The Immune System Gone Wild MOOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like I said, I’m weird.


Course: Introduction to Forensic Science (8 weeks)
School: Nanyang Technological University, Singapore via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Roderick Bates, Associate Professor of Chemistry

This course aims to help everyone understand more on how basic scientific principles underpin Forensic Science and can contribute to solving criminal cases.
Some questions which we will attempt to address include:
• How did forensics come about? What is the role of forensics in police work? Can these methods be used in non-criminal areas?
• Blood. What is it? How can traces of blood be found and used in evidence?
• Is DNA chemistry really so powerful?
• What happens (biologically and chemically) if someone tries to poison me? What happens if I try to poison myself?
• How can we tell how long someone has been dead? What if they have been dead for a really long time?
• Can a little piece of a carpet fluff, or a single hair, convict someone?
• Was Emperor Napoleon murdered by the perfidious British, or killed by his wallpaper?

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

Have you read the collected works of Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell? Know every episode of CSI, L&O, and Quincy by heart? (Ok, I’m really dating myself with that last one) Do you have Halpern’s 1979 primer on the New York City OCME, or a complete set of Baden’s publishings? If so, you might find yourself overprepared for most of this class, but the analytical chemistry in the second week might make it worth your while anyway.

A look at the topics might give you some idea of just how superficially they were covered: fingerprinting, fibers, and firearms appeared in a single week (a little more than an hour in lectures, plus some short case overviews), as did time of death calculations and everything you wanted to know about blood, from typing to spatter patterns. It is of course an introductory course of only eight weeks duration, so only so much depth and detail can be expected.

Lectures on weekly topics were punctuated with several abbreviated descriptions of actual cases of forensic science at work: the unearthing of King Richard III, the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, Wayne Williams’ capture, and Alexander Litvinenko’s bizarre assassination, as well as a host of lesser-known victims and assailants. Again, I found these quite superficial, but I’m weird.

Assignments that counted towards the final grade had a varied format. Most weeks included a one-question “opinion poll” intended to be completed before viewing the lectures, as a way of priming the material. Three multiple-choice quizzes appeared at intervals, about 20 questions in length with two tries allowed. And then there was the dreaded Peer Assessment: two case analyses. I was impressed that the first of these was more of a practice run, as it counted very little towards the final grade but gave us a chance to see what was expected. A weightier case analysis served as a sort of final exam, though some technical issues raised concerns (as usual, I’m writing this before I have any idea what my grade is; I expect to “pass” but who knows with peer assessment).

Considering the drama of the video graphics – imagine that bloody handprint punctuated by pounding bass and drums – it was a remarkably bland class. There were some attempts at humor, but most of them fell rather flat. As always, I criticize reluctantly, since it’s a course offered for free, and I’m sure there are students for whom it’s the perfect class. I just can’t work up a lot of enthusiasm. Yet, I completed the course, and considering I drop courses pretty easily these days, that says something.

BrainSpace MOOC

Course: The Brain and Space
School: Duke via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Dr. Jennifer M. Groh

Knowing where things are is effortless. But “under the hood,” your brain must figure out even the simplest of details about the world around you and your position in it. Recognizing your mother, finding your phone, going to the grocery store, playing the banjo – these require careful sleuthing and coordination across different sensory and motor domains. This course traces the brain’s detective work to create this sense of space and argues that the brain’s spatial focus permeates our cognitive abilities, affecting the way we think and remember.

[Addendum: This course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be different]

How do we know where we are? How do we know where to look when we hear a sound? How do we scratch the right place when we have an itch? I took this course to find out; I had no idea it was so complicated. In fact, the more I learn about how the brain works, the more surprised I am that we’re able to feed ourselves without stabbing our eyes out.

There’s a great deal of material here: everything from neuron potentials to how we determine where sounds come from, memory, and navigation. I found several lectures to be of special interest to me: the historical development of our understanding of sight, for instance, though that was more introduction material. Leave it to me to fixate on the most humanities-oriented part of a science class. Likewise, I was fascinated to find out that reading a word like “cat” might cause neurons to fire that indicate we connect the word with petting a cat, hearing the cat purr, or seeing a cat. As a (former) cat person, I know I can almost feel myself petting one of my departed girls when talk turns to cats; I had no idea it was a real neurological thing. I thought I was just… weird. I also found the lectures on meters vs maps to be of special interest, as it gets into how we have to translate one kind of system to another. The more I learn about how the brain works, the more surprised I am that we manage to get anything done at all.

Lots of examples and demonstration of concepts were included: a bean-bag toss showed how we learn our physical relationship to space (“limb by limb”), and we listened to a cat’s neuron – a single neuron – fire as various visual stimuli were placed in its visual field (and, no, I don’t want to think about how that was done… shame on me, my dear departed kitties are probably very disappointed in me right now). As a nice little bow on this package, as I was finishing up the last week, Numberphile released a video about the various paths we use to store the words for numbers in our brains. Given my difficulty with math, I keep hoping I’ll find a way to leapfrog over whatever my problem is; I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but it’s an interesting notion anyway, and tied in nicely with this course.

The material was all released at once, in another of those scheduled/self-paced hybrids (it’s still running as I type this, in fact). I completed the six weeks of lectures in less than a month, though I wasn’t in any particular hurry; I just kept coming back to it. In standard MOOC fashion, each week’s lectures were followed by a multiple choice quiz with two attempts.

I didn’t have high expectations for this course – I’d found the first one less than enthralling – but it snuck up on me, and I quite enjoyed it. In addition to interesting material, I kept running into little touches I truly enjoyed. Silly things, not that relevant to the subject matter – like the “eye movement hat”, a sort of jester’s cap with eyeballs instead of bells, that was not only worn during discussions of eye movements, but kept showing up on different walls in the office. Music that was part of the acoustic processing material, and it turns out Dr. Groh plays the banjo, which might account for the instrumentals closing out some of the videos. But on one memorable occasion, a video ended with Dan Reeder (a rather crazy singer/songwriter who comes up with some… pretty odd lyrics sometimes) singing “The Brain is Not The Mind.” Three day earworm, that. Uh oh, there it goes again. Come to think of it, that would be a fun unit for a brain MOOC: the mechanism of earworms.

This is one of three courses, plus a capstone project, that are part of the specialization program called Neuroscience: Perception, Action, and The Brain. I’d already taken one of the courses (Visual Perception and the Brain). I have no interest in specialization programs – they cost money, for one thing, and I have no need of credentials in any case – but I’m generally interested in the brain, and I’d already taken one of the other courses, so I thought I’d take a look. Turned out to be a good thing.

The-One-Where-I-Take-A-Caltech-Astronomy-Course-From-@plutokiller MOOC


Course: The Science of the Solar System
School: Caltech (Coursera)
Instructors: Mike Brown

This course is a scientific exploration of our solar system. You will learn both what we know about the solar system around us but also how we have been using the tools of science to learn the things that we know. You will get to use some of the tools yourself.… we will focus our examination of the solar system on four main topics: (1) Where is there water on Mars? (2) What is inside of a giant planet? (3) How can we use the smallest bodies in the solar system to answer the biggest questions? (4) Where might we look for life?
To answer these questions we will learn about details of atmospheric chemistry and dynamics, planetary interiors and magnetism, the geological history of planets, spacecraft exploration, telescopic observations of planets around other stars, spectroscopic determinations of composition, biochemistry of water- and non-water based life, and many more. In short, we’ll learn about the whole solar system and about planets in other systems besides ours.

[Addendum: This course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; some content may have changed, and the experience may be very different from that described here]

Some courses, I just take. Some courses, I love. Like this one.

Mike Brown killed Pluto, and he’s proud of it, and he explains why towards the end of this course, just before he explains how to look for signs of life in the universe.

But we started out a lot closer – right next door, with Mars. And we heard stories, going back to Galileo and Percival Lowell and how our view of Mars has changed from the time of ancient Greece, and with plenty of droll, understated humor (like – and this is a direct quote from world-class astronomer with the chops to get Pluto kicked out of the planet club: “And as far as I can tell, they were looking at the region with the sea monster and the porpoise, oh, and the stingray. And yet, we think Mars has no oceans”). So by the time the math and physics came in, I was already hooked. Then we went to Mars, and it was too late to turn back.

