger bone’s connected to the hand bone, The hand bone’s connected to the arm bone…” (which, by the way, is anatomically wrong) without the music. Sure, there was a lot of that, but I found it fascinating anyway. Then again, I’m weird. And I really, really like medical stuff. Which, of course, is why I took it, since I have absolutely no reason to learn anatomy. Most of the students were in, or aspiring to, health care or fitness fields (and boy, did they know their stuff; lots of information on the discussion boards), and that’s at whom the course was aimed. In fact, Dr. White indicated it’s pretty much one section of first-year medical school anatomy (minus the cadavers).

Medical school students are, of course, expected to have all of this memorized. That’s why medical students are in their 20s, not their 60s; it’d take me a year to memorize all this, and then I’d lose it since it’s not information I would use on a regular basis (or ever again, really). But while there were plenty of charts of muscles, actions, origins and attachments, and innervations, and hundreds of diagrams from the anatomical planes and position to the detailed routes of nerves and tendons, there were also some interesting tidbits that were more retainable for even the likes of me.

Like for instance, the brachial plexus mixes up all the nerves from the cervical vertebrae so that every arm muscle is innervated by more than one spinal cord segment, which allows function to continue in spite of severe injury to a particular nerve. And that’s also why, when my cervical disks started collapsing one after the other, my arms often hurt in the same place.

Remember how we all learned in junior high that the shoulder’s a ball and socket joint? Well, that’s true, except the socket is extremely shallow, so the whole shoulder is held together by tendons and muscles, which is why some people (like my ex-husband) dislocate a shoulder if they sneeze too hard. And a wristwatch is really a forearm watch, because the wrist bones are in what most people consider the hand. Rotator cuff injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, all sorts of fun things were all splayed out for us on multicolor slides.

While the quizzes did have a lot of “what is this structure” questions, there were also some items that required putting together the anatomy and working with it. Such as: Why is a fall on an outstretched hand more likely to injure the scaphoid or lunate bones than to the triquetrum? It has nothing to do with the wrist bones; it’s the cartilage on the end of the ulna that absorbs some of the shock to the triquetrum. And, by the way, I love the word triquetrum, it’s my favorite bone. Here’s another one: A woman has upper limb weakness after surgery, and is unable to protract her scapula. What muscle has most likely been affected? And my favorite question(s) of the entire course:

To bring the palm of the hand from anatomic position to facing posteriorly using the shoulder joint, one would have to do which of the following actions?
– Medial rotation – correct
– Lateral rotation
– Pronation
– Supination
To bring the palm of the hand from anatomic position to facing posteriorly using the elbow and wrist radioulnar joints, one would have to do which of the following actions?
– Medial rotation
– Lateral rotation
– Pronation – correct
– Supination

See, you can turn your palm backwards either by moving your whole arm at the shoulder, or by flipping your radius over the stationary ulna, and those are completely different actions using completely different muscles. Cool! No? Well, I had fun. And the best part is: Thoracic anatomy is in the works. I’m really looking forward to that.

Like I said, I’m weird.

Civilized MOOC

“Greek fire”, 7th C

Course: Western Civilization: Ancient and Medieval Europe
School: Arizona State University via edX
Instructors: Dr. Ian Frederick Moulton et al

[W]e will explore European civilization from its beginnings in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to the voyages of Christopher Columbus. We will study politics, warfare, trade, religion, art, culture, and daily life, as well as the legacy of ancient and medieval civilizations to the modern world.

Remember those “Eight countries in 10 days” European tours that were so popular in the 60s? This course reminded me a lot of those: a whirlwind trip through the famous historic and cultural landmarks of 4000 years in 7 weeks. It’s part of Arizona State University’s Global Freshman Academy, where students can, if exam proctoring conditions are met and a (signficant) fee paid, earn ASU credit upon passing (whether or not that credit will transfer to other schools is uncertain). And as a seven-week Freshman course covering upwards of 4000 years of civilization, it’s pretty good.

Mesopotamia and Egypt were dispatched in the first week, Greece in the second, Rome in the third. Then, an interesting twist: a week on Israel and the Jewish People; this caused some consternation as a lecture recounting the basic plot of Genesis and Exodus served as an introduction, rather than showing up in the Religion or Cultural section. This was defended by the view that a culture’s beliefs are the best way of understanding the people, which is a good point, but I still wonder if the lecture should have made more clear the distinction between factually supported history and cultural belief. Byzantium got itself a week, and the Middle Ages in Western Europe was split up over two weeks.

Each unit included subchapters on the elements listed above: politics and war, trade, religion, culture, etc. I was impressed that primary sources – in translation and edited, of course – were included for most subchapters, works like the legend of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Genesis, Cicero, Pope Urban’s call to the First Crusade, and Boccaccio’s Decameron. I was a bit amused that the first canto of the Inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy was included under the heading of “Daily Life”; I would’ve expected to see it in religion, culture, or even politics (since he wrote it as an exile and included numerous mentions of Guelphs and Ghibellines) but they defended that choice by invoking the stories of Paulo and Francesca and other Florentine contemporaries.

Each week included a quiz and a set of “flashcards” via Cerego. I’ve seen Cerego used in other courses; it’s quite an interesting idea, and great where memorization of many elements is important (I found it invaluable when learning amino acids, though I let it slide and have forgotten them all). Here, the only requirement was to get to Level 1, which is more or less useless.

Discussion questions were posted each week. I’ve rather soured on discussion questions, since they tend to generate more or less identical responses parroting the lectures from most students. I think discussion questions could do other things (as they did in the Egypt course, for that matter), such as invite speculative inquiry on how something might happen prior to lectures, but that isn’t how they’re typically used.

