In the interest of getting back to my purported purpose for starting this blog (that is, to get some brain exercise), I’m going to start posting some of the interesting stuff I’m learning — because despite my silence on here, I’ve actually been learning a lot. And I kind of want to share it.
In March of 2012, I read this article in Wired magazine and immediately knew it would impact my life: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/03/ff_aiclass/all/
Quick summary: two Stanford professors decided to try an experiment. In the fall of 2011, they put their graduate course, an introduction to Artificial Intelligence, online.
Now, MIT has been putting courses online for about a decade as part of their Open Courseware initiative. It’s been an incredible resource; many, if not most, of MIT’s classes have been available to view (for no credit) after-the-fact to anyone who’s interested. Some have a syllabus attached, some have a list of readings and homework that had been assigned, some have notes, and most (all?) have video of the classroom lectures. Some have all of the above. But because they are all posted after-the-fact, there is no interaction between teacher and online student and no deadlines, and therefore (for me) little motivation to finish. Also, the production quality isn’t that great — but it’s free, so I have no right to complain. I’ve surfed casually over there off-and-on for years without finishing a class.
The aforementioned Stanford professors tried something new: they put their class online as it was happening, and opened enrollment to not only the (paying) graduate students in the computer science department at Stanford, but for free to anyone else, anywhere in the world, who had time, interest, and an internet connection. Only the Stanford students would get credit for the class, but everyone else would get the same information and assignments at the same time. They would have access to forums where students could discuss the class and collaborate on projects. And those who finished the class with a passing grade would get a “Statement of Accomplishment,” a paper that confers no Stanford credit, but does provide eternal bragging rights.
They expected a few hundred people to sign up. Maybe 2,000, tops. Within weeks, word of the class had gone viral, and 160,000 students had signed up to take it — two-thirds of them from outside the United States. Only 23,000 finished the course. That’s a crazy number — because while 200 Stanford students were officially enrolled in the class, more than 100 times that many people finished it.
This was the very first MOOC — Massive Open Online Course. The Wired article promised that Stanford would open a website called Coursera.org that would have 14 courses available (all in the computer science department) by the end of 2012.
I’m not a computer science gal. I’d like to be, but it’s a foreign language that I have a lot of trouble wrapping my brain around. Still, I checked up on Coursera periodically, waiting to see what was next. I could feel something big was going to happen. I’d already been playing around with Khan Academy (an unrelated, but very valuable site) where Salman Khan has made math very approachable in brief, free online talks followed by a few math problems to check your understanding. I could tell Stanford was going to take things to yet another level with Coursera.
At first there were a handful of other universities partnering with Stanford. Then they got more universities to partner with them. As of December 2013 there are 107 universities providing classes on Coursera. Most are in the US, but Mexico, Canada, Europe, and Asia are all represented. At the end of 2012, there were a couple of classes I wanted to take. Now there are 552 courses available, and I want to take more than I can possibly finish.
Why is this cool? Why is it life-changing? Because I’m doing these things in real time and I’m finishing classes. I watch lectures, I do homework, I take tests, I write essays, I talk on the forums with other students, and I have a deadline to get it all done if I want a Statement of Accomplishment. (I don’t care that it’s only for bragging rights.) I get to go back to college for free, and I can take as many classes as I want. So far this year I’ve earned four Statements of Accomplishment on Coursera: Introduction to Microeconomics (UC-Irvine), Fantasy and Science Fiction Literature (U of Michigan), The Social Context of Mental Health and Illness (U of Toronto), and Calvin – The History and Reception of the Reformation (U of Geneva). That last one was conducted in French, but had English subtitles.
MIT and some other universities started their own competitor site, EdX.org. It has fewer partner universities and has a less-intuitive interface than Coursera, but the classes I’ve taken on there have been consistently good. I earned my one 2013 Statement of Accomplishment on EdX over the summer — Greek Heroes (Harvard), a class that explored ancient Greek literature in the context of the culture in which it was written. Nostimo!
This fall I had the confidence to take a paid course through Stanford Extension online that provides credit and a transcript, a class on creative writing that focused on character development. We only had 17 students, so it was a big difference from a MOOC. I got a lot of instructor feedback and a lot of interaction with my fellow students. It was a great experience, and I’ll take another class in the future. I’m not stopping my MOOCs, though.
At Coursera and EdX, you can sign up for as many courses as you want, and there’s no penalty for not finishing. I’m currently taking World History Since 1300 (Princeton), Intro to Astronomy (Duke), Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World (U of Copenhagen), Intro to Creating Android Apps (U of Illinois), History of China (Harvard), and have another dozen or so starting up in the next month or two. I don’t know if I’ll finish any, but it doesn’t matter. I’m still learning whenever I have free time.
So: for 2013 I finished the equivalent of 18 hours of college work and got credit for 3 at a total cost of less than a thousand dollars. I think it’s great. It’s a Godsend to have access to these incredible minds online and to have that access almost entirely for free. It’s incredible to get to interact with people from all over the world and learn how various issues impact them in their own communities. I’m learning at what feels like an exponential rate.
Now you know some of what I’ve been doing in 2013. As I go forward on this blog, I’ll drop interesting tidbits of information that I’m inspired to share. It’s going to be fun.