You see, this ran concurrently with the real-life CalTech course, and while those kids, and some of the MOOC students, didn’t need any coddling, the rest of us needed all we could get. Because, of course, this is a science class. One of my favorite moments came in the middle of Week 1, when Mike said those immortal words: “As you might remember from orbital mechanics….” Other favorite lines:

What does it take for something to be really old? Nothing. Nothing can have happened in something like 4 billion years.
Usually when we think about quantum mechanical states – if you ever think about quantum mechanical states – …
This is a differential equation, but its about the simplest differential equation in the world.
It’s a very strange thing. Why you might ask? Why: because quantum mechanics.

It’s tough to design a MOOC that will appeal to both scientists (and there were lots of past, present, and future scientists in the course) and the rest of us, but this managed with a multi-leveled approach. The MOOC quizzes were more conceptual than quantitative (hey, you’d be surprised how hard conceptual can be), but if you felt that was not rigorous enough, the CalTech homework was available (right over there, see?), complete with designated discussion forums (which, I see, when unused after W2… I mean, CalTech kids took orbital mechanics and differential equations in kindergarten, they aren’t fooling around). Also available was the CalTech students’ public blog. I took a look at these things early on, but then I went back to my “explain it to me like I’m six” questions. Still, it’s great the more detailed material is available for those who dare.

One of the best features was this mix of Those Who Understand and Those Who Go “Huh?” There were lots of people able to help the rest of us who were welcomed to ask basic questions. When there’s a balance of people with questions and people with answers, it’s a synergystic thing that really cooks, and it’s one of the magical things that MOOCs can do. It’s a tough balance to draw: you have to attract people who have answers (marquee-value names like Mike Brown and CalTech help with that) without scaring away those who not only don’t remember orbital mechanics, they aren’t really sure what it is. The teaser video (oops, gone) might help with that, though I think he’d be better off to run Lecture 3:10: “I love holding this little piece of iron meteorite in my hand, and showing it to people, and explaining to them that this, this is the core of a tiny mini planet that was forming back at the very beginning of the solar system, that sadly had an impact which catastrophically shattered it into pieces, but then let parts of it fall onto the earth.” How could anyone resist?

I can’t say I did well; I started out pretty strong, but there was just too much stuff for me to keep straight. But I did come away with a basic understanding of about half of it, and glimpses of the rest. And some wonderful extras that weren’t in the syllabus, but were wonderful nonetheless:

Google Mars. As much as I hate Google Earth, that’s how much I love Google Mars. Except, ok, I don’t love Google Mars so much as I love the idea of Google Mars. We used jmars a lot more during the course, because it offers different types of maps, but it’s still cool that there is such a thing as Google Mars.

Blackbody radiation and emission spectroscopy sort of makes sense to me now. It’s probably the most useful thing for me to understand at my (very low) level, since it comes up over and over again, and I’ve always found it confusing. Ok, this was in the syllabus.

Have you ever looked up the etymology of “adiabat” (coined in 1838 by Scottish engineer/physicist John Rankine from Greek adiabatos “not to be passed through,” from “α-” “not” + διὰ [“through”] + βαῖνειν [“passable”] = not +passable + through)? If I can’t handle the physics, at least I can play with words. I can’t say I’m able to connect my feeble understanding of the adiabat as it applies to what’s going on inside Jupiter, and the more frequently given example of clouds smacking into mountains and raining on one side, but maybe another MOOC.

And speaking of Jupiter’s interior: degenerate matter. Cool.

The Cavendish experiment was first performed in 1797, and here I am just finding out about it now. But it’s awesome; I still can’t believe gravity works in a way you can see, with stuff you put together in your basement. It seems to be one of those things every high school student does for extra credit, so there are lots of examples on Youtube.

5678. That is: 56 = 7 * 8. WHY DID NO ONE EVER TELL ME THIS BEFORE??!?!

Hematitic Concretions would be a great band name.

One of the nice touches was guest lecturers, including Mike’s fellow CalTech professors Bethany Ehlmann, John Grotzinger (who talked about these pictures of Mars sent back by Curiosity Rover), and Heather Knutson, rising-star (pun intended) gradTAs Danielle Piskorz and Mike Wong, and JPL Deputy Chief Scientist Kevin Hand. We took a virtual trip to Hawaii to check out the Subaru telescope. While that was taped a while ago, by chance Mike was scheduled for time on the Keck telescope on the same Hawaiian mountain during the course’s run, so he answered on-the-spot questions, even as he recovered from a bout of food poisoning.

If you have the slightest interest in solar system astronomy, or any science really, I highly recommend this. I found it to be difficult, but not impossible; I think I even “passed”, much to my surprise. Lots of work, and I put in a great deal of time, far more than the 4-6 hours/week estimated in the introductory blurb. I was lucky I’d just taken two chem courses and three earth science courses, so the only piece I was really missing was physics. If you don’t have any science background, try it anyway – MOOCs don’t have to be about grades, you know. The lectures are great, you’ll probably pick up more than you expect, and you might find yourself wanting to know more. That’s how they rope us in, you see, the scientists, dangling these bright shiny things in front of us…

In fact, that’s become for me the sign of a great course: does it leave me wanting more? This one does. I really, really need to take some very basic physics. Unfortunately, that involves calculus, which I’ve been thwacking away at for a couple of years now, but maybe a more concrete approach would help. I’d love to do this course again, when I have more of the background, and pick up all the things I missed. And enjoy the lectures again. Just for the fun of it.

A Tale of Two Chem MOOCs

Course: Chemistry
School: University of Kentucky via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Dr. Allison Soult, Dr. Kim Woodrum
Allison Soult and Kim Woodrum bring their experience to the course covering atomic structure, periodic trends, compounds, reactions, stoichiometry, and thermochemistry. Instruction consists of concepts, calculations, and video demonstrations of the principles being discussed. Practice problems and end of unit assessments will help students gauge their understanding of the material.
Course: Introduction to Chemistry: Reactions and Ratios
School: Duke University via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Prof. Dorian A. Canelas
Topics include introductions to atoms, molecules, ions, the periodic table, stoichiometry, and chemical reactions. The pattern of the use of ratios in chemical problem solving will be emphasized….Each week the course will contain a series of short video lectures with interactive questions embedded in the lectures. Students will have opportunities to practice each week via exercises at two levels of depth: one set of foundational problems directly related to lecture videos and another set of problems requiring more synthesis of ideas and application of pre-existing algebra skills.

[Addendum: These courses have been converted to the new Coursera platform; content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be different]

Why did I take two chemistry courses more or less consecutively? I really, really wanted to learn some chemistry.

Actually, it was a fluke of scheduling. And, by the way, I was scared to death of both of them, thanks to being traumatized by chemistry in high school. My recollection was that chemistry is a lot of algebra, and no matter how much math I’ve been doing, it’s still a struggle. I’d heard Duke’s course was hard, but really good, and very conceptual, so I hoped the Kentucky course, which ran first, would give me enough of an introduction to at least make a dent in the “real” course.

Thing didn’t quite turn out that way.

The Kentucky course relied heavily on calculations and extensive practice. Each week included a set of ungraded homework, with answers immediately available. The weekly tests were more or less standard “take it over and over until you get them all right” but doing the work was a sure way to get the material down. The first unit was particularly brutal for algebraphobes, covering everything from quantum energy states to orbitals and electron configurations. I finally got over my fear of scientific notation by just buckling down and figuring a way to understand it (if the coefficient gets larger, the exponent has to get smaller) instead of trying to remember left and right and when to count zeroes and when to count places. Yes, I really am that stupid about math. Chemistry? I shouldn’t have been allowed out of sixth grade.

I found the initial materials were well-presented and explained clearly; the middle section seemed a lot less clear, but that could’ve been merely my reaction. The lectures were fairly dry; a couple of demonstrations were included, for “interest” I suppose, but I didn’t find them particularly illuminating. I do wish more of a conceptual overview had been included, but in terms of learning specific calculations, it worked well, and I probably needed that more than anything else.

