Wu-wei MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The MOOC’s a harsh mistress: Fall 2016

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

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

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

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

Official blurb:

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

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

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

LAFF: Linear Algebra – Foundations to Frontiers

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

Official blurb:

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

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

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

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

Official blurb:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Official blurb:

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

Status: Excellent course, detailed comments here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Official blurb:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wish me luck!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belgian Breathing MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval Islamic MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big History MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talmudic MOOC

Course: The Talmud: A Methodological Introduction
School/platform: Northwestern (Coursera)
Instructors: Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, Sarah Wolf

The Talmud is one of the richest and most complicated works of literature the world has ever known. Since being composed around 1500 years ago it has inspired not only religious reverence but significant intellectual engagement. In this course learners will be introduced to the unique characteristics of this text and the challenges that inhere in studying it while studying a chapter of the Talmud.

We’ve all read one of those books or seen one of those movies – Yentl, if nothing else – that feature a yeshiva scene where two boys argue over some obscure point of law involving the Sabbath or ox goring. Because of my long-standing interest in philosophies and religions, I’ve made some weak attempts to understand these things better, but never got very far. So I was very happy to hear about this course. It’s only six weeks, so it’s just an overview rather than in-depth study, but it gave me a very good idea of the landscape and even a few details.

It started with no expectations of prior knowledge, beyond vague familiarity with the Bible and Judaism, and went from there, explaining different works of Jewish literature, how they all fit together, and how the Talmud fits in. Beyond the general overview of historical and cultural origins of the Talmud, the focus was on the opening of one chapter of one tractate concerning edim zomemim, or false witnesses, a chapter often called “Lashes”. Just this one topic covered dozens of concepts, both legal (what is the standard of punishment? What are the exceptions? How were these arrived at?), religious (what is the difference between punishment and atonement?), and logical (how do centuries of rabbinical opinions get dovetailed in an organized, streamlined manner?). It gets a little weird at times, since we’re talking about false accusations of ox gorings or priests who’ve married divorcees – or the story of Susanna being raped and all anybody cares about is the heroic Daniel identifying false witness who named the wrong guys – but the details were absolutely fascinating.

Techniques of logical argument took center stage at one point. Now, I’ve taken four (or five, depending on how you count) courses in propositional and/or symbolic logic, but we weren’t talking modus ponens or syllogisms here, it was about logical structures like Kal Va-Homer, which turned out to be an argumentum a fortiori: extrapolation from a weaker example to a stronger example (logic is logic in all times and places: I just found out this week that Confucius, not really a logician, used modus ponens). There’s the well-known argument between rabbis from different eras, each proposing slightly different ways to approach the legal issues involved, drawing different conclusions. Again, I was fascinated, though I sometimes got lost between rabbis.

The material was presented in lecture form, with videos alternating between two instructors (and included a sprinkle of humor in the illustrations). Although the material was often challenging, explanations were clear and often went over important concepts several times in slightly different ways. The Talmud was often referenced in translation (presumably, many students who take this class would read Hebrew, but I did fine without it) and online sources. Each week included a quiz which included some information-retrieval questions and some that required more reasoning. Two peer assessed essays were required, graded more for completion than content; I found the first topic highly useful as a way of organizing my thoughts. The second essay topic seemed less relevant, but I could see what they were getting at.

Towards the middle of the course, the instructors held a live video hang-out to answer questions and provide additional commentary. It was great to see them in more natural circumstances. I’ve always wondered why so many professors use a solo lecture-to-camera approach when a more conversational setting, perhaps with a small group of students whether on or off camera, could be so much more engaging. But maybe that’s just my preference.

The big surprise was on the forums, where a couple of robust discussions broke out (these are sadly rare on the new Coursera). I’d originally signed up for the course because my MOOC buddy Richard (hi, Richard!) mentioned it to me, so we tossed a few things around and were joined by a few highly knowledgable fellow students. That’s the special thing about MOOCs: there’s an expert in every class, and here there were several who provided guidance to those of us with no background. Most particularly was Yael Shahar, who carefully explained various facets of atonement and forgiveness (a particular interest of mine; remember my months with Dante?). Turns out she is the co-author of A Damaged Mirror, a biographical narrative of a former Sonderkommando’s consultation with a rabbi, decades after Auschwitz, to see if forgiveness is possible.