Students taking the credited course were required to take some of the exams under proctored conditions (the rest of us just proceeded as usual). I can’t even deal with the requirements of verification, let alone instructions like “no one may enter or leave the room” or “no radio or tv or voices can be present.” I heard there were some technical issues early on, but I didn’t pay much attention; those counting on earning credit should be more diligent as to contingency plans.

In addition to the quizzes, Cerego, and two exams, a Design Project accounted for 5% to the total score for the course. The assignment was extremely vague – do something, a paper, video, podcast, music, magazine article – to demonstrate understanding of some objective of the course. Grading was by self-assessment. This is the second time I’ve run into a “do something” project with a low bar for passing, and while I appreciate the opportunity for creativity and self-direction, I’m dubious about the value of self-assessment on such a loosely defined project. A few students shared their efforts, as we were encouraged to do, and these showed some interesting creativity: a “newly discovered” Platonic dialog, a series of letters between fictional citizens of Rome, a blog post researching Hadrian’s Wall.

As a freshman level survey course, I think this was successful; in fact, extra points for including primary documents, and for looking beyond battles, kings, and dates. It wasn’t what I was hoping for, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value for what it is.

Quranic MOOC

Left: One of the oldest surviving Quran manuscripts, perhaps late 7th century. Right: Opening of Sura 20 in 1924 standardized edition.

Left: One of the oldest surviving Quran manuscripts, c. 7th century.
Right: Opening of Sura 20 in 1924 standardized edition.

Course: Introduction to the Quran: The Scripture of Islam
School: Notre Dame via edX
Instructors: Gabriel Said Reynolds

This course will introduce you to various aspects of the Quran, including its basic message, the historical context in which it originated, the diverse ways in which Muslims have interpreted it, and its surprisingly intimate relationship with the Bible. By the end of the course, you will gain an appreciation for the perspectives of Muslim believers and academic scholars alike on the origins and the meaning of the Islamic scripture. No background in Islam or Arabic is necessary for this course.

Like many white-bread Americans, I have absolutely no idea what’s actually in the Quran. I’ve tried to read parts of it a couple of times, but got lost very quickly, and when it comes to religious texts of any kinds, it’s very difficult to judge the reliability of sources of information unless you have some overview of the playing field. So when I found out this course was available, I jumped at the chance to start understanding better. I’m glad I did; this was a highly successful project.

We started with an overview of structure of the Quran, the themes found within, and the process by which the text became standardized. All of this situated the verses in a time and context. I realized why I had so much trouble understanding it on my own: whereas the Bible is structured around a mostly chronological account of the Hebrews, the life of Jesus, and the Apostles – a story, with some philosophy thrown in along the way – the Quran has a different structure. Suras (chapters) don’t necessarily stick to one theme, nor is there a narrative in most cases. This gets particularly confusing as each Sura is named, but the name doesn’t necessarily refer to a theme, or even the most important aspect of the section, but rather to some distinctive feature.

The last two weeks of the course compared the Quran with the Bible, first with the Old Testament (Adam, Noah, and Moses) and then the New Testament (Mary, Jesus, and the disciples), examining the differences with an eye towards understanding why those differences appeared. I found these differences to be fascinating, and often quite beautiful.

What I appreciated most about the course was the clear distinction between what is in the text, and the interpretations of that text. This was most evident to me in connection with the “Night Journey” of Sura 17, the story of Mohamed’s mystical transport in the course of one night from Mecca to Jerusalem to Heaven and back again. We looked at several traditions of interpretation of the text according to different Islamic scholars and schools of thought, and how those interpretations are situated into more verifiable aspects of Mohammed’s biography and the history and geography of the period.

The course consisted of a weekly set of lectures (one of which was taped in Jerusalem overlooking the Dome of the Rock), which were clear and informative. We were also able to enjoy guest interviews with several academic and religious scholars of the Quran, and each week also featured a “response” video on questions and issues raise on the forums. A typical week would also include significant reading: two or three Suras, and a chapter or two from a couple of academic texts. I found some of these academic readings to be somewhat complicated, primarily due to my unfamiliarity with Arabic, even Anglicized Arabic (obviously, all material in the course was presented in translation, with occasional recitations in the original Arabic), and secondarily due to my newness to the terrain. But that’s what learning is, after all: expanding the landscape of what’s familiar.

Grading was on the basis of three multiple-choice quizzes; each week also included a very short (4 to 5 questions) ungraded quiz. I didn’t find these to be difficult, though in some cases I needed to refresh my memory, as so many new names, places, and concepts were piling in. There was a quirk I haven’t seen before: the final essay (analysis of a sura not included in the course material) was for verified students only, and was submitted by email for grading by staff. While staff grading is a fantastic feature, I was surprised there was no option for peer assessment, or even self-assessment.

Another feature I greatly appreciated was the detailed structuring of the discussion forums into the topics covered for a particular week. This minimized the deficiencies of the edX forums (which I’ve ranted about before), but on top of that, given the tenor of the times, discussions in this type of course could easily get out of hand. Every mention of posting questions or comments included the word “respectful” (sad that such a thing is necessary, but a welcome reminder) and the boards were well-monitored. I didn’t participate – a combination of time pressure and being too much of a neophyte to formulate an intelligent query, or much of a query at all – but I looked around and was surprised at how well-behaved things were, given the high level of activity and the different points of view being offered. The single troll I noticed went almost entirely unfed, which is pretty remarkable. Of course, it’s possible that things were cleaned up by moderators before I got there, but that’s pretty remarkable as well. In any case, I found it comforting that, as so many in the world seemed to be going crazy, there still are people who are able to wonder, question, and trade ideas in a rational way.