There were, of course, drawbacks to the skill-drill approach. First, the practice problems, while great for learning the material, had a significant number of errors throughout the course, particularly towards the middle and end. A couple of more advanced students helped verify the correct answers, but, Second, there was no staff, and, even worse, no CTAs to help out (as it happens, one of those helpful advanced students turned up as a CTA in the Duke course, but he had no official status here). I find the number of errors kind of inexcusable, since this is not the first run of the course; lack of response showed a distinct lack of interest on the part of the university – and on the part of Coursera, for that matter. But I suppose they figure, it’s better than nothing, and since I did learn quite a few calculative procedures and techniques, I suppose it is. It’s just that I’m very protective of MOOCs, and when a course opens itself up to criticism by this kind of carelessness (literally, care-lessness), it’s hard to advocate for their value against legitimate criticism.

The material was released all at once, with a suggested schedule. Because I wanted to finish before the Duke course started, I sped it up a little; I didn’t really complete the last unit, and I didn’t take the final exam. Because of the way the course was graded, it’s possible I “passed” anyway, which seems rather silly to me.

The Duke course was a lot more, well, I don’t know what it was. A lot of my classmates kept writing posts about what a wonderful course it was, but I found it garbled, disorganized, and unpleasant. If I hadn’t already taken the Kentucky course, I would’ve had no idea what was going on; in fact, during the week we covered material new to me, I was lost, combing YouTube looking for explanations, since the ones given in the lectures made little sense to me. On the plus side, I conquered my fear of significant digits, thanks to a couple of very patient and helpful CTAs.

The course followed the exact same framework as Duke’s Genetics & Evolution, which I adored; that goes to show you, it isn’t the template, it’s how you embody it. No one else seemed to have any problems, however, so maybe it’s me. I did see significant effort go into providing more of a context for the material covered, but I didn’t get a lot out of that; it seemed random and not particularly interesting. Then again, I’m not trying to be a chemist. But I wasn’t trying to be a geneticist, either, and that course had me glued to my seat.

A weekly test and final exam made up most of the basic evaluation materials, with an option to take “advanced problem sets” and write a peer-assessed paper. The advanced problem sets followed a pattern I recognize from looking over the shoulder of a lot of creative math teachers: questions about the problem. Do you understand the words? What values and equations do you need? Sketch your approach to the problem in words. Can you change the values to create a problem that uses different values? Is the new problem easier or harder? This sort of thing no doubt works wonderfully in a classroom, but here, I’m pretty sure any answer was accepted, and obviously there could be no feedback in a machine-graded system; because these were graded, we couldn’t discuss them. So while I can appreciate the concept behind that kind of question structure, I wonder if there’s a better way to implement this kind of feature – such as in homework which can be discussed.

The peer-assessed paper seemed to me a total waste of time, since I didn’t know enough chemistry to write about a chemical problem, but it didn’t seem to matter, since a grade was not part of the peer assessment; mere submission gave full credit. The most educational part of the process would’ve been reading the best papers (which were posted on the discussion boards as they were assessed). I confess, I didn’t bother, and that’s on me.

All in all, I far preferred the Kentucky course, though I found the lack of concern over errors, and the lack of CTA support, to be something of a problem. Of course, with Coursera moving inexorably to self-paced courses, this is the way of the future. At least I feel like I came away with some skills. I’m not sure what I came away from the Duke course with. I might even take the Kentucky course again; no way I’m taking the second of the Duke courses.

I’ve frequently said that no MOOC works for everyone, and that every course I’ve loved, someone else has hated, and vice versa. Some combination of the best parts of these – the increased detail, clarity, practice of Kentucky with the context and CTAs of Duke – would, of course, be ideal. But unlikely. In the meantime, it’s a matter of personal preference.

I’m-Running-Out-Of-Titles-For-Earth-Science MOOC

Course: Planet Earth… And You!
School: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Dr. Stephen Marshak, Dr. Eileen Herrstrom
Earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain building, ice ages, landslides, floods, life evolution, plate motions—all of these phenomena have interacted over the vast expanses of deep time to sculpt the dynamic planet that we live on today. Planet Earth presents an overview of several aspects of our home, from a geological perspective. We begin with earthquakes—what they are, what causes them, what effects they have, and what we can do about them. We will emphasize that plate tectonics—the grand unifying theory of geology—explains how the map of our planet’s surface has changed radically over geologic time, and why present-day geologic activity—including a variety of devastating natural disasters such as earthquakes—occur where they do. We consider volcanoes, types of eruptions, and typical rocks found there. Finally, we will delve into the processes that produce the energy and mineral resources that modern society depends on, to help understand the context of the environment and sustainability challenges that we will face in the future.

[Addendum: This course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be different]

It was the best of MOOCs, it was the worst of MOOCs…

First, the good news: the lectures were superb. Information was well-organized and presented clearly, with plenty of visuals in a variety of formats: hand-drawn sketches, photographs, professionally printed diagrams. Not to mention visual aids: I finally understand the many kinds of earthquake waves, thanks to … a slinky! Other pictorials were included, but it was the slinky that showed me how a wave could travel both parallel to, and perpendicular to, a slip.

Dr. Marshak’s lecture style was a pleasant surprise; I found it extremely effective. He speaks very calmly and quietly, like he’s talking to one person instead of a class or even a camera. I don’t put a lot of importance on style, since substance is so much more important, but considering how many times I rewind and replay videos, it’s always nice when listening is a pleasure. Another interesting touch was his inclusion of emotionally intense information at the end of the earthquake and volcano lectures. In the case of the former, I was nearly in tears as he described the extent of the damage done by the Japanese earthquake of 2011; likewise, I was deeply moved by his explanation of the casts of Pompeii. These segments weren’t just about earth science; they were about people affected by the scientific processes we’d been learning about, connecting us in a more human way to what we’d studied. It was a great way to finish off the material for those weeks.

Likewise, Dr. Herrstrom’s explanation of the science needed for the first two labs was clear and complete. She made a nice summary of the more expansive lectures, focusing on the information necessary to execute tasks.

I also applaud the effort to create a multi-modal learning experience. The lectures and the weekly quizzes were only the beginning of the coursework: each week we had a lab, an assignment, and a discussion topic, with two peer reviews of those discussion topics during the five-week span. People learn in different ways, and this course tried to provide multiple avenues. The execution left a lot to be desired, but the theory was excellent.

The CTAs (students chosen for their ability to deal with other students patiently and helpfully, who usually have some background in the subject) were wonderful. When things went south (and they did), they – all volunteers, not paid staff – were caught in the middle, yet they maintained a superhuman level of grace under pressure. At one point I said they deserved combat pay. At the very least, they deserve medals.

And it’s a good thing they were there, because actual staff – people employed by the University, people connected with producing the course, presumably people who had some interest in how the course was received – were few and far between. In fact, other than one staff person identified only as Univ. of Illinois Support #6 who showed up quoting legalese (a whole other kettle of fish, I’m not gonna go there), the course was without staff. This is the vision for the future, I realize, and there are courses where this works, particularly when good CTAs are involved. But here, where so many problems cropped up, it was as if this were an orphan class, and whomever was responsible for it – someone at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, presumably – just didn’t give a damn.

The main problem was in the labs.

The first lab – using seismographs to locate an earthquake – was pretty good, if slightly miscalibrated. The visuals of the seismographs and graphs were much too small to allow detailed measurements necessary to obtain the kind of precision the answers required. I spent a lot of time on the lectures, so I didn’t get to the labs until fairly late in the week by which time the autograder had been “adjusted”. How adjusted, I don’t know – and I still don’t know if I really did the measurements correctly, or if anything was accepted as a valid answer at that point.

The labs went downhill from there. If the point was for us to learn to use Google Earth, well, I still don’t really know how, I just know how to click on this folder and watch the world go by. I’ll admit, I have an attitude towards Google Earth. But, unlike the first lab, where the purpose seemed clear and I understood the connection to the lecture, the rest of them seemed like busywork culminating in looking at things I wasn’t able to interpret or understand. How many valleys are in this view? I don’t know – which of that stuff is a valley? Are there several towns, or many nearby towns, in the ashfall zone of Vesuvius? Tell me what “nearby” means, and the cutoff between “several” and “many”, and I’ll tell you. In the plate tectonics lab – a topic in which I’m very interested, by the way – I gave up on Google Earth and just looked for map images of the pertinent plate boundaries.

In one case, a student documented 14 problems with a single lab, including one question that seemed to include all wrong multiple-choice answers. Either that, or I was measuring the wrong thing, or measuring the wrong way, since the answer I selected was marked as correct. I’m not sure what I was supposed to learn from that.