Anyone who’s curious and interested in knowing a little about the Talmud would enjoy this and be able to gain something from it. If it’s completely new territory, it might be a bit challenging in places, but that’s part of the fun.

Mitochondriacal MOOC

Course: Cell Biology: Mitochondria
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: Robert A. Lue

We will focus, in particular, on the mitochondrion, the organelle that powers the cell. In this context, we will look at the processes of cell metabolism. Finally, we will examine the F1F0 ATP synthase, the molecular machine that is responsible for the synthesis of most of the ATP that your cells require to do work. To underscore the importance of cell biology to our lives, we will address questions of development and disease and implications of science in society.

How much you get from this course probably depends on where you’re starting from, but for me, with one basic bio course and a couple of introductory chems, it was at just the right level. And beautiful: take a look at the teaser video for the course. The animations are terrific, and while it’s possible to learn the material from simple pencil drawings, I always appreciate creativity and style. But it goes beyond aesthetics; it’s memorable, which makes it understandable beyond memorizing words. I can recall NADH reducing Complex II which is then oxidized by Coenzyme Q, while using the energy from the internal redox reactions to pump protons against the concentration gradient, because I can “see” the process happening in my head. Beyond the visual component, the lectures were clear; the quiz and exam questions required thought and combinations of concepts and thus tested understanding rather than the ability to look up factual information. As the icing on the cake, the forum was active with both students and staff providing helpful clarifications.

The first couple of weeks were for me mostly review material on overall cellular biology topics I’d seen in the archived (inactive) MIT Intro to Biology course (the chem courses I’ve taken were helpful as well in understanding bonds and redox reactions). But since I’m still very new to all of this, I like going through it from a slightly different angle which emphasizes different points. Material on endosymbiosis included a wonderful video by paper-cut artist Andrew Benincasa (it’s available at his website if you’re curious why I’m so impressed; his other vids are well worth watching too). There was a fair amount of material on mitochondrial disease, something I’d never heard of before (three-way IVF? Who knew?). In addition to the biology, the human element was part of the presentation through one woman’s very personal story.

In weeks 3 and 4, mitochondria got real. We went into glycolysis, the citric acid cycle, ECT, and the grand finale, ATP synthesis, in significant detail. The idea was not to delve into the atomic level of chemical reactions, but to understand how interrupting the process at any given stage would affect various parameters like oxygen consumption or ATP production, and how those parameters might be measured. It was complicated, with a need to see not just the step-by-step but the overall process. I can’t say I’m an expert, but I could reason my way through the final so the educational methodology worked and I have enough of a foundation to keep going.

I hope I do get to keep going. I hope this is the first in a series of cell biology courses. In addition to being a molecular/cellular biologist and a very good teacher, Prof. Lue is director of HarvardX, which includes the mooc division, so I’m hoping he has more up his sleeve.

Young & Tragic Love MOOC: Shakespeare

Course: Shakespeare On the Page and in Performance: Young Love & Tragic Love
School/platform: Wellesley (edX)
Instructors: Yu Jin Ko, Diego Arciniegas

As we explore the genius of the plays on the page, we will also study the lives of the plays in performance, from Shakespeare’s own theatre to the stages and screens across the globe today. To help us further, actors will occasionally join our effort to demonstrate ways of bringing the text alive as living theatre.

I’ve enrolled in two prior Shakespeare MOOCs, but this is the first one that didn’t start with the assumption that I knew the plays very well and was ready to discuss various performances I’d seen, or my favorite actors and lines. While I had already read the plays, it was a long time ago and I just don’t remember much beyond the major characters, the general themes, and the broadest strokes of plot. So I was very happy to finally find a course that started with reading the plays, and focused on relatively detailed analysis of language, plot, character, and dramatic elements.