I can recommend this course for anyone who’s interested in taking a look at the Quran from an academic perspective, and understanding some of the interpretations it generates; yes, there is significant effort involved, but as one of my academic heroes says, if you’re taking an easy class, you need a different class. I’m at too low a level to know, but I think it’s effective as a multi-level course: that is, beginners like me find it a great introduction, but those with more depth of experience and understanding will no doubt find it worthwhile as well. I may take it again myself, to deepen my understanding.

MOOC like an Egyptian

Course: Ancient Egypt: A history in six objects
School: University of Manchester (UK) via Coursera
Instructors: Drs. Joyce Tyldesley, Glenn Godenho, Campbell Price

As its name indicates, the course is a history of ancient Egypt based on six objects housed in the collections of the Manchester Museum, in the north-west of England. These objects, which range in date from the Predynastic Period to the Greco-Roman Period, have been carefully chosen to illustrate some of the most important stages of Egyptian culture. By looking in detail at these wonderful artefacts, and uncovering the fascinating stories that they tell us, we will develop an understanding of this remarkable ancient civilisation.

[Addendum: it appears this course is not in the current Coursera catalog; it may be awaiting conversion to the new platform, or it may have been discontinued)

I confess: I have no interest in pyramids. Kind of puts a damper on any study of Ancient Egypt. But I was intrigued by the approach used by this course: six objects that tell the story of Egypt. Of course, it wasn’t quite that cut-and-dried, but it did make for an interesting structure.

The class was run by the Manchester Museum, so each week contained a couple of videos of archaeologists and Egyptologists talking about several objects, from bowls used for funerary rites to statues to tomb paintings to tools. Because Ancient Egypt was so long ago – four thousand years – most of the materials come from burial chambers, and since most of those were looted in antiquity, we’re lucky to have anything at all. In spite of that, we saw a wide variety of materials and heard a great deal about Ancient Egypt beyond pyramids. Fun fact: animals were mummified, too. Ibises. Crocodiles.

What I liked most about the course was the variety of learning activities. Now, I hate the phrase “learning activity”, it always sounds like second grade, but it happens to be descriptive here. Weekly activities included very short readings on historical chronology, fact sheets on the objects of discussion, and period-specific maps. There were a couple of video lectures loaded with photographic documentation of the subject under discussion, and, most interestingly, two or three videos of pairs of Manchester Museum academic experts hanging out in a cluttered museum storeroom, conversationally discussing various objects connected with the period – tools, art, pottery, coffins, a crocodile mummy.

Each week concluded with a quiz and an”activity” (shudder), generally a scavenger hunt through museum websites to find objects that interested us personally, which we would share on the discussion forums. This turned out to be a lot of fun: I found a statue of the goddess Bast (famous to fans of The West Wing), some tiny pieces made from hippopotamus ivory, and an adorable 5000-year-old bowl on two feet.

The peer-assessed final project was likewise creative in nature: shadow the course by putting together a set of six objects to represent Ancient Egypt, either as a whole or of some individual period, in some way. We were invited to be creative, given license to use slide shows or videos instead of essays. The assignments I saw were all essays, but I hope some people had fun with it; I would imagine, if a student were more familiar with museums and had access to good Egyptology collection, a video might have been a lot of fun.

The material for all weeks was released at the beginning of the course, though it did proceed on a schedule. I kept with the schedule this time, partly because I was taking so many other courses, and partly because I wanted to take a different approach; usually I skip ahead, but I stayed with the group this time. It worked out fine; for me, it’s a matter of schedule.

And yes, we were in Week 2 or 3 when the US discovered a leading Presidential candidate believes the pyramids were not burial tombs but storage buildings for grain designed by the Hebrew Joseph. Presidential candidates believe all sorts of batshit stuff, but this was one of the batshittiest, made more batshit by the fact that the candidate is, in fact, a (now retired) brain surgeon of great renown. Too bad he didn’t take this course, or he would’ve seen there wasn’t a lot of room in the pyramids, Joseph was way too late for the first pyramids, the unlooted pyramids have coffins and funerary objects in them, and the looted pyramids have the same funereal art and markings on the walls.

I found the course informative and enjoyable. If you’re looking for heavy-duty history or the technical aspects of archaeology, you might be disappointed, but I can recommend it if you’re just interested in knowing more about ancient Egypt.

Need a little Christmas? Handel and chill: Messiah MOOC

Course: First Nights: Handel’s Messiah and Baroque Oratorio
School: Harvard via edX

While Italian opera set the standard in the Baroque era, German composer George Frederic Handel quickly gained popularity for his oratorios, which put operatic techniques to work in the service of sacred music. Handel’s Messiah premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and remains popular to this day. Harvard’s Thomas Forrest Kelly (Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music) guides learners through Messiah’s musical highlights, while detailing Handel’s composition process, the preparations and rehearsals, and the premiere performance.
Learners in this module of First Nights need not have any prior musical experience. In this unit, you will learn the basics of musical form and analysis, the genres and styles used in Messiah, the circumstances of its first performance, and its subsequent history.

I hadn’t planned to take this course; I wasn’t even aware of it until one of my MOOCbuddies (hi, Richard!) mentioned it. I’ve sung most of The Messiah in bits and pieces over the years, not including the Hallelujah Chorus which I’ve performed (as soprano, alto, or tenor, as needed) about a dozen times in four different states – including one performance in a psychiatric hospital and one with a pick-up team of ESL tutors and our students in a nursing home, and one memorable year in which I performed it twice, once as soprano and once as tenor, with two different choruses. I always thought I was kind of sick of it.

But as it turned out, this was one of two perfect anecdotes to a world gone mad over the past weeks. No matter how bad the news, how crazy the antics of people who confuse reality and reality TV, I could relax for a short time in the evening with the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra and various members of the Holden Choir, the University Choir, and the teaching staff (another pick-up chorus of sorts, if a higher quality of pick-up) and the thoroughly charming Thomas Forrest Kelly – and Mr. Handel’s music.