I had it better than some, however; there were lots of people who couldn’t get Google Earth to load at all. A couple of us posted still shots to fill the void in Week 4, but I think most people just gave up.

The “assignments” seemed to be low-level quizzes in disguise; I’m not sure why they were separated out. I don’t even remember them, in fact, other than I had to enter my hometown latitude and longitude every week. I suppose I should take the 20 points and be merrily on my way, but I wonder if these were supposed to be something else, and it just never happened.

The one assignment I loved – an extra credit assignment – was mineral identification. That module was off-site, part of Black Hawk College’s website rather than Illinois or Coursera. But it was fun. I like rocks.

The discussion assignments weren’t my particular cup of tea, but there’s plenty of room for disagreement on that; some students seemed to like them. We’d have to write a letter advocating for or against a town’s earthquake preparedness expenditures, a mine, or convince residents to evacuate before a potential volcanic eruption. A great deal of information could get packed into things like that – but we were limited to 150 – 200 words. Later, staff backpedaled and claimed that was a “suggestion” but since that “suggestion” was on the grading rubric, it felt more like a requirement. Again, there was some kind of disconnect between what was intended and the material itself. Follow that with a “grading rubric” 20 options for one type of post and 12 for another… and it was overcomplicated to the point of absurdity. Again, a good concept, run into the ground by poor execution.

But sometimes, adversity creates opportunity. I again fell in with this loose consort of ironic MOOCers who made the five weeks delightful with the creation of a “Whine Corner.” As in Origins, it wasn’t so much about complaining as it was about camaraderie and horseplay. It’s a flexible little sub-community, already moved on in ever-changing form to other courses, where new students add their humor.

I can’t help but wonder what went wrong with this course, leaving it like cloven into good and bad like Calvino’s Viscount. It’s a shame, because this could’ve been terrific; if they fix the problems, it still can be. And I do finally understand earthquake waves.

Genetic MOOC

Course: Introduction to Genetics and Evolution
School: Duke via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Mohamed Noor
Introduction to Genetics and Evolution is a college-level class being offered simultaneously to new students at Duke University. The course gives interested people a very basic overview of some principles behind these very fundamental areas of biology. We often hear about new “genome sequences,” commercial kits that can tell you about your ancestry (including pre-human) from your DNA or disease predispositions, debates about the truth of evolution, why animals behave the way they do, and how people found “genetic evidence for natural selection.” This course provides the basic biology you need to understand all of these issues better, tries to clarify some misconceptions, and tries to prepare students for future, more advanced coursework in Biology.
…The genetics lectures are limited to basic transmission genetics, recombination, genetic mapping, and basic quantitative genetics….The evolution topics covered in the present course are largely confined to “microevolution”…

[addendum: This course has been modified to fit the new Coursera platform. The experience may be very different]

How good is this course, you wanna know? It’s so good, that although I had no particular interest in genetics or evolution, although I only signed up because some friends of mine from another course were enthusiastic about it, and I happened to have no classes running during the week it started, although I planned to drop it in W2 or W3 when other courses, courses I was definitely interested in, started – in spite of all that, it became the centerpiece of my MOOCing for the past eleven weeks, and by far my favorite course of the Winter session.

That’s what a great MOOC can do.

It starts with a great professor, in this case, Mohamed Noor. He’s the kind of guy who can use “bee-bop around” and “stochastic forces” in the same sentence and it sounds perfectly natural. He’s the kind of guy who seems so relaxed and personable, it’s hard to believe he’s a science professor at a prestigious university, while at the same time he evinces such command over a wide swathe of complex theory and practice, including the current state of research, that it’s hard to believe he’s bothering to talk to mere students. He’s the kind of guy who uses the three major releases of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” as an analogy for relative reproductive fitness, and pulls it off. He’s the kind of guy who lectures in t-shirts with a bobble-head Darwin and a painting of a drosophila (fruit fly, the geneticist’s go-to critter) on the whiteboard behind him, without giving the sense that he’s trying too hard (his faculty profile shows him in a suit and tie, and that’s the shot that looks forced to me). For a sample, here’s a pastiche of “catch phrases” from the course, brilliantly cobbled together by a student from the 2013 run of the course.

While the course was fun, it wasn’t easy. In the live Hangout just before the final exam, a student told Dr. Noor, “You really made us work, man.” Yep: the official estimate is 5 -6 hours, but it took me more like 10 – 12 hours (I’m slow). And I loved every minute. If you’re not up to investing that kind of work, there is another option: some of the lecture videos are labeled as “General”; they give an overview of the topics, but don’t go into details of calculation or the many variations possible. GenEv Light, as it were. OF course, there’s always the risk you’ll get sucked in…

Each week started with a set of lecture videos, but that was only the beginning. I’d take careful notes, felt like I understood everything, and then… a series of practice problems left me going, “Huh?” Working through the problems gave me a much better sense of what population genetics could show, or how epistasis works, beyond the definition. A variety of other supplementary materials (software, definitions, articles, etc.) was included, and collaboration was not only welcomed, it was planned for on the message boards with weekly “Most Confusing?” and “Practice Problems” threads organized by the CTAs.

Student discussion of graded problem sets was also encouraged in an entire subforum organized by the Staff TA. This may seem like it would make the problems a piece of cake, but most of them required interpretation and analysis of the material, not just regurgitation of facts or calculation via formulas, meaning often there was a kind of debate between Team Answer A and team Answer C with Team Answer E raising a few good points as well. These boards were closely monitored, not for “cheating” but for excessive confusion; though the need was rare, on occasion a question would be clarified – ju- u- u – ust a little tiny bit – and in a way that wouldn’t help unless you understood the issue thoroughly in the first place.

By the way – it’s not easy to design questions like that. It’s a lot simpler to pick a key sentence from the lecture, rephrase it, and frame it as sentence completion, but asking something like, “What type of selection might you imagine operates on running speed in cheetahs?” or “Earlier in the semester, we discussed overdominance and the example of sickle-cell anemia. If you were to look at such a case, what might you expect in terms of the McDonald-Kreitman test’s predictions?” (both actual practice questions) takes more effort. Answering them requires a lot more than a complete set of notes.

Another nice detail was the structure and pacing of the course. An optional introductory set of lectures dealt with the evolution vs religion question pretty thoroughly. The midterm was scheduled for a week when no new material was released, meaning time could be spent on review and preparation. But it showed in subtler ways as well: I found weeks 2 and 7 to be particularly difficult, and weeks 3 and 8 were particularly “fun”; week 8, by the way, included sexual selection, including some amusing behaviors of various species. Though we were cautioned against anthropomorphizing any of that, it was easy to draw a parallel between the “song” of the water mite and the kind of conversational cues that might facilitate or discourage a human couple’s romantic connection. With my penchant for similarities in opposites, I drew a connection between what Peter Struck called the “cute puppy syndrome” used by Virgil in The Aeneid to make Dido more naturally attracted to Aeneas, and the egg-carrying behavior of the male waterbug that tends to increase its mating possibilities. A fun week, after having torn my hair out over the molecular clock.

The discussion forums were as rich and valuable as the rest of the material. The CTAs were terrific (I knew some of them from other courses, primarily Origins), both in directing discussions of the material (“check the last two minutes of lecture 3; do you see how that relates to your question?”) and in offering auxiliary discussions (“DNA in the News” was a popular thread, as was “Humor,” of course). The course TA mostly operated behind the scenes, except for the Hangouts, but a course like this doesn’t just happen; the day-to-day technical running, the release of materials, link posting, etc., all takes attention and work, and he did a great job. Fellow students were helpful and encouraging as well. And, as in any course dealing with this material, occasionally discussions got heated; this was kept under control by CTAs and staff refocusing on the course material and forbidding anything approaching disrespect. Again, that takes a lot of work, both to monitor, and to ameliorate without getting heavy-handed.

Most of the “grade” for the course depended on a timed midterm and a timed final; discussion of these was firmly forbidden, so even if you could bluff your way through the problem sets, you were on your own for these – which used similar question structures as the problem sets, but tweaked the situations just a little.