The “Young Love” segment covered Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while “Tragic Love” took on Othello and King Lear; both had an identical introductory unit on Shakespearean theatre, including drama professor Diego Arciniegas’ lectures on interpretation, staging, and delivery. Most of the videos were of classroom lectures and discussions, with some surprises mixed in: several casual student performances of individual scenes, a highly spirited outdoor exploration of the “woods” scene from Midsummer, and Prof. Ko reading passages from Acts 4 and 5 of Lear on the cliffs of Dover. Clips from various performances and movie versions – from Olivier and Ian McKellen to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Baz Luhrmann’s R&J to a Korean dance performance of Midsummer – rounded out the material and allowed illustration of the reasons behind choices made in each production, related to the text.

The lectures were great, filling me in on small details I’d never noticed before as well as fleshing out the major themes in various turns of phrase and providing background from Renaissance studies of various disciplines. I found the discussion of kairos – the fullness of time – for example, to be of particular interest in relation to a concurrent course on Chinese natural philosophy, as well as pertinent to Lear and Gloucester’s personal journeys. Discussion was brisk, particularly in the Young Love course, with questions posed as prompts throughout each week. I generally dislike what I call “forced posting” – a requirement to respond to some question – but between the ideas raised in the lectures and the nature of the prompts, it worked out better than usual here. Beyond the required posts, a series of simple multiple choice question made up most of the graded material.

I was very happy with these two courses and greatly expanded my understanding of these four plays, but I admit, I’m probably weaker than most English majors in Shakespeare; for those who’ve spent a lot more time than I have studying these plays already, it might be too basic a course. I, however, appreciated the solid foundational material, and can recommend it as such.

China MOOC

Course: China (Part 1): Political and Intellectual Foundations: From the Sage Kings to Confucius and the Legalists
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: Peter K. Bol, William C. Kirby

Part 1 includes an overview of China, historically, geographically, and culturally, starting with the origins and legitimation of what we come to know as China and includes an exploration of the integral thinkers (Confucius, Laozi etc.) of the early period.

I’ve been following a lot of outspoken critics of math education in the US, but I have this dubious reassurance for them: schools do just as lousy a job with history (not to mention literature). Ask any 17-year-old what history is, and she’ll almost invariably say something about names and dates, wars, battles, kings, presidents. At least, that’s what I said when I was 17. I hated history in high school, and it wasn’t until a chance encounter in a college elective that I discovered history is about choices and decisions and cultural norms and societal pressures, about fears and hopes and pain and desire. History isn’t about what happened, it’s about why it happened, and the evidence and reasoning that supports such a claim.

Courses like this, understand the difference. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to know a little more about China, or who wants to get over the trauma of high school history.

This was only the first of a series of 10 courses, available for the next year. While they can be taken in any order and can be taken individually, I started at the beginning mostly because I know virtually nothing about Chinese history. I was going to wait until the end of this 10-course series to write up a summary; after all, how can I summarize something when I’ve only experienced one-tenth of it? But the first tenth was so good, and the second tenth seems to be rolling along on the same track, that I decided to jump the gun and do the summary now so that anyone so inspired would have plenty of time to complete the whole series – or any part of it, if that’s how you want to do it – by the final due date of June 2017. Although the preview info lists the courses as 5 weeks in length, the first segment took me a little less than 3 weeks, but I only had one other course going at the time.

I’ve noticed that I tend to like moocs that use a variety of different approaches to covering course material. This course uses conversations about concepts, readings both of ancient texts and scholarly analytical works, conversations about artifacts, “office hours” discussions of forum comments and student questions, and formal auditorium lectures as well as the standard to-camera lectures. Assignments include short-answer analysis of philosophical readings and guessing at archaeological implications, peer-assessed short essays, and standard multiple-choice questions. Fun stuff includes creative interpretations of “The Dynasty Song” (the twelve dynasties, sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques”) and diagrams of Cosmic Resonance theory. It’s a lot more fun than memorizing names and dates, and oh by the way: when the names and dates are part of the context of a memorable story, they’re a lot easier to remember.