No musical expertise is needed to enjoy the course. There’s a discussion of different types of composition styles – the various recitatives and choruses – but there’s plenty of demonstration. It’s also a look at the first performance from a historical point of view: where it was held, the customs of the day that would have prevailed (audiences were far less restrained), and a general discussion of musical authenticity. And there was music: small performances, granted, of the arias and choruses under discussion.

One of the discussions led to my finding the Claus Guth staged version on Youtube; it’s so bizarre, it’s like a different piece: sign language, a funeral, suicide, a christening, who knows what else. I have no idea what the thematic intention is, but it’s mesmerizing. And I never would’ve heard of it if I hadn’t signed up on impulse for this short, simple course – I never took a note, didn’t even open a file for it, missed a question or two, but still ended up with 105% somehow. This isn’t about rigorous academics: this is about truly appreciating music, something most music appreciation classes never bother with.

This course was exactly what I needed, at this time. And the best news is: it’s part of a whole First Night series; Beethoven’s 9th Symphony will be on the schedule in early 2016. Can’t wait!

e-Lit MOOC

Course: Electronic Literature
School: Davidson College via edX
Instructors: Dr. Mark Sample

Imagine a computer game played by millions made of only text on a screen. Imagine a poem 13 billion stanzas long. Imagine a play written by a computer in 1963. Imagine a love story between a printed page and a computer screen, played out in the space between the two of them. Welcome to the weird, wonderful world of electronic literature. Experimental, evocative, and often puzzling, e-lit has nonetheless had a profound influence on mainstream culture….
We’ll study major and marginal works of electronic literature in this course, and learn what separates them from more traditional works of literature. We’ll also develop strategies for reading and understanding works that challenge our assumptions– assumptions about literature, about authorship, about originality, about creativity, and even about meaning itself.

Modpo gave me the first peek at poetry that went beyond lines of text printed on a page; now this course took me further out from the mainstream. But while it’s a lot of gee whiz fun, there is academic theory underlying it all – and a technical element as well.

We started off with the familiar – books on paper. This gave us a comfortable jumping off place, as well as a framework for looking at how e-lit shares qualities with traditional lit, and also moves beyond it. From Matthew Kirschenbaum’s distinction between the affordances of books vs e-lit, to Peter Rabinowitz’s rules of reading, we also examined e-lit in terms of Janet Murray’s four properties and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s five elements of e-lit. This gave the course a structure and theoretical underpinning I greatly appreciated. I had no idea this was an actual academic discipline; that means great things for e-lit, and makes Christopher Strachey’s love letter generator something like Gilgamesh.

We spent some time looking at works of e-lit that fit certain characteristics – works that used dysfunction, for example (Geogoo is amazing; it makes no sense, but it’s mesmerizing to watch) or the sublime, in the Burkean sense, or literary fragments. These raised issues of expectations of the aesthetic experience of “literature” in a broad sense – for me, questions about control of the aesthetic work. The books on my shelf are the same every time I read them. Must that be the case of literature, of art? I’ve often noted, as I read BASS or Pushcart, that stories often don’t go where I expect them to go, or use settings I may particularly like or dislike, and how that affects my experience; what if the story never ends, or the story is created randomly? What if the story is just a hint, and I need to fill in the rest? What if the story is made from bits and pieces of other stories?

I love questions like this, like my favorite question from my mesostic period – “Who wrote this?” when it comes to a lot of these works. Did Stephen LaPorte and Mahmoud Hashemi write Listening to Wikipedia when they wrote the code? What about those random people updating Wiki at any given moment, unaware they are providing data that is creating an aesthetic experience (and, why is someone updating “Monster Energy”, or Madras, Oregon, or swimming records on the Saturday afternoon after Thanksgiving – what even is the story)? What about the writers of the articles being updated? The subjects of those articles, whose names may appear? And who wrote Sea and Spar Between – Nick Montford and Stephanie Strickland, who wrote the code that presents the text? Melville, who wrote the original text in different form? The reader, who re-interprets words? What does it mean, that the work can’t be “read” as a whole – what does it mean to our closure-driven psyches when a work of e-lit never ends?

The unit on preservation was also surprisingly intriguing to me: How does rewriting a work to make it compatible with modern technology affect the work – is PacMan on the latest iPhone the same as PacMan played on a refrigerator-sized machine in a smoky bar the 70s? How much of the message is the medium, anyway?

Yep, I had a lot of fun with this.

I will say, however, that the last two or three weeks of the course exceeded my technical limitations, or at least my willingness to stretch my technical ability. As the course moved deeper and deeper into how these works operate, and how they are created, I lost interest. A more technically-focused person than I would probably experience the opposite pattern, perhaps becoming more and more involved as time went on. And any geek would love the opportunities afforded us to create and share original work. I’d recommend it to anyone who finds any of the above intriguing and is willing to explore.

Despite being listed as self-paced, the material was released week-to-week and Dr. Sample was very active in the course, both in the forums and by holding online hangouts and interviews with academics and artists. The course Twitter account, as well as Dr. Sample’s feed, also provided real-time information. The grading was mostly on the basis of self-reported participation in polls, forum discussions, creative and writing assignments, with a few peer assessments as well. Assignment deadlines were generous, and were extended past the end of class, to allow more time for students to prepare and share creative efforts, both bots and Twine stories.

I was constantly surprised, which itself was a surprise, since I had no idea what to expect. Like Modpo, and its patron saint Emily Dickinson, the course dwells in possibilities, and in the best Modponian tradition, the course aims to create a community beyond itself to continue exploration.