Timed tests can be problematic for some, for technical reasons; this is the first time I’ve encountered the brilliant idea to break the timed tests up into two separate sessions. Students, particularly those from countries with less-than-dependable internet connectivity or, for that matter, electricity, sometimes find they end up with scores of 0 due to technical issues (or, simply from not following instructions and going over the time limit); this two-tests process assures that at least half the score can be salvaged. Problems still happen – but it’s a simple way to make them less likely, and to make non-academic technical issues, or simple user errors (clicking “Submit” by accident seems popular) less costly.

I was very worried about these timed exams. I tend to work very slowly; and, I get confused after relatively short periods and need a break. These were fair exams, though, modeled on the problem sets, but not copying them. I did a lot of review for both exams – re-watched the videos (at 1.5 speed, it was pretty funny), re-did the problem sets. To my surprise, I aced the midterm (I don’t know my “grade” on the final yet, though I doubt I did that well; I’ll admit, I didn’t put as much effort into it, so I didn’t deserve to do as well). I don’t usually brag about scores in these posts, since they don’t usually mean much, but this score meant something. That 100% required some degree of understanding. I earned it. The test was designed to make me earn it – and the course was designed to make me want to earn it.

That’s what a MOOC can be. That’s what a teacher can do.

Illusory MOOC

Course: Visual Perception and the Brain
School: Duke via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Dale Purves
The purpose of the course is to consider how what we see is generated by the visual system.

Thus the objectives of the course are:
– To introduce you to some fascinating perceptual phenomenology
– To make you think about how this phenomenology can be explained
– To make you consider what possible explanations imply about brain function.

[Addendum: This course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be different]

A course about the science behind optical illusions? What could be more fun?

By coincidence, we were in the Color unit on the day #TheDress went Twittercrazy (The Guardian‘s article used the same illustration chosen as the header of the course). Except… since this is one of those “release all the material on day 1 and take as you will” courses, I’d long completed that unit. Nevertheless, I joined in, commenting on the discussion board that Coursera was missing out on a marketing opportunity by not tweeting about the course while the hashtag was trending; they did, a bit later, but forgot the hashtag, and, unforgivably, misspelled the professor’s name. As I understand it, the whole issue was nonsense anyway: several different copies of the photo were circulating, and a lot of it had to do with color balancing in processing as well as lighting during the photography itself. But it was fun anyway.

Prof. Purves was emphatic during the first week of class, however: what we call optical illusions are not “illusions.” They are, in fact, the way our visual system has evolved to give us a perception of reality that is survival-based. We see optical illusions, the dress, and everything else, that way – even when we don’t realize it – because our visual pathways can’t handle anything beyond a photon stimulating a cell in the fovea, so at least three factors – illumination, reflectance, transmittance – are conflated and lost forever to our perception. It’s the genius of evolution that we’ve been able to “see” well enough to survive this long, so that we’re here to fight about whether the dress is white and gold or blue and black .

The things you come across in MOOCs. By the way, you can take a look at the prof’s website to see many of the concepts covered in this course – and then some. I, for instance, still don’t believe these two tables have the same dimensions, merely rotated 90°. A quick screen clip, some playing around with Word shapes, and… yeah, they really are.

The first week introduced the foundational concept of the course, the “inverse problem” – the difficulty of recreating reality from that conflation that gets transmitted as a single stimulus – then, after a couple of weeks on the structure of the primary visual system and various ways of conceptualizing our ability to see, repeatedly went back to that inverse problem as we looked at our perception of lightness and brightness, color, depth, geometry, and motion. They all came back to that inverse problem, and a similar way of getting around it as an adaptive trait. It’s an idea I came to wonder a great deal about – can we perceive anything the way it is?

A fascinating idea – lots of the ideas in this course were thought-provoking – yetI found it to be one of the drier courses I’ve taken, complicated by twisted syntax and some of the most “academic” discourse I’ve encountered in any MOOC. Take this description of the Bayes Theorem: “And it’s a statement of conditional probabilities, the left hand side of this equation being equivalent to the right and the left hand side of the equation expresses the probability of A given B, where A is in vision, an image or a stimulus, and B, would be the underlying state of the world. This is called the posterior probability, this left hand side of the equation. And it is given by the probability of B given A, that is what’s the probability of the state of the world given the image, were multiplied by the probability of, of the image in the first place, and that’s generally normalized by the probability of underlying states of the world.” I’m glad I’d run into this before in a more comprehensible form, or I would’ve wept.

Staff presence was limited to operational issues. In fact, a “warning” greeted us at the start of class – it wasn’t called a warning, but I’m not sure what else it could be called: “The TAs will also attempt to directly respond to some posts in order to facilitate discussion or address certain problems. Please be aware that the TAs are neither professional experts in computer science, biology or life science.” I suppose it’s just as well they didn’t actually attempt to facilitate discussion, although logistical issues were addressed – questions on written assignment requirements, problems with exam submissions, etc.

Some of us (including classmates from the concurrent Plato course – more good timing) used the message boards to bandy about more philosophical approaches to the material, dipping into epistemology. At one point, that disintegrated into a pissing match so I backed off. That happens sometimes. It happens more often when a course isn’t well-monitored. As I keep saying, every MOOC is different. Some MOOCs show ownership; others, don’t. It’s kind of a shame, because Dr. Purves obviously had great depth of knowledge about, and passion for, his field. Some of that came across, but it could’ve been a knock-your-socks off experience, and it wasn’t.

Grading was based on quizzes – they were timed, but generously so, and multiple attempts were permitted – and a final peer assessed paper that could be viewed as optional, depending on one’s goals; some students are quite fond of Certificates of Achievement, with or without Distinction, and as there was no Distinction here, and a Certificate could be earned by acing the quizzes, it was possible to skip the paper. However, I found it beneficial; I could pull my thoughts together in an organized way and put the Inverse Problem and the concept of survival-based perception into my own words and tell a story. I’ll also get to see other papers, which is a huge benefit of doing any Peer Assessment (only a tiny fraction of students show up on the message boards, and it’s always fun to see what others are thinking).

I signed up for this course because of the Philosophy and the Sciences course I took last Fall; it was a natural continuation of the science portion. It’s material worth learning, and I find the point of view fascinating (I’ve used it in other courses already), even if the packaging was a little disappointing.

Another Earthy MOOC (short version)

Course: Our Earth: Its Climate, History, and Processes

School: University of Manchester (UK) via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Prof. David M. Schultz, Dr Rochelle Taylor
This course focuses on a basic science understanding that demonstrates how the processes on Earth (including biological processes) lead to natural climate changes that have shaped the planet and the path of evolution. Students are challenged to think of the Earth as an integrated system made up of water, air, ice, land, and life.

I was inspired to take several science courses following last fall’s Origins. This was one of them.

It covered much of the same ground, in some cases filling in some gaps, and occasionally venturing into different areas. It’s a short course, only four weeks of content, so of course the breadth and depth are a bit abbreviated, but it’s a very nice place to start if you’re not looking for a long-term commitment. I particularly enjoyed the sequences on the earth’s magnetic field (one of those things I’ve always been a little fuzzy about – especially the thing with the poles reversing), and about earthquakes. I was also glad to find more information about the geology I’d learned about in Origins. By the way, I found a terrific documentary in my travels, one that made the whole “but where did the continents come from in the first place” issue a little clearer to me. Somehow, earth science courses like to talk about plate tectonics and Pangaea a lot, but then they talk about the incredibly old formations and fossils in Australia or Canada separately and somehow it gets lost (to me, at least) that Australia and Canada weren’t then where they are now.

In addition to video lectures and weekly quizzes (more of the crazy-making “we won’t tell you which 2 questions you got wrong, but you can try twice more if you like” – I didn’t play this time), each week featured a Google Earth tour of various sites of interest. An additional application, Build Your Own Earth, was also featured to show the interaction of atmosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere. Though BYOE was a major reason I took the course, I found these applications more frustrating than instructive, though I suspect those who more appreciate high-tech gadgetry – and have the time to play with things and figure out how to get the most out of them – will be more enthusiastic. As for me, well, I appreciate the effort that went into preparing the materials. I would’ve rather seen clearly labeled photos, but that’s me; others in the course were very happy with these supplements.

It’s a fine course for anyone looking to dip a toe in the water of earth science – and if you have a better feel for simulation software, and/or more time to play with it, I suspect you’ll have a great time.

