Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Have you heard of Coursera?

Another new term you might have seen is MOOC:  Massively Open Online Course, which is what Coursera offers.

From the website:  “Coursera is an education platform that partners with top universities and organizations worldwide, to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.”

I’ve taken three classes over the last couple of years, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, The Ancient Greeks, and Reason and Persuasion: Thinking Through Three Dialogues by Plato.

The format for each is similar.  There are lecture videos to watch and homework assignments and tests.  There are discussions forums available.  Most classes have some standard you have to meet in order to receive certification. You get out of it what you put into it, and that will vary according to your goals, how much time and effort is demanded by the class, and how much time and effort you can afford to devote to it.

Once you’ve taken a course you’ll always have access to the archives so you don’t have to finish by the deadline, and you can listen to the lectures over again if you like.

The only class for which I met the standard for certification was The Ancient Greeks.  My goal for this class was to get a solid overview of the period – the flow of events and ideas.  Of course, we’ve touched on Ancient Greece over the years in our home school, reading Plutarch’s Lives together and Rosemary Sutcliff’s adaptations of The Illiad and the Odyssey.  I cut my teeth on Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and I’ve read some of her other books, like The Echo of Greece, but I lacked a cohesive understanding of this period, and that’s what this course offered.  I did not have time to read everything on the syllabus, but I feel like I’ve gotten a decent start on the topic, a foundation to build on in the future, which is what I wanted.

My goals for the Reason and Persuasion course were to read The Meno at a deeper level than my previous effort, to learn more about Socrates and the Socratic Method, and to be introduced to philosophy.  Since the class covered three of Plato’s dialogues and spent two weeks covering recent developments in philosphy, a lot of what was taught was outside the scope of my interest.  I watched all the introductory material, read The Meno and The Euthyphro and listened to their lectures, and listened to the lectures on The Republic. 

I did not write the paper, or listen to the later lectures, and I only took two tests, but I feel the course was a success because I met my own goals.  Near the end of the course, I even decided to buy the textbook.  I really like the translation and I want to reread the dialogues regularly in the future, especially The Meno, since it’s the one that sets the standard for interacting with a student.  Also, I really appreciated the instructor’s style and insight and wanted to finish reading his commentary.  (The textbook was available online for free in PDF format, but I find that a difficult format to get much use out of.  I want a book I can curl up in bed with or carry with me when running errands.  I want to be able to underline and write notes, and flip quickly through pages to find things.  My brain simply has not adapted to e-readers – not for a purpose like this, anyway.)

The one class where I did not meet my own goal was Introduction to Mathematical Thinking.  That class was brutal.  The pace was too rapid for me.  It took me ages to do my homework and the only way I could understand what was going on was by asking the members of my study group to walk me through things.  They were very kind, and one in particular, Denise Gaskins of Let’s Play Math, was very patient and helpful with her clear explanations, but I was falling farther and farther behind everyone else, and I finally gave up. 

I’m not completely discouraged though – I believe that the time I spent in that class won’t go to waste, even it just sits in my mind and turns to compost.  When I took it in the fall of 2012, it was seven weeks long but since then they’ve reformatted it into a ten-week class and have offered it twice more.  I’m interested in trying it again in the future, but that will depend on... well, life.

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