And just to underline that: at the start of the second installment, there’s some speculation about some of the possible reasons the Qin dynasty failed so quickly. One of the reasons mentioned was the emperor’s obsession with obtaining a drug of immortality on a fabled Island of the Fairies, draining resources. Something clicked, and I remembered a story I’d read in One Story that fictionalized an historical search by an ancient Chinese sailor. A moment of searching brought up Jake Wolff’s “The History of Living Forever” which I’d read and blogged nearly four years ago. I hadn’t remembered the details, wasn’t even sure it was based on the same history (it is), but I remembered enough to find out. That’s what a story can do, that memorizing lists of names and dates can’t touch.

Archaeology, religion and philosophy, political struggle, geographical realities that impact upon human choices: it’s an excellent course that ties it all together using different modes of engagement. Highly recommended.

Algebraic smart-ALEKS MOOC

Course: College Algebra and Problem Solving
School/platform: Arizona State University/ALEKS/edX
Instructors: Adrian Sannier, Sue McClure

[Y]ou 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.

A lot of students were effusive with their praise of this course, raving about how much they learned. The staff, from the top echelons down, are highly enthusiastic about its efficacy. It comes with the option to receive ASU credit, so if that’s the goal, or if you’re reviewing algebra and want to know what you don’t know, it might work out great.

My experience was a bit different (but then, I’m kinda weird, especially around math). Remember, I have no background or training in education, I’m a mathematical idiot, and I’ve been focusing on algebra in many different venues for over a year now, so it’s possible this was just the wrong class for me (rule 1: every mooc works for someone, and doesn’t work for someone else). But I was disappointed. I keep hoping for an algebra mooc that helps me understand algebra, and all I keep finding are mastery-based skill drills. Fifty shades of Khan Academy.

On the plus side: the forums were crawling with staff. Most of the questions early on were logistical (“I can’t get into ALEKS… I can’t get this to work… where is the course?”) and they were answered very promptly, usually with pictures showing exactly which button to click. Staff support is a huge issue, particularly when the course is technologically complicated (involving an off-site element, a coaching system separate from the discussion boards, and electronic procedures for proctoring credit-bearing exams), and they really had it covered. I also loved their Twitter icon.

As for the algebra instruction, that was outsourced to ALEKS, a Khan-like proprietary learning system now owned by McGraw-Hill (Bias alert: Just typing that makes me nervous). The first step was an evaluation test of 80 questions (I could be misremembering the number; it took me several sessions over a couple of days). Then the Pie shows up, and from there, it’s a matter of “learning” and “mastering” the 419 topics. For each topic, a problem would pop up; in most cases, a link to some off-site video demonstrating how the problem should be done (often a Khan Academy video, in fact) and/or a page of explanation, would be available if needed.

My evaluation results gave me credit for 75% of the skills, though I still had to do some reviews or knowledge checks or something; I didn’t bother to master the system’s lingo, I just logged in and did whatever it handed me. Took about 50 hours all together, but that’s log-in time, so that includes time spent looking for more information on, say, the graph of a quadratic-over-linear rational function, a few minutes to check Twitter here, a round of Weboggle there… Oh, yeah, like you work 100% of the time when you’re at your computer.

The system was loaded with something they probably think of as encouraging messages: Great Job, Student! Exceptional work, Student! Presumably, one’s name is supposed to be substituted in for “student” but the interface wasn’t ready for that. I thought it was a brilliantly ironic metaphor for the entireCapture “personalized” experience. Call me a curmudgeon, but it seemed like overkill to be so praised for so little. I also received frequent assurance that I only had 7 skills to go – or maybe it was 12. Turns out, one of the counters updates immediately, and the other doesn’t. More irony.

Given the title of the course, and the description emphasizing problem-solving, I’d hoped that would be part of the deal. But in this case, problem-solving seemed to mean: “Here’s a problem in solving a multi-step equation involving natural logarithms. Solve it.” After I’d “mastered” all 419 topics, the adorable @math_goat tweeted out an actual problem-solving problem (fresh from the pages of mathisfun.com) – and I had no idea what to do with it. Three years of math moocs, over a year focusing on algebra, I zipped through this course in a week without breaking a sweat, so why am I still so fucking stupid?!? (Turns out, lots of students posted the answer on the discussion forum, but no one – NO ONE, including staff – could give any rationale for solving it. I guess everyone googled it, and in this course, the right answer is all there is).  At any rate, I wish I’d taken the course that teaches how to do that problem, rather than the one that teaches 419 ways of looking at a polynomial. I’d still be stupid, but I’d have more fun in the meantime.