Origins of Everything on (and above and under) Earth MOOC

Course: Origins – Formation of the Universe, Solar System, Earth and Life

School: University of Copenhagen via Coursera (free)
Instructor: A Cast of Thousands (in binary, that is)
The history of our planet and Solar System, during an interval of almost 5 billion years, is controlled by a series of key biological and geological processes. The course will investigate the prehistory and origins of our Solar System, the Earth and its tectonic processes, the origin of life and the evolution of the complex marine and terrestrial ecosystems that have uniquely defined our planet.
     The course is taught by a broad range of specialists from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen. The extensive collections at the museum will be used throughout the course to illustrate what we know and why we know it.

[Addendum: This course has been converted to Coursera’s new platform; in the process, some content may have changed, and the experience may be significantly different than that described here]

If someone made a movie out of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, this would be it. You like paleontology? It’s in there. Astrophysics more your thing? It’s got it. Geology? Check. Biology? Botany? Yes, and yes. It’s a very broad survey course – each week featured a topic presented in overview, with one or two processes within each topic explored in more detail. It’s fantastic.

Henning Haack, Associate Professor, geophysicist, curator of the museum's meteorite collection, head of teaching at the Museum, and general instructor-in-charge, examines the World's Largest Meteorite Slice (I don't know why that tickles me so much).The Natural History Museum of Denmark must be quite a place, and the course made good use of it – and of a wide variety of affiliated professors with different areas of research expertise – throughout. We started off with a tour of the museum’s meteorite collection, including the World’s Largest Meteorite Slice. I never thought about meteorites before – where they came from, what they’re made of – but it turns out to be fascinating. The preparation made the more technical material that followed – nucleosynthesis of elements and formation of the solar system – a lot less scary for those of us who are easily intimidated.

You, too, can get your own Chronostratigraphic Chart, courtesy of the International Commission on StratigraphyThe introductory lecture also presented the chronostratigraphic chart (I like colors, remember?), with a short tutorial on reading the timeline and what parts to watch most closely. Subsequent modules went from there, moving in roughly chronological order to the present.

Lectures included lots of visual content – museum specimens, on-site adventures, photos, diagrams, charts – and supplementary materials were recommended; other students recommended still more for those of us who wanted to look into specific areas more closely. A weekly multiple-choice quiz provided the “grade” for the course; some were harder than others. One odd thing I’ve never seen before in a MOOC: while we got a score for the test (“You got 8 out of 10 correct”) and could make three submissions, we weren’t shown which questions were wrong. This is a compromise between allowing a single submission, and between the typical but very strange procedure of allowing 3 submissions for quizzes with 4 multiple choice options (which is why I put “grades” in quotation marks). The more obsessive of us (like, um, me) used the post-credit submissions to figure out correct answers on quizzes we didn’t ace.

I made heavy use of the lecture transcripts, pasting in screen shots alongside appropriate text. In fact, a volunteer brigade of four or five other students produced a “textbook” from the transcripts and screen shots – an extraordinary project resulting in camera-ready copy. It became essential; without the pressure of note-taking, we could watch the videos and better absorb what was going on.

Besides the content (which I’ll get to presently) what made this course really sing was the student engagement in the forums. Early on, one student started a “knuckle-draggers” thread, where we admitted our ignorance and asked stupid questions (like my own incredibly dense: “If this happened 4500 million years ago and continued for 800 million years, where does that leave us?” Answer: 3700 million, or 3.7 billion, years ago, except sometimes billion means something else in Europe… Numbers. They get me every time). The “Insane Work Load” thread turned into a home base for a lot of us, where we commiserated, then got organized to share notes, links, and, when things slowed down, just chat.

Maybe that’s what makes any MOOC sing, at least for me. Now that I think about it, the courses I’ve enjoyed the most were the ones where I felt the most comfortable on the discussion Emily Catherine Pope, Assistant Professor, geochemistforums, where difficulties were acknowledged and shared and questions were answered without condescension, where I could enjoy and return the enthusiasm of others. Because let’s face it, no course is perfect. Even here, there were lectures that were confusing, and some that were less interesting than others. But the course was an absolute blast, and while that has a lot to do with the material (and, of course, my own interest in it), it also has a lot to do with the company.

About that insane work load: The course was timed to coincide with an on-the-ground class at the Museum. Initially, two modules were released every week. I didn’t realize this (reading the instructions is for wimps) so I had this feeling of being on a treadmill: I hadn’t finished Module 2 when Module 3 appeared, and so on. This is where hardship created community, and we started sharing notes and creating textbooks to make it easier for those with less word processing experience to benefit from our expertise. I was pretty grumpy about the pace for a while, but I have to admit, it brought us together, and that had enormous benefits. After a few weeks, however, the schedule was changed, and only one module a week was released. I don’t know why, and I’m very curious: did something happen to the on-site course? Were too many students getting too far behind? Whatever the reason, the slower pace coincided with the end of several my other courses, so suddenly I had time to burn. It was nice to take all day on a single video, to look up unfamiliar terms (and many of them are unfamiliar) and to look at supplemental resources.

Michael Kuhl, Professor, Marine BiologistI got obsessed with some surprising things: brachiopods, for instance; some of them are served for dinner, and some you wouldn’t want to touch with a ten foot pole. And the slimy block of pond scum that… BREATHES! Seriously, the oxygen content goes up when sunlight allows photosynthesis, and goes down in the dark, and we watched how it’s measured, how that oxygen level decreases with depth since less sunlight penetrates the deeper layers. This is also where I ran into the similarity between formaldehyde and glucose, which as it turns out have the same empirical formula, a concept I still don’t quite grasp, but that’s why I’m taking a chemistry class this quarter.

Gitte Petersen, botanistI’ve never thought of myself as a plant person – where there are plants, there are bugs (and, in the case of bananas, bats, since bananas are bat-pollinated, oh goodie), and plants require care and attention but don’t purr or curl up on your feet at night (Lucy, I still miss you and all your predecessors) so what good are they – but the plant module was wonderful. Except for one thing: I’ll never eat a fig again. It isn’t so much that a fig isn’t fruit at all, but an inflorescence folded in on itself, with hundreds of tiny flowers on the inside. That’s ok, I’m used to food being called something it isn’t. But… do you know what fig wasps are doing in there? Yeah. Next time you bite into that elegant figs-wrapped-in-prosciutto appetizer, or just snarf down the Newtons in front of the tv, think about this.

Besides using the museum displays and laboratory settings, several professors took field trips to places I’d never heard of. We went fossil hunting at the beach, and examined rock layers of the cliffs of Stevns Klint, before heading back to the museum collection of geological markers illustrating the formation of the earth. I’m still not sure I understand the difference between oceanic crust and earth crust, but I know there is a Bent Erik Kramer Lindow, Curator, Natural History Museum of Denmarkdifference, and I got some idea of how volcanic activity, plate tectonic activity, and rock weathering regulated CO2 in the atmosphere for a very long time, as well as the icehouse-greenhouse cycle of more recent periods. And now I know a little more about why the cliffs of Dover are white: calcium from shells.

One of the highlights of the course was an online mini-course on primate evolution folded into Module 10, The Human Animal, designed for use by Danish high school students. Virtual skull measurement of four species allowed comparison of chimps, people, and a couple of intermediate species, in order to speculate as to the reasons or effects of the differences (I never realized chimps have such huge fangs, for instance). Also included were three brief videos from the Museum which featured a detailed dissection of a chimp’s leg and head. This, um, caused a bit of a stir on the forums, since the presentation was rather theatric complete with dramatic music and Abdi Hedayat, Taxidermist for the Natural History Museum of Demarkartistic lighting and framing, including a taxidermist grinning at his knives. But that’s how animals are studied, and it beats the frog dissection from my high school biology class. I could’ve done without the music, though; since the audio was in Danish, I turned the sound off.

This was an extraordinary course, put together with care. Not that it was perfect (but what is): the initial pace was truly insane, the schedule change caused problems for some people (holiday trips without internet, etc.) and staff presence on the board faded after the first weeks. But I highly recommend it for anyone interested in science. I’ll pay it the highest compliment, in fact: it’s inspired me to take a whole crop of additional science courses, and when you come down to it, that’s the most any course can do: get me interested in finding out more.

