Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Learning for Life

In praise of the MOOC!

I always enjoy having a topic up my sleeve with which to bore good friends who are sufficiently unwise to ask me what I've been doing with myself! In the last few months, my answer has been that I have been MOOC-ing about!

A MOOC is a massive open online course, offered globally to thousands of learners, free of charge, by an academic institution, through one of a growing number of online providers, in my case Futurelearn (linked with the Open University) and Coursera.

I could bore you too with further fact but better to provide links to articles before I get up close and personal;-




And for an idea of the current clients for MOOCS


If, like me, you are not the typical Moocer, fully employed, degree qualified, a 30+ year old man in a developed  or BRICS country, you may wonder whether such a course might be for you.  So I am about to bore you  fascinate you with my own experience and perhaps bring you together with the MOOC of your dreams!

Since I retired in 2010, I have taken several courses at what I call "The Wrinkly Uni": courses of, say, 4 to 10 weeks  duration, in subjects linked to Music, Forensic Psychology, Architecture, Art Appreciation, at a nearby university, convenient for the train.  I have paid for these courses and they have been of variable quality from dire to brilliant, held in classrooms either sauna-like or baltic, with 10-19 others of similar mind!  Additionally, I have taken a very demanding but excellent online course in novel writing from the same uni.  My motivation in each case has been to keep learning; to stimulate my brain; to keep me thinking and to take me as far as possible out of my comfort zone.

Now, like literally thousands of other older learners, I have found the MOOC.  Before Christmas I studied a six-week Introduction to Philosophy with the University of Edinburgh through Coursera.
Since then,  I have had a six week Introduction to Forensic Science from Strathclyde Uni  and a three week Good Brain Bad Brain Basics course from the University of Birmingham both via Futurelearn; this week I have started the second part of the latter course, now focusing on Parkinson's Disease.  Later in the year, Part 3 will focus on the Origins of Drugs and another short course will teach me How to Read a Mind with University of Nottingham.  In September, I'll be back with Coursera and Penn University for 10 weeks to learn about Modern & Contemporary American Poetry; they've already been in touch to suggest pre-reading.

I chose each course from a vast catalogue and signed up without minutes; in each case there was an estimate given of the hours 'required' to complete each week's work and these have been relatively accurate.  I take the minimalist approach, watching the videos, taking notes (45 years on, that's still my learning style), completing research and testing myself with the weekly 'test' for retention.  I post in the discussion sections, but don't get involved in the extended online debates which the Philosophy course certainly included.  I don't do the written assignments for peer evaluation (Coursera) or apply to sit an 'exam' (Futurelearn):  I don't need a certificate, although Coursera provided one and I suppose if I were in need of proof for a Personal Development file, it would be useful.

The highlights of these courses have been many:  making shoe-prints in the kitchen, using cocoa powder and olive oil; screaming at the screen when I recognised forensic science terminology in Silent Witness (and knowing where that description of F.S. originated);  encountering a chapter entitled Time Travel & Metaphysics in suggested reading; trying to learn words like Cholinesterase and hemidesmosomes; enjoying deeper insights into the work of Walter White ; following the based-on -reality murder case study and getting the right person for the crime. And what fun to be involved in three live Google Hangouts with hundreds of fellow Moocers all 'asking' who had brought the custard creams!

In most of this I am a mile outside my arts and humanities comfort zone:  having been chucked out of Biology at 13 on the grounds that I was good at English (no, I didn't understand either) I am taking courses alongside people who have degrees in science.  When we are given a topic to research online, I can't tell whether the web page I land on is for fifteen year old beginners or is a complex chapter in someone's doctoral thesis!  And while I take notes and look them over, my memory is 63 years old and would rather remember something detailed from 1957 to a broad generalisation from last week.

But it is really good fun!  It has got me hooked on BBC4 as a source of other scientific learning, on YouTube's archive of innumerable lectures, TV programmes and powerpoints on related topics. It has got me stunned by what I am carrying around in this skull of mine.

I don't care what the Guardian article has found in its research;  the people I see posting on discussion boards are often like me; retired graduates with a deep hunger for new learning and a relaxed attitude to summative assessment. It's a pity the MOOC providers haven't yet drawn in their original target audience; but they have disturbed the Boomers in their gardens and on their bracing walks, in crossword completion and coffee drinking!  Who wants to see a movie matinee on the cheap when we could be discussing methamphetamine, dendrites and multiple realizability?

Go on....  search MOOC  and see where it will take you.

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