ASU added on a coaching system, separate from the edX discussion forums. At first, I thought this was a fantastic idea, and eventually it might be (this is the first run of the course, and they do seem interested in making improvements, as you’ll see…). I received prompt and helpful responses to questions, but when I tried to request further info, I discovered there was no way to reply to a coaching message. I asked about this on the forums, and was told the coaching system “is not meant to be for conversational purposes…. is set to simply be for a question and a response.” Conversational purposes? It isn’t like I was chit chatting about Beyonce. I was assured I could copy material into a new question and add an inquiry, but why complicate communication when this is supposed to be the star of this personalized system?

In one case, I’d asked my coach (the coaches don’t have names; could these be more bots?) a very specific question: “Here are the steps I took; I have the correct procedure now, and the right answer, but why was my first procedure incorrect?” I got a lovely reply showing me how to do the problem, complete with a video working it out for me, but no clue as to what was wrong with the incorrect method. And since conversation was discouraged… well, my buddy Purgy was generous enough to answer questions via email, so I found out what I was doing wrong, which involved a fairly important misinterpretation on my part about what it means to “do this to both sides of the equation” so it’s a good thing I’m motivated to go beyond getting the correct answer, even if that’s all the course requires.

And what of the discussion forums? Early on, I asked a question about one of the problems and was told to use the coaching system. That’s fair; you don’t want to be revealing answers to everyone. It meant that the discussion forums were almost entirely about logistical questions. No one wanted to talk math… except for one amazing student who asked some very detailed, in-depth questions about various topics, going way beyond the course material. That was a lot of fun for a while, but eventually he went over my head (or under my feet, really, since he was going deeper and deeper into “but how do you know a^{1/2} = a^{3/6}?” Aside from this one student, there was almost no discussion about math. I started a thread titled “I’m lonely” and tried to get some interest going by posting Numberphile videos, math blog posts, and the like, but no one was interested.

On a more positive note, I (and about 30 others) received an email from the course instructor Dr. Adrian Sannier, Chief Technology Officer of ASU (and it’s worth noting the chief instructor is not a mathematician, but a computer scientist who specializes in learning systems). We were among the first to pass some milestone of completion, so he asked our opinion of the course. So I… gave him my opinion. Opinions. Lots of them, flanked by disclaimers (I don’t know anything about teaching, and I’m not their target demographic). I’m not sure he was ready for all my opinions, but he was quite gracious and responded with detailed comments. Neither of us convinced the other of anything, but it was nice that someone cared enough to ask. They seem to be genuinely making an effort. I’m not sure I’m crazy about what it is they’re making an effort to do, but I can still appreciate effort.

Once I realized this wasn’t the course I’d hoped it would be, I finished up as quickly as possible and went back to emailing Purgy my questions. I keep hoping to find an algebra mooc that’s as engaging as the calculus and mathematical thinking courses I’ve taken (the details of which can be found elsewhere on this blog under the “MOOC” category or “math” tag), or at least as productive and interesting as AOPS or as enlightening and adorable as Mike Lawler’s work with his preteens.

The more I think about it, the more this course strikes me as the other side of the coin from the UT-Austin Discovery Precalc I took last year. That was all concept, no nuts-and-bolts, with hands-off staff. This was all nuts-and-bolts, no concept, and loaded with staff.  Maybe someday someone will put the two together; it’d be awesome.

Maybe I’m shopping for a lawnmower in a shoe store: maybe algebra is exactly what these moocs make it to be: a group of skills, like melting butter and separating eggs, and while I can beat an egg for all it’s worth, I just don’t have the chops for cake-baking class. Or, to stop switching metaphors, the shoe store only carries Manolos in 6AAA and I can’t wear anything but Easy Spirit in 8WW. I’m not sure what else to try other than whatever’s out there. And what’s out there are mastery-based skill sets. And Purgy, bless his heart, closest thing I’ve got to a lawnmower.

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.