Scary MOOC

Illustration by Jacek Yerka from Course PDF

Illustration by Jacek Yerka from Course PDF

Course: An Introduction to Consumer Neuroscience & Neuromarketing
School: Copenhagen Business School via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy
      How do we make decisions as consumers? What do we pay attention to, and how do our initial responses predict our final choices? To what extent are these processes unconscious and cannot be reflected in overt reports? This course will provide you with an introduction to some of the most basic methods in the emerging fields of consumer neuroscience and neuromarketing. You will learn about the methods employed and what they mean. You will learn about the basic brain mechanisms in consumer choice, and how to stay updated on these topics. The course will give an overview of the current and future uses of neuroscience in business.
Course Syllabus

Week 1: PROLOGUE – What is neuromarketing all about?
Week 2: Senses, attention and consciousness
Week 3: Sensory neuromarketing
Week 4: Emotions & feelings, wanting & liking
Week 5: Learning & memory
Week 6: Neuroethics and consumer aberrations

[Addendum: This course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be different]

I took this course because just the title scared the hell out of me. Isn’t this something Saunders’ Persuasion Nation warned us about? But in fact, I didn’t see anything any scarier than I saw in the “Irrational Behavior” course from the Behavioral Economics faculty at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business last year. In fact, several articles used in the course referenced Dan Ariely’s work.

But that’s scary enough.

The methodology – the increasing sophistication of the science used in marketing – isn’t the problem: it’s the rampant consumerism that’s scary, confirming that people, whether they be employees or consumers, are now mere fodder for the Corporate Machine, and our value to the planet is measurable in how much we can produce, and how much we can buy – or for whom we cast our vote. /end rant. For now.

As for the course, it was quite good, in fact; I enjoyed the science. Each of the six weeks featured a topical lecture (attention, emotion, memory, etc), as well as a “studies and methods” segment detailing one or two studies and a description of various methods, either technical (fMRIs and EEGs) or theoretical (sensory load parameters). An interview with a neuromarketer or researcher added more perspective on various techniques and their implementation. Course readings were provided in a PDF of academic studies on the topics included (and featured a nice collection of contemporary art such as Polish surrealist Jacek Yerka pictured above; I’m not sure who added the art or how it was chosen, but it was fun). While the ubiquitous weekly multiple choice quiz provided half the grade for the course, the peer-assessed final exam making up the other half of the grade was quite well-planned: a case study requiring synthesis of the material in relation to a proposed ad campaign, a sort of play-neuromarketer-for-a-day experience that allowed – required – working use of the course material.

Some of the marketing methods studied were remarkably low-tech: a sign advertising a particular brand of paint is placed in a store in a location where shoppers don’t even recall seeing it, yet that brand was chosen more often than when the sign was not in place. Watch out for what you don’t see.

For the high-tech sizzle, bring in the machines: not only are there wearable eye-tracking devices to determine what people actually look at (not necessarily what they remember looking at) in a store, but there’s software that analyzes photos – such as shelf displays – to predict what will catch the eye – again, not necessarily what they remember seeing, but what they unconsciously see before looking at what they consciously look at. Selling a particular brand of potato chips might be just a matter of placing a light colored bag next to something dark colored. Use Neurovision (“Bringing Brains to Business” – I kid you not, that’s their slogan) and be sure. And if you think this is all academic claptrap: Pizza Hut launched their “mind-reading menu” just this December.

It turns out decisions aren’t made by those who show up: decisions are made by your brain before you realize it. This isn’t the product of neuromarketing; they’re merely exploiting it to figure out how to get you to want what the corporation paying the bills wants you to want.

Are you scared yet?

I am, but not of the science; it’s just amplifying what marketing has done for centuries. I’m scared of what people, who come with a full complement of nasty things like greed and ego, are going to do with this science.

I now know what it’s like to be the Creationist in the science class, now that I’ve been the liberal humanist in the business class. Even the course logo was kind of scary (not to mention ugly): shopping carts flying into a brain. Really? I need to go read some George Saunders or Seth Fried. But, I have to admit, the science was interesting and the course was put together well. Of course it was. And that makes it even scarier.

Irrational MOOCing

When you make a decision, how influenced are you by the manner in which the choice is presented? Does the “sunshine policy” requiring disclosure of conflicts of interest result in better assessment of the facts? Are there ways to motivate workers beyond money? Was Tom Sawyer the first behavioral economist? Professor Dan Ariely will tell you all about choice architecture in “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior,” a six-week course from Duke University via Coursera.

I’ve been hearing about this since it debuted last year – it’s wildly popular, with enthusiastic advocates everywhere. So I signed up for this rerun, on impulse, even though I was already overloaded. I don’t know how much longer MOOCs will be around, so I’m trying to take everything I can while they’re here – and still free.

Dan Ariely has a compelling personal story. He was severely burned in an accident at age 17, and was hospitalized for three years; the daily changing of his bandages lead to an interest in finding the best way to deliver painful but medically essential treatment, which expanded into a career in behavioral economics: a method of understanding why we make the choices we make. The cynical side of me was dismayed that he’s part of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke, rather than the psychology department, but I suppose that’s where the grant money is: getting consumers to do what business wants. At least some of the studies are geared towards more socially beneficial (IMHO) directions.

I’ve taken enough courses now to be able, I think, to tell the difference between a class where work and thought has gone into the process, and one where a professor, coerced unwillingly into a MOOC, films a series of lectures, tosses the keys to a bunch of grad students, and never looks back. This was clearly one of the former. A great deal of thought, and work, went into this.

One sign of that was the coordination of various media elements (in addition to clever cartoons depicting Dan and his crew): an “Office Hours” segment filmed weekly (plus reruns of last year’s Office Hours) to discuss various course topics; an emailed survey series (optional), a weekly set of animated “Irrationality Illustrated” videos/Q&As (available online to anyone, though without the survey feature enacted via the course) with embedded questions to clearly illustrate various key research studies; readings from academic journals; and, yes, lectures. But the lectures were also designed to engage, with pre-questioning both on the possible results of research (“do you think more people will tell the truth or lie in this case?” before the results are revealed), and of open-ended opinion questions (“What do you find motivates you to work harder, money or other things?”). I have no idea who, if anyone, bothers to read the responses, but just formulating thoughts to answer the questions brought me deeper into the material. This is not a listen-to-the-lecture-while-you-drive course; it’s highly participatory. It’s easier and quicker, of course, to just film a standard course lecture in a studio or classroom, but it’s so much more effective to do it this way.

Even the introduction to the course was geared towards engagement. Right off the bat, we were presented with a “commitment contract.” I’m not sure if this was for motivational or research purposes (do students who sign the contract do better than those who don’t? Do students follow the path they choose at the beginning, or do they change their minds?) but it’s kind of a great idea; other courses might want to think about incorporating such a thing, rather than (or in addition to) the usual bland pre-course survey.

Two completion paths were available. I still can’t take these “certificates” seriously, so I tend to decide things like that based on what I want from the course. In this case, the “distinction” certificate required testing on the readings, and the writing of two papers, both of which seemed like useful ways to learn the material better, so I went for it.

The peer-assessed papers were particularly helpful in two ways. First, no matter how much attention you pay to lectures and readings, I find I understand the concepts a lot better when I try to put them into practice. In the first paper, we proposed a solution to a problem using elements of behavioral economics, and in the second, constructed a research study. Of course, there’s a limit to how sophisticated a 750-word paper can get, but this is an introductory course after all. Nevertheless, it served the purpose, which was to get me to realize the complexities involved in controlling variables and addressing specific behaviors.

One of the unsung benefits of peer assessment is seeing what other students have done with the same prompt; this is where you see the things you didn’t think of. In the moment, students typically focus on grades: what’s the rubric, how do I make sure I get a fair grade, how do I fairly grade someone else. I’m as grade-driven as anyone (you have no idea), but once you accept that peer assessment is luck-of-the-draw, and head into these things as ways to play with the knowledge you’re developing, they become more fun and a lot more instructive. In this case, the rubric was particularly forgiving. Even so, I self-graded my own second paper lower than my peers graded me.

An interesting twist came with the final exam: most courses don’t even bother to address the issue of whether or not an exam is “open book” (since it’s impossible to verify; for that matter, it’s impossible to verify who is at the computer entering the answers), or they specifically permit use of notes and re-view of lectures (though usually not consulting with others). Here, however, we were told clearly we were not to use notes, google searches, or videos. The only time I’ve seen this done before was in a math class (one I dropped partly because they wanted to take my calculator away from me; turns out that was the least of my problems, but I’m ready to give it another go now). On top of this, the exam was timed, something else I’ve never seen implemented before, though all instructors have the option to time exams.