Operatic MOOC

Dr. Swayne lectures from the Estates Theatre in Prague, where Mozart's Don Giovanni premiered

Dr. Swayne lectures from the Estates Theatre in Prague, where Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered

Course: Introduction to Italian Opera
School: Dartmouth via edX
Instructors: Steve Swayne

Want to listen to an opera for the first time? Have you been listening to opera for your entire life? This course is suited for beginners and advanced opera listeners alike!
This course is an introduction to Italian opera, focusing on giving you the tools and experiences to become better students of opera. Act I will give you a toolbox of skills to listen for specific moments and gestures in opera. Act II will focus applying these skills to listening activities with your favorite Italian composers. At the end of the course, we will help you to carry these experiences beyond the course, encouraging you to become lifelong listeners and lovers of opera.

I wouldn’t consider myself an opera fan specifically, but I do like a small subset of operas, most of which are indeed Italian. What I am is a proselytizer for MOOCs (while they’re still truly open; hurry, folks, because doors are slamming all over), and a writer friend told me he’d be interested in something on opera. So when I saw this on the edX schedule, I jumped at it. Turned out to be a good move; it was a great class. And it was nice to revisit some old favorites. It’s been a while.

The first three weeks introduced three analytic tools: the auditory microscope (close listening), the auditory telescope (historical development), and the auditory filters (structural conventions). The next three weeks used these tools to look, in turn, at bel canto operas, then Verdi, and finally Puccini and his contemporaries. I found the lectures fascinating; I’ve been listening to this music for years, but I had no idea so much was included in the opening duet of The Marriage of Figaro or the orchestration of La Traviata.

Grading was based on a variety of written assignments, some peer assessed, some self-reported. I decided to do this as a “recreational MOOC” so I didn’t do much of the writing, but the assignments were quite well-defined to develop listening and analytic skills introduced in the lectures, without demanding any specific knowledge of musical notation, theory, or composition. My impression is that they also allowed students with more musical background to work at their level as well.

Four sessions of “Office Hours” via Google Hangout were scheduled over the seven weeks, to answer questions raised in the forums. These were highly interesting; I enjoyed them greatly. Plenty of other resources for listening and exploring opera in various capacities were shared, both by staff and by students. The course Twitter feed was very active; in fact, the Dartmouth EdTech team was highly involved. I don’t go much for badges, but I do go for organizational support of MOOCs, and that was very evident here. I have another Dartmouth literature MOOC coming up in February, and I’ll be interested to see if the same thing holds.

Steven Swayne is a highly engaging lecturer; I wondered if he’d done any operatic performance himself, but it seems his performance strength is piano. He’s got that enthusiasm for the subject that so many good profs have. The material was well-organized and clear, the exercises relevant and just structured enough.

The “Finale” video, after all the lectures were lected and the assignments written and the course closed, was a beautiful example of how opera moves us, even when we aren’t aware of it as opera. The operatic scene from Philadelphia makes me cry every time I watch it – and I’m not even a Maria Callas fan! And I was reminded of Aretha’s peformance of “Nessun Dorma” at the Grammys back in the 90s: what a marvel. It was a lovely Thanksgiving present, and I’m grateful.

The course is going into Archive status, which means anyone can enroll and work the entire course at any pace, though not for any kind of certificate. Obviously there won’t be much (if any) forum activity, and there won’t be any peer assessment or new Office Hours – though I understand the videos of this session’s hangouts will be available.

I’m not sure the course will convert a symphonic specialist (or a Taylor Swift fan) to opera, but I once scoffed at opera until I was lucky enough to get a guided tour, so anything’s possible. In any case, I’d recommend this to anyone, at any level of musical expertise, as an enjoyable and informative overview of Italian opera.

Bravo! Hoping for a sequel on contemporary opera, or maybe even German opera (with these guys, I might even sit still for Wagner… nah, probably not), …

Think Again (and again and again) MOOC

Course: Think Again: How to Reason and Argue
School: Duke via Coursera
Instructors: Dr. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Dr. Ram Neta

Over the 12 weeks of Think Again, you will learn how to analyze and evaluate arguments and how to avoid common mistakes in reasoning. These important skills will be useful to you in deciding what to believe and what to do in all areas of your life. We will also have plenty of fun.

[addendum: Coursera has converted this course to their new platform; content may have changed, and the experience may be very different]

I’ll say this for them: they did indeed have a lot of fun, as evidenced by that screen shot from the final video of the course. These guys take logic so seriously, that when a student in a prior run of the course made a convincing argument that Walter should shave his head, he had no choice but to comply (and added in Ram shaving his beard as well; I’m not sure where painting his face blue came in, but in for a penny, in for a pound). There was also an argument convincing us to always carry sausages (to fend off wild dogs, of course), probability questions using pig dice (where boxcars and snakeyes were replaced by snouters and leaning jowlers), a great deal of friendly back and forth jibing (the two instructors work at different schools), impromptu video celebrations at the close of the week, and a real-life Ghost in the Machine mystery on the forums that turned out to be some kind of technical glitch.

And it’s a good thing, because as I’ve said before, at some point all logic classes turn into someone droning on about if p then not q and r or if q then p and r implies p or q. That wasn’t the case here, since propositional logic was only a small portion of the course, but then there was probability, Bayesian equations, dozens of fallacies, Venn diagrams, and speech acts. Because of the breadth of the material, the depth was minimal, but I think the idea was to give an overview of different ways of approaching reasoning and arguments.

The course was divided into four segments of three weeks each, with Walter and Ram teaching alternating quarters. Most lectures included a set of ungraded exercises, anywhere from two to ten questions. Each three-week segment concluded with a graded quiz. The format of the quizzes were a little unusual: four quizzes for each segment were available, each a bit different (it seemed to me they got harder but that might’ve been fatigue), with only the best grade counting for that segment. It’s a variation of the multiple-attempts-with-a-pool-of-questions; I preferred it for some reason.

