My first tentative experience with free online lectures a few years ago was through YouTube and some free audio lectures on iTunes U. I was amazed and delighted that such things are available. I like to learn, and whenever I read something, write something or watch a show or movie that catches my attention, I want to know more and read up on background in as much detail as I can. However, not really knowing what I’m looking at most of the time, I usually get distracted and jump from one topic to the next—admittedly having learned a lot in the process—but not really being any the wiser about the original topic I wanted to look up. Learning in a class with a set topic, preferably an introductory lecture, gives a good overview and makes in-depth study a lot easier.
I lack a basic education in the the arts and humanities. When I tackle a topic in science that isn’t my field, I at least find my way around and know how to get a good idea. In arts, literature, music, philosophy and the like, I get lost. I could have taken adult education courses, but I just didn’t have the time. And so I decided, when I’m old and retired, I’ll go back to University and sit in on all the topics I’m interested in and where they let guest students sit in. A good resolve, isn’t it?
Now I’ve grown older and retirement, though not quite here yet, isn’t in the abstract realm any longer. However, the attitude in my country has shifted decidedly against older people. No matter what you do, they always blame you. We’re the baby boomers and someone has to pay for our retirement. That’s the young people of today who completely forget that it’s us who pay for their grandparents, and ours and our parents’ generation who made the nice and comparably easy, peaceful and reasonably wealthy life they enjoy possible. But never mind. “Retired people sitting in on lectures take the space and resources away from young students who need to study for their careers.” It’s “the rich and fun-loving old people” who simply refuse to lead the life the stereotype demands of older people and instead enjoy their lives and do things old people did not do in the past. How dare they? Can’t they wear colourless clothes and sit on the porch, letting life pass by? I always thought, at 65 I should like to do a tandem skydive. I may do that yet, but I probably won’t sit in on lectures.
Enter MOOCs. Massive Open Online Courses.
I first read about them in a German magazine, they were writing about Iversity, a platform where several German universities offer courses. I looked it up immediately. I found interesting courses, did not quite understand the concept, but decided that maybe I could take a course or two to brush up on some topics for my work. I’ve since found a very interesting course there about the Future of Story Telling (more about that later), but that ran last year and most likely won’t be repeated. But the lectures are online, so I can take the course on my own, at my leisure. Iversity is a promising place, I hope they’ll continue and offer more courses. Most courses there are presented in English.
After having found Iversity, I looked around some more, and then I found coursera.
Coursera is very well organized and there are many courses. I don’t know much about the background, how it came to be and who the founders are, who funds it, where the money comes from in general and so on. I was surprised how “they” could afford to do all that—but I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. By now I know that there are issues with MOOCs. They apparently don’t attract the clientele that was targeted. Money seems to be a problem, too. Some traditionalists fear that MOOCs take too much attention away from universities. Others fear that they take resources away from faculties and students, and this could indeed be an issue. There are very many discussions going on and can be easily found if you look around a bit. Another argument, you guessed it: there are all these older people who take one course after the other, dominate discussions on the boards and unashamedly enjoy themselves. Well. At least here no one can say that we take space away from the young ones. Online lectures won’t care how many people watch them, and everyone is free to open a new thread on the forums.
Taking all this into consideration, I’m going to enjoy the online courses while they last. Maybe they will last, maybe they will disappear. Maybe they’ll ask for fees, maybe not. I think that as long as they keep the lectures free, one can’t really blame them for wanting some money for verified certificates and more personal support when studying. If they take the free lectures away, I’ll be very disappointed.
In the beginning, I was feeling a bit guilty for hopping just on any topic that interests me without the intention to really participate and do the coursework to earn a certificate. I usually listen to the lectures like I would listen to a documentary. If I want to learn a topic thoroughly, I participate in the assignments. It’s funny. I don’t need the certificates, but once I start with the coursework, I want to finish it, and not with bad grades. I never knew I was ambitious. You learn something new about yourself every day.
Some courses are better than others, some don’t click with me, and then I leave. If I like it, I work hard; otherwise I follow my own pace. I thought that was the point of it all, but maybe I’m wrong. There is a lot of talk about so very many people signing up to each course and not so many completing it. But isn’t that to be expected? People want to see what things are all about. Some people take one or two courses at a time and complete them with certificates, then take the next. I’m not one of them, and I’ve met a lot of people who are like me. It’s mostly people who love to learn and who continue learning anyway, with MOOCs or without. And when I look at their profile pages, they look like mine: a lot of courses, too many to have fully participated in unless you really have nothing else to do all day.
The first MOOC I participated in was Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade. This is a fun course with enthusiastic teachers and helpful staff. The peer grading is kept at a minimum, you merely judge if someone submitted a complete assignment and if elements that were required, were actually presented. This gives points, but only a fraction of the total sum. Most of the grading comes from quizzes which you can pass easily when you study (or are really good in English already) and can be difficult if you don’t make an effort. And that, I thought, was a very good way of grading.
The course was fun; I passed with distinction and happily moved on to the next.
Next, I listened in on Buddhism and Modern Psychology, a great course presented by Robert Wright. I’m not sure if this course will ever be repeated (other courses run two or three times a year), but I’m happy I took it. I did not do any coursework, because I’m neither knowledgeable in Psychology nor in Buddhism and felt that I could not possibly contribute anything substantial there. But the lectures were educational and fun. One of the most outstanding features loved by all and obviously loved by Robert Wright as well, were the office hours. While regular lectures usually are recorded some time before the course starts, office hours deal with the actual course and discussions that are going on. In the second or third office hour, Robert Wright’s dogs appeared, delighted the audience, and from then on were a much looked-forward-to part of each week’s recording. This was so funny and became so personal that there were three or four more weeks of office hours even after the course ended. Sadly, the course isn’t archived. I wish it would be repeated.
I also listened in on Introduction to Philosophy. I always only had a vague idea about what philosophers actually philosophize, and was in for quite a surprise. Not only was this very, very interesting, it was also mind-boggling and, at times, far too difficult for me. I downloaded some of the recommended papers and started to read them – I couldn’t do it; they were way beyond my understanding, as were the discussions on the forums. I will have to take the course again. So many of these ideas tie a knot into my brain. Have you ever heard about the ‘Brain in a Vat?’ I still haven’t untangled that knot…
Next came Human Evolution: Past and Future, by John Hawks. This is a great course. I only listened but if that course is given again, I want to participate fully. I’m very interested in Early Humans, cave paintings, sculptures, life style, and so on. This course teaches a lot about what archaeologists do and how they work; how difficult and exciting their work can be, and what unexpected findings bring the most baffling results. Needless to say that modern genetics has opened completely new insights. If you have an interest in any of this, take the course when it is offered again. I highly recommend it.
There will be more soon. I can’t believe how many of these courses I have taken already. I admit freely that the fear that this good and free thing called MOOC won’t last has driven me from the beginning. On coursera, most lectures can be downloaded together with transcripts/subtitles. This, together with the suggested reading, lets you get back to a starting point in any given field and find your way from there. I downloaded all these courses and can use them as starting point for further study, whether MOOCs have a future or not. And for this, I am very grateful. Whoever makes the effort of offering these courses, the lecturers, the TAs, the technical staff: I give them my heartfelt thanks. And to give something back, I’ve signed on to coursera’s translation program. If I’m accepted, I’ll be translating some of the English subtitles into German. It will be an interesting experience, I’m certain about that.