While the effect of this was to increase the time I spent reviewing past weeks (a plus, for sure), I’d love to know if that was the only purpose of the use of these features. One of the concepts we covered in the course was the negative effect of pressure on performance, though specifically in terms of monetary bonuses. Perhaps it was just an attempt at “academic rigor” which so many find lacking in MOOCs (and that’s true of some, but who hasn’t deliberately taken a few “gut” courses in college). The fact is, one of the o’s in MOOC stands for “Open” and if you’re going to offer courses to anyone with an internet connection, you’ve got to expect some people will have less academic experience than others (not to mention less dependable internet connections, a serious issue when you’ve only got a 2-hour window to complete an exam and you live in a country/region that capriciously loses power and communications on a regular basis). The blessing of MOOCs is that anyone, everyone can get as much education as they can without gatekeepers, yet without some standards, they’ll be useless. It’s a conundrum: do you lower the bar, or view it as aspirational? Since we’re talking about non-credit free classes, is access to the course, and the knowledge/skill gained, enough, or is successful completion a necessary step?

But, again, the cynical side of me surfaced: another concept we studied in class was “the Ikea effect” – we value something more if we put some effort into it. Was that the purpose of the exam conditions, to force us to put more work into the course so we would appreciate it more? Is the course so popular because it was designed to take advantage of these – there’s no other word for it – manipulations?

In any event, I found the material of the course to be extremely well-planned, well-delivered, and effective (not to mention almost recursive, since the course itself seemed to embody several concepts). But (oh, come on, you knew there was going to be a “but” in there, didn’t you?)…

The atmosphere in a very popular course like this one can feel coercive (“If you don’t like it, leave”) and border on cult-like (ModPo, for instance). I’ve been aware lately of my own tendency, when someone complains about a course I’m enjoying, to try to show them they’re wrong and how great things are; I’ve made an effort to stop doing this, and accept what’s being said as genuine, even if it isn’t my experience. Another sub-curricular thing I’ve learned from a MOOC.

Then there was the “don’t click here” button which not only was specifically mentioned in the introductory material, but was re-mentioned later in the course – to revive interest? At the very end it turned into a “click here” button, so I did, and found material about a related project the staff is undertaking – I suppose they figured this would be the best way to attract attention. That’s pretty blatant manipulation, as I see it. I also wondered about the frequent mention of brand-name products, from an alarm clock that forces your “cold” decision, made at midnight, to get up at 6am on your “hot” state at 6am to get you out of bed, to the socks Dan wears; I wonder if product placement is coming to MOOCs. The final, highly casual “farewell to the troops” video also felt like a bit of a pity-party; the fatigue (which I have no trouble believing), and some grousing about a student who called Duke to complain about something related to the course (which, I agree, strikes me as bizarre – I can’t imagine what complaint could possibly rise to that level – but is it necessary to share the understandable irritation so bluntly?). In fact, I wondered if Dan was again using a technique we studied in the course – people tend to feel more of a sense of fairness when they can see the labor that goes into something, than when everything looks easy.

But these are minor issues, and no doubt aggravated by the pressure I was feeling under the burden of between seven and nine concurrent classes. The course was every bit as good as I’d heard, and I obviously learned something. I’m glad I took it.

MOOCing: Corpus Linguistics (FutureLearn)

Corpus linguistics? Sounds sort of… dirty, doesn’t it?

Corpus linguistics? Sounds sort of… dirty, doesn’t it?

I wasn’t sure what it was when I signed up for the class, but I spent some time studying linguistics in college and enjoyed it quite a bit, so why not. I didn’t expect to fall in love.

Ok, so I was primed for the content, that’s true. But this MOOC was terrific; I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in studying language use. It’s offered by Lancaster University in the UK, via the FutureLearn platform – the British counterpart to Coursera. I continue to be impressed with FutureLearn. It strikes me as a bit more humanities-oriented, and perhaps a tad less “open” than Coursera, that is, slightly more geared towards a populace with an academic background, but I’ve only taken three of their courses – and, after all, they let me in, so how much more open could it be? [Addendum: having taken several more FutureLearn courses, I’ve changed that opinion; in fact, most of FutureLearn now seems to be short-subject courses similar to attending a lecture or watching a documentary. However, there are exceptions]

Turns out, corpus linguistics is “a methodology for approaching the study of language” via statistical analysis of large collections of language, either written or transcribed from speech. Though some efforts were made to do this in the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the availability of computers that it became truly feasible. Imagine putting the one-million-word Brown corpus, compiled in the 60s, on cross-referenced index cards. The internet has enabled even greater possibilities; as Ken Goldsmith likes to say, “The internet is the greatest poem ever written, unreadable mostly because of its size.” So don’t read it: analyze it. The internet was made for the corpus linguistics approach.

This was one of the best-organized MOOCs I’ve taken, particularly in its planning for different levels of experience. At one end of the scale were the curious, like me; at the other end, linguistics professors finding out more about this particular technique. In between were grad students broadening their horizons, and ESL teachers (corpus linguistics has great value to language teaching, both in looking at what language students will most likely encounter, and in looking at what categories of difficulties new language learners share). The primary material was geared towards an introductory level, but each of the eight weeks included a great deal of supplementary material in the form of discussions with working linguists, lectures from advanced seminars, and hands-on guides to implementing the concepts. We were all free to explore whatever we wished. And then there was AntConc, corpus analysis software provided for us along with detailed tutorial videos. This is available to anyone via a free download, but it was great to have everything so well-packaged. The staff, from lead instructor Tony McEnery to the cadre of guest professors and mentors, did a fine job of keeping up with the discussions, answering questions and providing additional information.

I was also happy to see how so much of the work being done via corpus linguistics is aimed at issues of social equality and justice, from hate speech to marginalization of people with disabilities (I just edited my wording there, remembering something from the course – people first, then the disability). And there was fun stuff – the last week was devoted to “bad language” – swearing. Yes, really! Some of that was pure fun (it can be hilarious to watch an academic lecture containing more four-letter words than you’d hear anywhere in the course of daily life), but there was also genuine data there (who swears more, by age and sex, and what kind of swearing do they do: does this match our preconceptions? Does it indicate an attitude?). And there’s the fascinating issue of reclaimed language: a community embracing terms that were previously used as epithets. Even the fun stuff had depth.

I was quite nervous going into this. As has become my habit, I started following Prof. McEnery on Twitter when I signed up for the class, and his tweets were mystifying:

I’ve been taking MOOCs for about a year now, and I’m still amazed that it’s possible to have conversations like this with professors. In fact, as I was finishing up this post, I tweeted Dr. McEnery to ask about the image (shown above) that accompanied the course – is it a microphone? Yes,it is, he replied: “We originally had a nice word cloud, but that was replaced by the image you have seen.” I’m not sure what a disembodied microphone has to do with corpus linguistics, but I don’t understand why edX’s Effective Thinking Through Mathematics uses a rotting romanesco cauliflower, either, so I’m probably not the best judge of website design. The point remains: many of these courses (though not all of them) are far more than watching lectures and taking tests. I still don’t understand how this is happening, why the schools are doing MOOCs, but as long as they are, I’ll keep showing up.

My regret about this class is that I was taking so many other classes besides, I didn’t have the time to spend on things that I would’ve liked. It’s being re-offered in the Fall, which is great (I’ve become a fan of taking MOOCs twice, something that isn’t possible with in-person classes, especially when you’re paying for them). In the meantime, I have the readings, I have the tools and documentation, and, best of all, I have a project.

It’s fast becoming the sign of a great class, when it leaves me wanting to do something further. Some classes, I enjoy, I learn something, and I go on my merry way. But with this course, as with Coursera’s Modpo and Mathematical Thinking, I end up with a project. A combined Corpus Linguistics/Modpo project, in fact: I want to compare Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson, perhaps let this comparison find its form in an uncreative poem or dialogue. This will take some time, and I have to get through the next four-weeks-in-eight-classes first. But I’m always happiest when I have a trajectory, and this course helped me find one.