Not surprisingly, I found the segments I was most familiar with – propositional logic and probability – to be the easiest, and the rest to be more difficult. What makes this interesting is that the “easier” sections were more mathematical, while the more difficult argument construction and fallacy analysis were more about analyzing text. I may have to stop claiming to be a words person. In fact, I found close analysis of an argument – finding markers, reconstructing the argument – to be the most difficult part of the course. I still don’t know that I ever “got” it. In fact – and I feel bad saying this, since these two profs seem like incredibly nice guys who really enjoy teaching – I wish some of the effort put into hijinks had been put into figuring a better way of teaching close analysis and fallacies.

The forums were uneven. I started off very active, but backed off pretty quickly when it seemed there were some students who took the whole “argument” theme to heart and wanted to argue every minor point. I came back with vengeance in the propositional logic and probability sections, since I felt a little more secure there. While there were no CTAs and the instructors rarely posted, it seems they did keep an eye on things; after giving an explanation to another student, I made an offhand comment to the effect that I wish he could get an explanation from the instructor, since I wasn’t sure I was making sense, at which point Walter appeared to reassure me that my explanation was “right on target. Thanks, Walter, I needed that.

This was quite the course to take during the current Presidential primary season. I discovered Donald Trump uses assurance – all three varieties, authoritative, reflexive, and abusive – more than anything else, including facts or policy. And by the way, I’ve realized how much I rely on guarding – all the little hedge words like “probably” and “most”. But that’s the way the world often is; very few things are definite.

I signed up for this course because somewhere along the line, someone recommended it highly. As much as I like these guys, I can’t be that enthusiastic about it; I think the Melbourne logic courses did a far better job on propositional logic, and AOPS does everything that can be done with probability and expected value. Those are specialty classes, however, and this was a broader overview, so the purpose is different. If you’re looking for a smorgasbord of approaches to logic – including some that are more real-life than technical – this might work great for you. And it is a lot of fun.

Discovering A Lot Besides Precalc MOOC

Detail from James Drake’s “Brain Trash” exhibit

Course: Discovery Precalculus
School: University of Texas at Austin via edX
Instructors: Dr. Mark Daniels

Discovery Precalculus is not like any other mathematics course you’ve ever taken. Our classroom for this course will be the University of Texas at Austin inside the Blanton Museum of Art. I can’t think of a better classroom to learn mathematics in a creative way than to be surrounded by a creative environment. It is your creative energy that will make the course work, and your creativity can be put into mathematics.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, that art museum stuff is pure bait-and-switch; true, each of the seven units started with a one- to two-minute video filmed in an art museum, but that was about the extent of it. Maybe I shouldn’t have had such high hopes.

And I did have exceptionally high hopes. Given how much I complained about the last Precalc I took being 100% skill-drill, this seemed made to order. In fact, this could’ve been a terrific class. But it wasn’t. And I get cranky when a course that could’ve been terrific, is seriously flawed by administrative decisions and/or poor execution.

Now, I admit, I’ve never taught anything, and the people who designed this course are experts in math education. And: I’ve always admitted, I’m a mathematical idiot. But I do have the benefit of, after a lifetime of mathphobia, nearly three years of working on math in a wide variety of online settings from scheduled MOOCS to following blogs and homeschooling videos to working through self-paced sequences to clawing my way through books. And I’ve been a student in a ridiculous number of MOOCs in a wide variety of fields using different teaching styles on five different platforms. So while I know nothing about classroom teaching, and while actual teachers (and some students as well) may view my ravings as somewhere between naive and downright ignorant, I have some opinions about what helps in a MOOC (or at least what helps me), and what gets in the way.

The material itself wasn’t the problem. I liked that it was truly aimed at preparation for calculus. While it included the usual trig identities and algebra review, it progressed to far more interesting places. I recognized something very close to Riemann sums and integrals. Limits and simple derivatives were part of the course – and not just in a superficial way. While I haven’t done any multivariable calc, I think I noticed some material in matrices and polar coordinates that presaged that as well.

Though some of the material went by me (regressions, for instance), I had a great time with other units. Before things got quiet, a little knot of three or four of us had a blast figuring out what kinds of bottles would result from a variety of volume/height graphs, inventing bottles-within-bottles and magical pressure-sensitive spigots. I loved the more hypothetical questions about functions – can there be a function that’s both even and odd? Is there a function that can’t be inverted, even if the domain is restricted to one point? This is way more fun than one of those “how to find the equation of a parabola given the focus and directrix” precalcs.

I also had a lot of fun with the unit on alternate coordinate systems: polar roses, vectors, parametric equations, topics I was barely aware of before. But: I had fun because I found material on youtube and in pdfs all over the internet that helped me understand what was going on; if I’d relied on the course material, I don’t think I would’ve made much progress at all. And it was a very lonely journey, since by then, forum posts were few and far between.

So in spite of my complaints – and I’ll get into more details about that in a second – I’d recommend to course to someone who’s very comfortable figuring things out, who doesn’t mind working without much direction. In other words: if you understand how IBL works – or if you can learn math by reading a textbook – this could be the course for you. The problem is: most students who can learn math by reading a textbook, don’t need MOOCs to begin with. As for the rest, they need a course to teach them how to take the course.

I tend to gravitate towards strugglers; they’re my peeps. On day 1, I noticed a lot of students asking things like, “Where are the lectures?” and “Is anyone going to teach anything, or is this just a collection of problems?” I tried to help – I answered questions, I modeled how to work on some of the first problems, I gave suggestions for how to approach material – but a lot of students gave up immediately (and, by the way, IBL is supposed to teach you that the one thing you can never, ever do, is give up, but it seems the course assumed students had already learned that lesson). By the end of the first week, posts had slowed to a trickle (not a good sign in a pedagogy that’s built on communicating ideas to others and working together to develop solutions), and by week 3, I doubt there were 10 posts a week (other than mine). It’s generally understood that only a very small percentage of MOOC students ever post to the boards, but here, where people were posting and then were never heard from again, I suspect it was more of an indication of a sky-high dropout rate.

Why did I stay?

I had some advantages going in. That’s unusual for me; I usually start math courses with one hand tied behind my back, one foot in a bear trap, and a headache. But in this case, I’d already encountered a lot of formative assessment, so seeing questions on material that hadn’t been covered didn’t strike me as strange. And, most importantly, I’d taken a couple of IBL-based MOOCs, both of which prepared me in very different ways.

The first, Intro to Mathematical Thinking (taught by Keith Devlin out of Stanford on Coursera) completely changed how I view math, taught me how to go from “I don’t know how to do this so I’m stupid and I give up” to “so how do I figure out what to do?” and emphasized that confusion, frustration, and failure are part of learning, too; that the point of a math class isn’t to get a good score, but to understand more about math; and to take the time I need – and multiple passes if necessary – to get to that understanding. Granted, MathThink involved its own complaining and kicking and screaming (the center spot on the Bingo card would be “I’ve been a math teacher/engineer/physicist for x years, and if I’d ever taught like this I’d be fired”), but I knew what to do in Discovery Precalculus because Keith Devlin taught me that knowing math isn’t about knowing what to do the instant I read the question, but knowing how to sit down and figure out what to do when I don’t know. I ended up recommending MathThink, which was about to start at the same time, to a lot of people who didn’t understand the approach. I’m sure that endeared me to edX and to UTA. Interestingly, another Discovery Precalc student, perhaps the most active after me, turned out to be currently enrolled in MathThink course (she wrote a beautiful proof of a logarithm law and I asked if she’d taken Keith’s class), and she agreed, MathThink helped her handle Discovery.

The second IBL course I’d taken was Effective Thinking Through Mathematics from another UTA professor, Michael Starbird. In order to prep for that course, I’d gotten hold of a used copy of his book The Heart of Mathematics which starts with a bunch of puzzles, and a lot of advice to just try to figure out what’s involved in them. What’s strange is that I felt more support, encouragement, and guidance from the pages of that book than I felt in this MOOC, and I don’t think that’s the way it should be. But the upshot was, I knew what to do when faced with a bunch of puzzles without lectures, puzzles without spaces for the answers, in the first week of Discovery. And I understood some problem-solving approaches (make it a simpler problem; retreat to what is already known; ask questions, make mistakes) that, along with my own penchant for drawing diagrams and using colors in equations, James Tanton’s dictum: “Do something,” and Richard Rusczyk’s addition, “If you can’t do something smart, do something stupid,” gave me some ideas for how to proceed.

I sure wish some of those lessons, and similar lessons, had been included in this course, instead of the art gallery shtick. They’re incredibly valuable in any case, and might’ve helped a few strugglers stick around a little longer.

So what went wrong? I can give you my purely subjective, non-expert opinion: a handful of administrative decisions meant what may be a great classroom experience didn’t effectively translate to the MOOC world. Such as:

…the decision not to include a detailed video introduction to IBL methodology, and some specific suggestions on how to deal with it. The only introduction was some high-concept vague rhetoric about art and pronouncements along the lines of “This is a different kind of course… you will construct your own knowledge…” but no hint on how someone should start on doing that. At the end of the first week, they added an FAQ page, but it was more high-concept, vague rhetoric. Too little, too late.

I’m from the humanities side of the aisle, so I love high-concept vague rhetoric, but it would’ve been nice if they’d also included some concrete advice like: “Play with the ungraded questions; you might not immediately know how to do them, but try to figure it out. Draw pictures, or think about concepts you already know; hypothesize and see what works and what doesn’t. Make a start, then post your attempt and see if someone else can add to it.” A single example showing someone figuring out a problem from a starting point of total confusion – a la the Starbird course – would’ve been a terrific modeling tool.

It still wouldn’t have been for everyone (most students want the score, the heck with the learning), and there would’ve been plenty of grousing, but I think more people would’ve stayed if they’d understood that some degree of confusion and not-knowing was inevitable and had practical tips on how to deal with it. Because IBL isn’t just about math, it’s about developing learning skills.

… the decision to run the course as self-paced, meaning some students were working on unit 3 on day 1, and some were in the final unit 7 on the first week. I understand this is non-negotiable (all MOOCs are moving in this direction, I’m sad to say), so it’s something they’re going to have to find a way around, because it’s not conducive to the kind of group effort and communication central to IBL. My own experience bore this out: I was a bit ahead of the curve, and after the first couple of weeks, when I posted for help or just to trade ideas on a particular topic that interested me, there was no one there. The people ahead of me never looked back, the people behind me weren’t there yet. I finished the coursework a few days ago, and I still check the message boards (of late, I’ve even started posting supplemental materials in the hopes of getting something going), because dammit, IBL is supposed to teach you about communicating math concepts, and I want to learn to “speak math,” but I can’t do that working by myself, so if by some miracle someone asks a question, I’m going to benefit from it for as long as the course is open. Then again, I’m kind of weird.

… the decision to hide answers. This seems to have been a conscious, pedagogy-based decision, since they kept defending it (“we want you to get out of the habit of immediately jumping to the back of the book for the answer when you can’t solve a problem on the first try”) and I don’t necessarily disagree with the concept. Here, it was problematic, because there were many places where you couldn’t be sure which of a group of questions you got wrong. And, because we weren’t permitted to discuss answers to graded questions (a completely valid prohibition), some of us never knew what we did wrong. In a “real” IBL setting, this might work because you could eventually go over an answer (or get it from another student, hopefully after the test), but here it meant a lot of us were just out of luck on some concepts.

…the decision to ignore the few ways edX message boards can be made more conducive to communication. I’m not sure if this was a decision, or just a lack of understanding of the edX platform. They’d do well to check out DelftX’s Calc001x, or, better yet, the superb MIT three-part Calculus series, which made the edX forums as usable as they get (which still isn’t great, since the edX platform has at least three built-in roadblocks to effective forum communication  Update: edX has, as of May 2016, greatly improved the forums with the addition of one feature: “bumping” posts to the top when replies are made, a feature that’s standard on most message boards but somehow only now has made it to edX; I am rejoicing, as it’s a huge help): things like having a dedicated “introductions” thread, putting post windows in each topic so the post is automatically and correctly categorized and students can find posts on a given problem, and having staff pin general information threads so they don’t get lost. There were some other indications that the staff didn’t fully know what they were doing. Every once in a while, we were advised to check the Progress tab for the bar chart that indicates scores. This is fine, except that multiple exercises are included in each bar, so a perfect score on one set of exercises can yield a Progress Bar score of… 65% for the first part of the unit. Which freaks people out (trust me, it does). A great many errors in the auto-grader also cropped up over time, which brings us to…

…the decision to keep staff far away. I can appreciate that this, too, is non-negotiable, and in fact is part of the IBL “students teaching each other” thing. Though there were obvious problems with that here, I agree with the concept. But the lack of staff became particularly acute around posts indicating potential errors in the autograder. Sometimes they’d get fixed; sometimes staff would acknowledge the posts but not fix the error; sometimes they’d be acknowledged and never mentioned again so who knows if they’d been fixed; and sometimes they weren’t seen by staff at all. Every new course has errors; this one had too many, and too little attention was paid to fixing them promptly. I’ve seen this in other MOOCs, including those on other platforms: now that professors aren’t involved in the courses any more, and “distance learning specialists” are in charge of administering courses, no one really takes ownership. The educational experience suffers. MOOCs are turning into what people thought they were back in the beginning, when they weren’t that way at all.

I know I sound pretty negative about this course, but I really did try to cooperate. In the first couple of days, I answered a lot of “But where are the lectures?” and “What are we supposed to do?” questions. I posted my own thought processes on some of the ungraded questions, to model an approach that other students might find helpful and to get some discussion of the math going. When another student suggested we make a list of resources, and staff responded by opening up a course Wiki, I populated it with multiple resources, both general math sites and topic-specific videos (antithetical to IBL, but sometimes necessary) and web pages. I don’t think anyone ever used the Wiki – only two other students ever posted a resources – but I was so happy that staff made this effort to meet us halfway, I fell all over myself cooperating.

I don’t know why I took such ownership of this course. Maybe because I’m mentoring and CTAing other courses, so I’ve suddenly taken a fancy to shepherding and advising and liaising. By the way, it’s not lost on me that my efforts to help were often clumsy and ultimately ineffectual, if not counterproductive; after all, the course did still dwindle. But I tried, because it seemed to me someone had to try something. Or maybe because I so wanted it to work, for my own selfish reason: I’m still desperately trying to understand math – especially those nasty parabolas that smile and frown at me but won’t give up their secrets, those parabolas I now don’t truly understand in three different ways – and it still eludes me.

In fact, I tried so hard to help, I found an email in my inbox a few days into the course. I was nervous: were they kicking me out? I’d been pretty blunt with a staff member about some of the problems we were facing (“May I give you some feedback… .This is my opinion, and should not be taken personally, though it may feel that way; I just met you, I don’t know you well enough to want to yell at you. But after 2 1/2 days of this class, I want to yell at someone….), and equally blunt with other students (“We all have three options: Complain, quit, or see what we can get from it”). But they weren’t kicking me out, they were… well, I’m still not sure if they were trying to shut me up or co-opt me, but the Project Manager asked if I’d act as CTA for the course. Knock me over with a feather! I wrote back to say 1) I didn’t know if I would continue in the course (I did), 2) I’m a mathematical idiot (though, as it turned out, I did quite well score-wise), and 3) there’s more to CTAing than a badge that appears on posts. For the past couple of months I’ve been involved in Coursera’s Mentoring and CTA programs on a couple of different courses, and having other CTAs to confer with – and a private forum in which to confer – as well as having staff contact, is essential, and that wasn’t part of the deal. So I declined, but made some pointed suggestions.

This was, by the way, a unique experience for me; I’ve never been seen as a leader in a math course before. Sometimes I’m the class clown, sometimes I’m the cheerleader for the lost, and sometimes I’m just the slow kid in the class, but I’ve never really been in a position to be helpful before, and I’m grateful that I had that opportunity. I see the course is scheduled to start again in January 2016, and I’m almost tempted to go back as a CTA, just to liaise some more. But I think maybe I should leave well enough alone.

Maybe it’s the system they want, for whatever reason. Maybe its real purpose is use in classrooms, a popular thing right now; that might be a really great use, in fact, since a classroom teacher could oversee and shepherd the experience into more of IBL should be – but that means this isn’t a MOOC at all, it’s a curriculum or OCW. Maybe in the next session, a different group of students will complain less and participate more, and the forums will be rollicking. Maybe, in spite of the empty forums, thousands of students completed the course and are thrilled with it. Maybe a lot of things.

All I know is my experience, so that’s all I can report. It could’ve been great. It wasn’t. Doesn’t mean it was worthless, not at all – but it could’ve been so much better, for so many more students.